I’m fascinated with the way the word “part” evolves throughout Johnson’s collection—part, a part, apart. One poem even seems to form an invocation to multiplicity (“O Lord of Parts, O Holy Tool Shed!). While Johnson’s poems revel in the necessity of relation, her speaker also repeatedly questions the possibility of it: “When talking about how the brain imagines the body / neurologists use the word ‘schema’ to describe the little map // that lies across the cortex, sending / all our visible and invisible parts. // Love, we are more than utility, I think.” This reads as a resistance against the reduction of parts into symbols, genders, sexualities, use. The alternative lies in a naked encounter—“Love, I know my body’s here when the turkey vulture comes out of the thicket, wings spread wide, smelling all of it.” In “Vigil,” Johnson writes of “space and joy becoming one.” In Full Velvet is about the lived violence of those whose identities that lie outside the heteronormative script. It’s also an argument for the ways that a queer ecology can recognize joy and pleasure erased through heteronormativity’s hyperfocus on biological reproduction. Johnson details acts of joy and pleasure that occur in nature outside contrary to a reproductive drive in order to form this argument. Here lies the answer to the question “Out of a prohibited body why / long for melody?” and the wonderful oxymoronic resonance of the phrase “one crowd,” which holds the paradoxical containment of both one and many, the singular contributing to the multiple in order to establish chord and music. A body of parts and a number of possibilities held together by a breathing, singing skin.
As I read In Full Velvet, I referred frequently to a copy of A Guide to Field Identification: Birds of North America. I was struck by the attentive care to sound contained in the entries. Each birdcall and song is carefully (and often opinionatedly) noted. I also found the expected insistence on binary formulations (male this, female that) as I read about the birds that wheel in and out of Johnson’s collection. The following field guide “entries” are composed of lines taken from In Full Velvet (italicized) and A Guide to Field Identification: Birds of North America (not italicized).
Field Guide to Full Velvet Birds
Catbird (Dumetélla carolinénsis)
Common near dense cover.
No other bird between earth and air.
Song is of squeaky quality,
with little or no repetition;
However the wind
rips each part apart,
it is a poor imitator.
clone and clone and clone
Grackle (Quiscalus major)
[The] perched grackle wrings its way
toward a branch, close enough that I can see
the feathers spiked roughly beneath the beak,
an iridescent weight making limbs sway.
Song of stick-breaking noises, whistles,
and rattles is long, loud, and varied.
Was I vanishing? Instead of returning?
Young have brown eyes until October.
Osprey (Pandion haliáetus)
Here she points across the river to an osprey nest.
The only prey are taken at or just below the surface.
While black-winged ospreys plummeted from above,
we were born beneath. You know what I mean?
Starling (Stúrnus vulgáris)
Short-tailed, dark, and fat-bodied.
Consider how gracefully I ascend,
gregarious and aggressive,
a starling with supernatural restraint.
Blue eggs (4-6) are laid in nest hole.
A monument to pieces.
Turkey Vulture (Cathártes áura)
How dare I speak of the marked when I am the diurnal creature damming the night
sky with engineered light,
a common carrion eater, scavenging in fields and along roadsides.
Love, I know my body’s here when the turkey vulture comes out of the thicket, wings
spread wide, smelling all of it.
Feeding vultures are soon joined by others flying in from beyond human vision.
Yellow-Throated Warbler (Dendroica dominica)
A yellow-throated warbler measures your
schisms, fault lines, your taciturn vibrato.
Black streaks border breast.
We watch as all but the sheer black
Song is loud and clear.
Tonight, as one crowd, we will bridge this choir.