Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Managed Conception: Jim Johnstone’s The Velocity of Escape

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In the last poetry review posted on this website, we all took a look at Nic Labriola’s Naming the Mannequins, a first book that came as a surprise, written as it was by an unknown author and published with very little prelude by way of either publication or notoriety. The book we’ll look at today, Jim Johnstone’s The Velocity of Escape, arrives from the opposite direction.

Johnstone is a known member of the Toronto Poetry Cult, as the editor of Misunderstanding Magazine, one of the better of the city’s several labour-of-love little poetry irregulars. He has also, in recent years, pumped out a chapbook, won U of Ts Pratt medal, and came second to Sue Goyette for the CBC Literary Award in poetry. Escape, then, is one of those debut collections that serves as more of a summation of the author’s early period than as an introduction. The vast majority of its forty or so poems have found previous homes among the top couple tiers of the country’s literary magazines.

The Velocity of Escape’s major assignment then becomes to show the author at full wingspan, to draw an outline of his interests and eccentricities freed from the spatial limitations given to each of a magazine’s contributors. If a career in the journals is the publishing equivalent of the old “blind man and the elephant” story, then a first book is the opportunity to open your eyes and see the whole creature: magnificent or stillborn, vivacious or stuffed-and-posed.

Part of Johnstone’s unique poetic signature is his background in the reproductive sciences (and I don’t mean that as a joke of course, like the way Lord Byron had a background in the “reproductive sciences”). Johnstone is a PhD candidate in Reproductive Physiology at the University of Toronto. The scientific vein in his book is its major theme, these include the poems copped from his chapbook “siamese poems” which are especially vivid in their descriptions of conjoined twins. Take a piece like “Summer Holidays” and below, the unfortunately-overtitled “Conjoined Dreams”:

the hospital beds
are covered in layered
green sheets

pressed together as if
pressure alone
can merge fabric.

the twins dream
of wearing watches
to cover scars

Johnstone does well to tie his microscopic observations to the wider drama of human intuition, but this consistency makes the odd gimmicky tangent stick out all the more. The least among them is the four-part poem “Double Helix”, wherein each section is named after one of the four major nucleobases: Cytosine, Adenine, Guanine, and Thymine (what, no Uracil?). What makes this struggle as a contained metaphor is that while we may all know what these four chemicals are, is anyone close enough friends with these chemicals to effective spin off the first-level metaphor (the bumps and detours of a relationship mapped out as a double helix between its two participants) into four second-level metaphors (this part of our relationship’s like cytosine, while this part here’s like guanine…)? This is where the contemporary strain of “scientific” English-language poetry winds up when it go too far.

Such examples aside, The Velocity of Escape works because Johnstone is able to display a personal style without sacrificing diversity of either content of voice. This isn’t a “thematic” collection, per se, but it has enough architecture to stand together as a single work. Jim Johnstone will likely write better books than this, but that’s okay, as Escape offers enough to warrant the read before such future collections appear. It’s a success as both a summation and, to a lesser degree, as an invitation.

Postscript:

It may be bad form to review a book’s publisher, but this is a book review, not a review of the authorial essence as it exists beyond the final product, and something needs to be said for the almost malevolently ugly presentation of Johnstone’s poems. Printed in what looks like Times New Roman on what feels like old newsprint, Elana Wolff and the folks at Guernica Editions need to think long and hard about whether they’re doing the first poets in their “First Poets Series” any good by introducing their work to the world in this way.

The publication of a first collection is supposed to be a professionalizing moment for a poet. There’s nothing professionalizing about the cheapness and homogeneity of Guernica’s First Poets Series, unless the presentation of a Happy Meal professionalizes the employee who made it as a chef. I know there’s budgetary constraints, but other publishers do more with what they’re given than this. This is a seriously ugly book and the author deserved much better.

4 comments

An aside to the discussion: I chose two books by Elana Wolff for my "Top Ten" recommended books list when I was last month's WIR. Both books were beautifully produced by Guernica, and beautifully written by Elana Wolff. I've never met Elana, but I was impressed by her writing, and her authenticity. I haven't seen or read The Velocity of Escape, so I can't comment on that book. I'll certainly look it up.

Mooney writes, "Just because all your books come out looking uniformly ugly, doesn’t mean there’s any higher purposes inherent in that uniformity."

To clarify a point:

My name is Fraser Sutherland. I am not, nor have I ever been, published by Guernica. Neither am I on its staff.

Not that there's anything wrong with being published by, or working for, this press.

Hi Rod,

I think I’m contractually obligated to respond to all comments, so here goes:

1. I had mixed feelings about commenting about the book as product. But like I said, it’s a book review, not an author review, so the physical product is fair game, and not unnecessary in the least.

2. You’re right, I did like the book. Whereas neither I (nor, I assume, you) read the manuscript Jim submitted to Guernica some moons ago, I can’t tell you if the book was improved or not. I can say that I found more to like in Jim’s work that didn’t make it into TVOE than that which did. I expect his next collection from a superior publisher (Nightwood, it turns out) will be better. I think I mentioned this in the review as well.

3. European in design? Really? Gaspereau Press is European in design, BookThug is European in design. Just because all your books come out looking uniformly ugly, doesn’t mean there’s any higher purposes inherent in that uniformity. And I’m not talking about the cover design. I’m talking about the insides: the oversized font, the paper that feels like a melted-down hybrid of newsprint and no-name bathroom tissue.

4. Yep. Lots of poets had first books that were grubby and mispublished. And they still went on to better things. I hope Jim Johnstone can be one of them, that he can survive the Guernica Editions experience.

Thanks for writing in,
Jake

I only know Elana Wolff slightly so I can’t imagine what the poor woman did to deserve the gratuitous slap the reviewer administered to her in his unnecessary postscript.

Mooney likes The Velocity of Escape. Since Wolff edited this book, presumably she worked closely with its author, and any success it has is also hers.

As for the matter of design, I’ve bought or reviewed Guernica books and, whatever I thought of their contents, they’ve never struck me as being amateurishly produced. Antonio d’Alfonso gave them a European look, which one may like or dislike, but which confers a collective identity and sets them apart from the productions of most small presses.

“The publication of a first collection is supposed to be a professionalizing moment for a poet,” the reviewer hilariously says. I recommend he take a stroll through a rare-book library. There he will see that the first books of great poets were often blurry, smudgy, grubby little productions − refugees from a ragbag. That description doesn’t apply to Guernica books.

About Mooney's own style, I will do him a kindness and not comment on it.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Jacob McArthur Mooney

Jacob McArthur Mooney is the author of the acclaimed collection of poems The New Layman’s Almanac (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) as well as an upcoming second collection from the same publisher.

Go to Jacob McArthur Mooney’s Author Page