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Poet's new collection gets down to the bone

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


LAWRENCE – If you’re a poet who paddles the rivers and lakes of northeast Kansas, you might find a goatfish cowtooth. Stephen Johnson, a senior lecturer in the University of Kansas Department of English, has. “Goatfish / Cowtooth” is the title of his new collection of poetry, published in 2017 by Kansas City, Missouri-based Spartan Press.

“I have jawbones of cattle I’ve found on Kaw River sandbars,” Johnson said. “Cow’s teeth, fish bones and other bones. They are wonderful to behold, like little relics of saints, but they are from dead catfish and gar.”

Johnson’s first collection contains poems about fishing, about working in an Alaskan fishery, about family and love and religion.

The titular goat, he said, comes from the Bible, an early literary inspiration. Johnson grew up near the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers, the hearing son of two deaf parents, and always loved language.

“There are religious references throughout the book,” Johnson said. “That’s probably the main reason I got into writing – after a love of language – because I was not religious in a traditional sense, but I was raised in a Baptist family; a fire-and-brimstone, God-infused family.

“I read the Pentateuch the summer I turned 12 and fell in love with those stories like Samson and Delilah and the Judges, the great acts of heroism and bravery, Sodom and Gomorrah. It was all exciting stuff, and I believed.

“When that changed, the religiosity stayed in my bones, and in order to practice that, I did it through poetry. I see it being as rich as any religious text. Emily Dickinson, for instance, is provocative, spiritual, contrarian. Her poems are all like little hymns.

“Poems give us space and time for contemplation, for meditation. I think of that as a kind of religious endeavor.”

The goats in the Bible – the scapegoat, the ram on Mount Moriah – are transmogrified into the goats in Johnson’s book.

“The goat poems are my entry into being in love with the Old Testament stories and also being able to argue with it,” Johnson said.  “I heard Li-Young Lee say something to this effect when reading his poems here at KU, and that has stuck with me.”

Johnson said that, as with many teens, he began to question the religious teachings of his childhood.

“My experience in church when I was young was that I was told we cannot know God’s ways, and yet Sunday after Sunday, they seemed to know his ways. It’s a great mystery, and yet here is exactly what you need to do and what you can’t do. It was always odd to me. They magically took the mystery out of one of the most mystical of human endeavors.”

The first two poems in the book, Johnson said, were inspired by the famous, mysterious cave paintings of Lascaux, France.

The poem titled “goatfish:” reads as follows:

“grass and reed

“ember and pitch

“pollen tongue lips spit”

“cowtooth:” on the following page continues:

“ochre and mud

“pumice and sponge

“water bowl knife lungs.”

“If we wind back our timeline to about 15,000 years ago,” Johnson said, “and think about those guys crawling down into the Lascaux caves to paint, I like to imagine it as a shamanistic endeavor. Was it to bless the hunt or perform some other ritual? We don’t know, but I like to think there was some religiosity to that practice.

“If you go down in those caves, you have got to be dedicated to whatever it is that you are doing. You are in the pure darkness, away from sunlight, air and all you know, and you go down and create these beautiful works of art. These things were inaccessible unless you got down into the bowels of the Earth.”

The poems, he said, are “a listing of the things they used – as rudimentary as you can get.”

Johnson said he hopes readers will feel some of that awe.

“I don’t want to turn reading and writing poetry into something pretentious or precious,” he said, “but I do want it to be a kind of religious experience. That’s what I go to it for. I think it’s quite a suitable replacement.”

Johnson and a fellow faculty poet, Senior Lecturer Brian Daldorph, will read from their works from 7 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 29, at The Raven Book Store, 6 E. Seventh St., in downtown Lawrence.