Friday, October 24, 2008

Silk Fist Songs

Silk Fist Songs
Review by Missy McEwen

Some poets have been doing for ages what scientists, mad and sane, have been trying to construct forever: time machines (sturdy and effective) and Marilyn E. Johnston's first book, Silk Fist Songs, is a sturdy and effective time machine; it takes us back into her past, her youth, without stalling. All the poems in Silk Fist Songs are well-written; there are no filler poems, no weak put-putting poems. From the very beginning of the book, the machine is well-oiled and revs. The reader is invited to take a ride with Marilyn E. Johnston in her time machine (most of the poems in Silk Fist Songs are about her brother and father; they passed away within years of each other). In her poems, we see them "young again." We meet her brother:

"'Dreamer' you had already dubbed me
with my books and determined study habits.
'Realist' I guess that made you, with your
sleek leather jacket and mirror-chrome
cycle revved and straddled, roaring out of
Belden Street when the sun went down." -- from "Game's End"
"'When you do get a strike' -- her brother's wrist
sweeps up magic like a wand -- 'let the line
unreel loosely -- out -- out -- as far as it will go'…
She only wants to be free with him, here
backing her up the way he does, his arm
raised high above their heads, snapping
high widening spirals over the river." -- from "Fishing Salmon River"
We meet her father:

"He drops forty years, gives
a free and easy rogue's smile, bantering
until he forgets where he is in time,
reverts to a spirited Waukegan
Army Air Corps man on extended leave
from Bradley Field, charming
a local girl…" -- from "The Payback"
"The dark bar/booths you emigrated from…" -- from "Speaking in Code"
"Thick workman's fingers
shuffle, cut, and deal one-handed
sleight-of-hand mystery" -- from "Poker Face"

"With smoke-squint eye and work-roughened
fingers, he bows over me
in pure attention, tending,
carefully tying the short white thread
around the wart sprouted
on the base of my elbow…" -- from "Home Cure"
We meet the younger Marilyn:

"So there were boys in the room ----
what had that to do with wanting
to lie, flat on your own rec room floor
in black tights and pleated kilt
kicking up into shoulder-stands
when you're ten going-on-eleven…" -- from "Power"

"You are not supposed to run with boys
but here you are, dancing foot to foot
in impromptu 'tag,' your side of a boundary hedge..."
-- from "Playground After Chase"

"Second-grade friends fortifying a separate
alliance, turned brusquely away, leaving me
crushed, breathless, confused. I had
to resort to sharing my trouble
with Mother at the sink, saying nothing." -- from "Warmth"

"…up comes that June morning of my life's one wild ambush.
Seizing a last day of summer leave, your parents gone,
I let myself in, tiptoed upstairs and slid into this bed
where you curled, English Leather fragrant, still half-asleep,
my clothed body fast-fused to your half-nakedness
while from its dark depths my ring radiated
rainbow filaments across a dawn-lit wall…" -- from "Taking Down A Bed"
Silk Fist Songs is an impressive first book -- open it, step in and forget where you are in time. Go back in time with Marilyn E. Johnston and let her show you around. It will be a place you will want to visit again and again.

Marilyn E. Johnston's Silk Fist Songs, published by Antrim House (2008), can be purchased at

No comments: