Driving Gravel Roads: 50 Prose Poems by Jim Johnson. Northfield, Minnesota: Red Dragonfly Press, 2009. $12.
Reviewed by Marie Loeffler
Driving Gravel Roads
Always stay in the middle, the edges may be soft, unless you are
afraid of high-centering. Slow down for washboard curves and
uphills. Watch out for sharp rocks and boards with nails. When
meeting another vehicle pull over as far as possible and, if the
road is extremely narrow, stop. Unless the other driver stops for
you. If he does, as you pass him uncurl your right index finger
from the steering wheel and move it slowly to the right, then re-
turn it just slowly, and close it back down to its grip. Do not
expect large trucks, like logging trucks, to get over for you. If you
meet one on a curve and don’t have enough room to pass, you
must go off the road. Understand that this is the only possibility.
The larger truck can easily and certainly will pull you out of the
trees/swamp/stream you are now in. Enjoy the experience. This
is where you want to be. I know if my own skin were peeled back
I would find beetle tracks, deer trails, tote and gravel roads, as
well as interstate highways and sky.
Jim Johnson’s poetry cuts to the core of nature and reflective thought. He often tosses in a lesson or two but his style is far from pedantic, and his humor-speckled prose is best described as wittily insightful yet photographic. His more practical writing focus combines with imagery as he paints, in great detail, word-portraits of rural Northern life. Johnson’s writings are akin to taking a rustic trip down the warm and welcome back road—a literary destination both inviting and enveloping to weary city dwellers ground down by their high-paced lives. Johnson is comfortable within his realm, walking, driving, sitting, and thinking about every diverse nuance that crosses his path.
True to his artist's eye, he is fascinated with natural hues: “White is straight, the straight-cut bangs, the fine white hair of/the blue-eyed child. And snow. Snow drifted into the corners of/our eyes. The treeless horizon. A cup and saucer” ("White," 29), and his book delights us with three more unusual poems—for the oft ignored black, gray, and brown—that also serve as tributes to Ostrobothnia, a region of Western Finland.
Aside from his richly colorful poems, Johnson displays continual respect for nature and life, as he demonstrates that he must have patience with all delicate situations. In describing how human activity must stop for nature—though his tone is, initially, impatient—Johnson defers to animals: “You take your foot off the/brake and ease the truck forward. But the bull stops. You stop./ The cow and calf stop. You are in a hurry to get on with your life, for the cow and calf to get off the road, for the bull to follow,/ to move off into the night like one of those thoughts moments/later you will not remember even when you want to remember” (“Moose on Highway One,” 6). Likewise, in a softer, more intuitively intimate human interaction, Johnson discusses the difficult topic of love, stating, “When a man tells a woman he loves her, she can count on it…/If only she could believe./Because it will never occur to him—weeks will go by, months/will become years, years will suddenly become decades—that he/would ever need to tell her again (“When a Man Tells a Woman,” 22).
And with humor that conjures up the work of Billy Collins, Johnson is keenly aware of his own mortality as he jokes about reading newspaper death notices: “Now if the man doesn’t find his own name, he can/milk the cow, go to town, notice what snow there is has finally/melted. How the grass now looks like it needs a comb” ("Obituary for April," 38); yet his thoughts, light enough in texture, never burden the reader.
Johnson’s approach is layered with depth that any lover of poetry will embrace. It’s the type of book best enjoyed with a warm cup of tea or coffee, a lit fireplace, and a cozy old chair set by a window with a great view of nature—a slowed-down way to appreciate and respect the artistry of this well-acclimated muse who is always “Looking. Looking. Ever looking.” (“Prehistory,” 43)
Marie Loeffler is a Wisconsin poet, violinist, and private violin instructor who spends most of her free time practicing, writing, reading, and creating. Her poetry publications are current or forthcoming in Echoes, the WFOP Spring 2010 Museletter, and the 2011 Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar.