Jenny Johnson’s debut book In Full Velvet is a stunning collection of formally composed poems. By adopting and pushing against poetic form, Johnson sustains a tension that expresses a wide emotional range, including joy, rage, desire, love and need for acceptance. The poems throughout this book explore how we think of the body, gender identity and the relationship between nature and love.
In Full Velvet opens with “Dappled Things,” which references the first line of “Pied Beauty” written in 1877 by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Additionally, Johnson adopts a poetic form attributed to Hopkins. “Dappled Things” comprises eight curtal sonnets—a sestet followed by a quatrain and a final half-line. This modified sonnet form is used by both poets to celebrate the unconventional. Hopkins’s poem is often viewed as an apology, a literary defense of natural objects not typically considered to be beautiful. Johnson’s poem, too, serves as a type of literary defense of “all that’s still somehow / counter, original, spare, and strange,” including “the alien markings on my girlfriend’s cheek and how / they form a perfect triangle.” This is where Johnson moves in her own direction, using a nineteenth century form to celebrate, explore and defend the LGBTIQ community.
Unlike Hopkins, Johnson does not view nature as the manifestation of God. Instead, she explores nature in relation to science, biology and physiology. She is interested in the parallels between the nonhuman natural world and the human world. Often, Johnson examines this relationship to gain a deeper understanding of matters concerning love, gender and even moral responsibility, for example:
I kiss my hand to male bonobos making out in public
in spite of Western science
trying to explain away The glorious kink
of spinner dolphins’ whistle-clicks
Here, Johnson observes animal behavior that challenges Western ideologies regarding sexual norms and the “natural” expressions of love. Johnson also refers to the relationship between human society and nature:
I must speak of erasure when I long to be leaf-whelmed,
lit by fire pinks and wild sweet Williams How dare
I speak of the marked when I am the diurnal creature damming
the night sky with engineered lights We’ve generated a realm
While noting the overlap between nature and artifice in contemporary society, Johnson raises questions regarding moral responsibility, harmony and exploitation. Is it possible for human beings to live solely within the law of nature without human engineering? Where is the healthy balance between the two, if there is one at all?
Johnson also uses nature metaphorically, particularly in relation to gender identity and the LGBTIQ community. For example, the book’s title poem “In Full Velvet,” refers to the skin that grows on and protects an animal’s antlers before they are fully developed. The shedding of velvet, is determined by hormone levels. Occasionally, a deer does not lose its velvet, and its uniqueness makes it a valuable trophy for hunters:
It’s also true that some whitetails never lose their velvet.
Hunters raise their eyebrows calling them atypical,
Antlered does, cactus bucks, monster, shirkers,
ghosts, raggedy-horn freaks, because they lead
long solitary lives, unweathered
Johnson’s desire to understand the body and its inner workings goes deep, so deep she delves below the skin. When describing the dissection of a cassowary, she notes: “Gut a body and we’re nothing left but pipes whistling in the breeze;” yet, Johnson rejects the idea that we are defined purely by biological function and physiology:
neurologists use the word “schema” to describe the little map
that lies across the cortex, sensing
all our visible and invisible parts.
Love, we are more than utility, I think. `
Some phantasms about our bodies in relationship to gender and sexuality
are idealized, some degrading, some compulsory, some transgressive.
These lines refer to the visible (such as the physical body) and the invisible (such as emotional being). This is a central conflict in In Full Velvet. Many of Johnson’s poems explore the relationship between body and being, specifically, how the body influences who we are, how we are perceived and who we love.
As an example, Johnson provides a physical description of her great aunt, which implies she might have been transgender. People described her aunt as “Severe,” due to her outward appearance, specifically her mannish trousers and unfashionably short hair. Johnson, however, sees a softness, a hidden vulnerability in her aunt’s face. When describing her picture, Johnson says she is “absent of restraint, a playful eyebrow raised, a smile so / genteel and at her ear, a blonde helix, stray curl almost / too exceptionally soft for sight.” In addition to physical appearance, Johnson also discusses the physical limitations of the body, specifically regarding gender and identity. In the poem “Tail,” Johnson admits she’s imagined she has one: “And how good it felt to straddle the sawhorse, out behind the shed, half tomboy, half centaur, / How I clench a two-by four between my thighbones and it was part of me.” The poem ends: “O Lord of Parts, O Holy Tool Shed! / When I rise from these sore bones, / Look what you’ve taken, what you’ve left me—.” In this final example of the body and its relationship to identity, Johnson gives us another description of herself in the poem “Vigil,” which exposes her own vulnerability: “I am a woman who forgets sometime that she is a woman. / So I always slip my shoes off and knock, at least three times / before crossing a threshold, before presuming I’m welcome here.”
The need for love, acceptance, respect, privacy, family and compassion is expressed in poems such as “In the Dream,” “Gay Marriage Poem,” and “Spaces.” In fact, the book’s penultimate poem “Aria,” includes many of these themes. Like “Dappled Things,” the poem comprises a crown of sonnets, seven Italian sonnets to be exact. Again, Johnson pushes against this form, as if the sonnet itself were a body restraining the words and sounds it contains. Note, in the third sonnet below, the number of syllables per line ranges from nine to twelve. The meter is irregular. The tightening and loosening of line and form creates tension. Deviation from traditional form expresses the strain of repressed desire. The pain of this experience can be heard in music of the line, including the starling’s supernatural cry and the castrato’s bifurcated swell:
While black-winged ospreys plummeted from above,
we were born beneath. You know what I mean?
I’ll tell you what the girls who never love
us back taught me: The strain within will tune
the torqued pitch. In 1902 the last
castrato sang “Ave Maria.”
His voice—a bifurcated swell. So pure
a lady screams with ecstasy, Voce
Bianco! Breath control. Hold each note. Extend
the timbre. Pump the chest, that balloon room,
and lift pink lips, chin so soft and beardless,
A flutter, a flourish, a cry stretching beyond
its range, cruising through four octaves, a warbler,
A starling with supernatural restraint.
Lines such as these demonstrate power and vulnerability, not to mention mastery of poetic skill. And yet, they are just excerpts from a collection of poems that sustain an emotional intensity and poetic virtuosity worthy of the recognition it has garnered.
Amy Seifried’s work has appeared in Water~Stone Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Philadelphia Poets, and Pittsburgh City Paper. Formerly a legal writer in New York City, she recently completed an MFA in Poetry from Drew University, and lives in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA.