We enter in medias res, party in full swing: cigarette burns,
spilled drinks, revelers on the bluff
vaguely naked, reworking the elements of tragedy.
Medical bills they couldn’t pay. Sublingual drops
for break-through pain.
If we breathe together it’s conspiracy. Yet, how can we ignore
the medium of exchange, its currency, bang,
the whole boodle?
One night she found him in the yard, under the Tree of Heaven,
its glandular leaves, yellow, papery blossoms
that reek of urine. He wouldn’t come in.
He said he didn’t live there.
When she put the house up for sale he rattled windows, rapped
on walls. She tried to explain what the dead
don’t know about debt, mortgage, water’s grave desire,
how it drives its thirst through stone.
Event memory. Emotional memory. Counting
what we’ve counted.
Blessed thistle, upon whose spiny leaves Mary’s breast milk spilled,
we’re on the same page but between lines, which could mean
anywhere—every interruption a pretext
for changing direction, starting over, or stopping.
Review by Lynn Otto
In John Johnson’s “Underwater,” we enter in the middle of it all: a dismal “party in full swing” that, within a few lines, seems a lot like life itself. Then a new thought: “If we breathe together it’s conspiracy.” Etymology (com: together and spirare: breathe) is my second thought. My first is the image of everyone breathing together, and it’s a moving image, shadowed with threat (“it’s conspiracy”). Breath is surely the “medium of exchange” we can’t ignore. (And I love the words here—“currency,” “bang,” “boodle”—their sound, their connotations.)
Then a shift in pronouns, a move from the general to an example. The man “in the yard, under the Tree of Heaven” (and what a great choice of tree!) at first seems to be merely uncooperative, perhaps a little crazy. Then it seems he’s actually dead, for she tries “to explain what the dead / don’t know,” concluding with “Counting / what we’ve counted” (shifting us back to first person plural). And then the next line starts with “Blessed.” I love the tension between the phrase that emerges from my memory (“count your blessings”) and the phrase that’s actually in the poem, which suggests rehashing something, hoping for a different (but impossible) result.
Then another big shift: the speaker addresses a “Blessed thistle,” and identifies some kind of commonality: “we’re on the same page but between lines.” Such an odd thing to say to a thistle, even if it is purportedly “blessed.” Yet the speaker and the thistle are on the same page right here, so I can read this literally; or I can read “on the same page” in its colloquial sense, as “in agreement”; or I can shift from the metaphorical “party” of life to a metaphorical “page” of life—maybe the speaker identifies with the contradictions of a spiny, blessed weed, somewhere “between lines,” an in-between state, both bad and good, mortal and eternal. All possibilities are addressed by the ending of the poem—three choices we have when something interrupts our writing, our relationships, or our lives.
The title brings the phrase “drowning in debt” to mind. However, in line 15, the phrase “water’s grave desire” suggests that in this poem, “Underwater” means more than being overwhelmed by life; it’s the image of our mortality. Yet there is a great rift between the living and the dead in this poem, rendered in striking images, and I think I was drawn to that tension.