Luke Johnson’s poetry collection Quiver is astonishing in its violent imagery and brutal emotional honesty. It depicts not only childhood trauma, but also the necessary resultant grief and recovery experienced by the adult that child has become. This is complex work: it combines the prophecy and providence of the Old Testament with a compassion for a past that was often gruesome. Despite the speaker’s acknowledgement and sadness about the world’s atrocities, the conclusion of this work is one of hope. This is not a Hollywood redemption story; that is, the speaker does not portray characters who are in the end innocent of sin, but it is a redemption story nonetheless because the speaker still has love for his imperfect father and the surrounding world.
The word “quiver” as a verb means to tremble or shake, whereas as a noun it is a container for arrows. Perhaps Johnson means for us to take both meanings of the word in the context of his collection. The work starts out recounting the trauma he experienced in childhood, but by the end the speaker has been able to move beyond embodying his father’s version of masculinity that is certainly problematic, advancing towards a more hopeful future.
In the poem “Numbers 14:18” the speaker describes the terrorizing man he recalls his father could be:
I’ve never told you
how my father tied
a drunk man to a chair
and snapped the first four fingers
on his left hand.
At this point all the speaker sees is colored in the ominous light of a dangerous world, even how he sees his father, who is a figure of violence that offers the only kind of love he knows. Even the moon, which the speaker describes as “a sickle soaked in milk,” is a metaphor for the treachery that his father can represent, despite also caring for his son.
The speaker’s father is not the only representation of a flawed world, one that is often inadvertently cruel. In the poem “The Unnamed Garden” he bravely implies the sexual exploitation he suffered as a young man:
You, half-nude, cock
still throbbing wet
having joined a woman twice your age
This poem addresses the tragedy of continuing the cycle of toxic masculinity, exploring how this cycle has adverse consequences for young men. They are taught that to be a man is simple in that it means always being strong, that it is their role to only rely on themselves to pay back for original sin, and that introspection is a sign of weakness. This sentiment is highlighted in these lines from the poem:
where the womb began, its brine the beauty of cream, bent
like one before a whip
to pay your filthy penance.
As the collection progresses, the speaker wants to have hope for a brighter future for his children and himself. In the poem “As the body breaks, it is whole,” the speaker wants to become a different kind of man: “I wish I was the father/who fought harder for peace/ who believes I too could trade/ collective pain for promises.” By the end of the collection in the poem “Dark,” the speaker allows himself to have hope for a brighter future, seeing that there is indeed beauty in the world:
come to where the thorny pears grow along the one-way road
and crouch beneath the sticky shade that draws out
spiders and wasps
and children playing chase in the dying light.
The final poem shares the collection’s title “Quiver.” The speaker is able to fully recall his painful childhood as a grown adult: “I slurp a sad boy’s fingers/ nibble where the skin/ has peeled & pull him out// to spin inside pond splash/powdered light. I study/ the soft flesh.” Allowing himself to fully rediscover his inner child and to acknowledge the sadness he has felt, he is able to reclaim a sense of empathy for those who have hurt him, and for the rest of the world.
Natalie Marino is a poet, writer and practicing physician living in California. Her creative work appears in Gigantic Sequins, The Night Heron Barks, Pleaides, Salt Hill, South Florida Poetry Journal and elsewhere. Nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, she is the author of the chapbook Under Memories of Stars (Finishing Line Press, June 2023).