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The lives of great men in poetry

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Raleigh poet Larry Johnson's first collection, titled Veins, contains elegies to poets and portraits of ancient figures, as well as elements of a more personal history. Connecting these disparate lives are veins, the metaphor that flows throughout the book. From the rush of excitement in the veins brought on by love—"joy of the blood of stars/ exploding inside my head, my mouth aching/ for yours"—to a simple moment of shaving—"No more blood-strawberries fatten on his cheeks"—to a gory Roman gladiator battle, the flow of blood ties this collection together. His poems are gritty, serious and male, a perspective balanced by his often elegant description. Concerned with history and the deaths of great men, Larry Johnson's poems have a traditional feel: eulogies for classical heroes, a predilection for the sonnet and a preoccupation with that timeless poetic subject, death.

The book is separated into three sections. The first is a collection of elegies, mostly to writers spanning from Weldon Kees back to Keats. In the poem "To Lorca" we can see tension between the elegant language and the grit of the subject as Johnson discusses the poet's decaying body: "though feet may pause over your groin/ though the two moles on your cheek nourish that phlox/ and the white snails of your eyes are melted by lime." We are made to look at imagery we might normally want to look away from, and it's made (almost) beautiful. And whether or not the reader knows Lorca's work, we can appreciate the lines, "What you were is the thirst of an orange tree,/ the fire of those ants in its roots."

In his poem "Morte D'Oscar," we can see Johnson's talent for bringing episodes of history to life—in this case, the death of Oscar Wilde. The poem seems built around the phrase, "Qu'importe le verre, pourvu qu'on ait l'ivresse?" which, as the helpful notes from the back of the book tell us, was a statement Wilde made referring to the tawdriness of the hotel room in which he died: "What does the glass matter, so long as one gets drunk?" Johnson brings the historical moment to life through small details: "This hotel seems conjured—incredibly enough,/ No. 13 Rue des Beaux Arts" and then continues, "No colored phials gleam beside the bed/ so my gaze is lost in veins of the leaded lampshade." These evocations of a sense of place, the writer's illness and the theme of veins—even when threaded through a lampshade—demonstrate the crafting of the historical event. Another poem that demonstrates Johnson's eye for history, from the second section on ancients, "Red Skeletons of Herculaneum," is in the voice of a slave who carries a child, one of the well-preserved remains of that natural disaster. It is a voice that speaks from beyond the grave, telling his story: "as we ran/ from the waxy chalkflocked cloud I carried her,/ panting hopeless cheer through her gritty hair, to the beachfront chambers that became our tomb." Again we can see the grit balanced by a kind of elegance in the final lines of the poem: "the boiling sludge enveloped us with the sound/ of vast black mothwings beating on the sun."

From the final section of the book, in the poem "Soliloquy Against McLuhon," we can see the veins metaphor further extend: "The earth has soft black veins. All veins burn./ A wraithing of shadows lids out the sulphur moon./ Flesh hopes that flesh hopes for more than flesh." Reading this collection, you might learn a little history: a history of flesh, and wants and hopes.

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