Review of Jenny Johnson's In Full Velvet (Sarabande, 2017)

Queer Ecology: a Review and Field Guide to Jenny Johnson's In Full Velvet

by Madeleine Wattenberg

In one of his journals, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote that “all things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God, and if we know how to touch them give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of him.” “Dappled Things,” the first poem in Jenny Johnson’s collection In Full Velvet, engages Hopkins’s reflections on the energies of nature, but, in a wonderfully simple declaration, Johnson releases God from her own studies:

            Thanks Gentle Hop for this this-ness, for teaching attention
How to mark hard word-bodies with stress,
            Acute glyphs, blue scores   For reckoning the risks
in disciplines rod—between sheets of loose leafed linen—
            You knew few might hear your coded address

Do I look hard enough to receive?
            I am not moved by God, but I am moved by this
To experience the largesse: What you look hard at seems
            to look hard at you
  O to be marked reciprocally, yes please

What is left without God in the picture? Love. And, of course, the poet’s tools—attention, language, possibility. A desire to be marked by what one marks. Like Hopkins, Johnson proposes an attunement to the surrounding environment and its agencies; it just so happens that to attune to Johnson’s world is to become aware of nature’s queer chords and cadences, the ever shifting possibilities of relation that the world’s individual parts form and reform. Where imposed binary systems perpetuate the reduction of relation, Johnson’s poetry embraces, even renders necessary, the multiplicities of a queer ecology. Instead of the double-sided coin—two faced and singular, the currency of a hetero-capitalist vision—queer ecology insists on infinite (re)combination. Johnson’s work enacts this possibility of relation—the possibility of relating. It enacts the possibility of love. Her poems achieve this in part by looking beyond the page in their address toward reader or history or (her) love, while simultaneously paying tribute to the arrangements of non-human and human bodies marked in stress and score across the whitespace:

I kiss my hand to male bonobos making out in public
in spite of Western science
trying to explain away   The glorious kink
            of spinner dolphins’ whistle-clicks
over-under rolling, belly-on-belly clasping by the soft tips
            of flukes, riding dorsal rudders to the brink

Queer ecology requires us to consider non-human agencies, non-human modes of knowledge, and Johnson’s poems operate in the tension between this requirement and an inescapable embodied human subjectivity: “I’m breathing through my skin,” she writes. Here, Johnson positions her speaker’s material relation to the remaining world, isolated via the body, joined via the body. As we inhabit the world, the world inhabits us.

In drawing on Hopkins, Johnson moves to mark not only the ascents and descents in sound, but to develop a scansion of nature’s erased, ignored, and suppressed queer bodies. An unheard music. She addresses the othering of the queer body that occurs through language, when cultural codes mark these bodies apart from the socially accepted script in order to separate and reduce them. This is no more apparent than in the collection’s title poem “In Full Velvet,” which describes the deer that keep their velvet through the mating season.  Johnson lists a number of coded names given to these stags, including antlered does, monsters, raggedy horned freaks, and leaves the parallel to the way we similarly mark human queer bodies as an echo throughout the book.

In Full Velvet explores violent consequences of the body deemed deviant, but also presents a glimpse at the alternative to scripted norms. One such glimpse occurs in the poem “Severe,” where Johnson writes:

As if to be butch is to be made of mythical perimeters,
and not the sky revealing itself between storms
in sudden naked flashes.

The normative body is a body of erasure, which obscures “A small pouch O tiny nipple / O lactating man” the “dandelions . . . growing stamens growing pistils” the wind that, “rips each part apart However we / clone and clone and clone”.  The this-ness in the illuminated sky. There’s possibility contained in this separation into parts, there’s a multiplicity in how parts may join and function and be inhabited.

"Johnson’s poetry embraces, even renders necessary, the multiplicities of a queer ecology"

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.
However we
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
underwire melts.

Song is loud and clear.
Tonight, as one crowd, we will bridge this choir.


 Madeleine Wattenberg's lifelong dream of writing reviews entirely in emojis feels closer than ever. The words of women and nonbinary writers keep her imaginary zeppelin afloat. Her own work appears or is forthcoming in journals such as Hermeneutic Chaos, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Mid-American Review, Muzzle Magazine, Ninth Letter, and Guernica. Direct birdcalls to @topazandmaddy.