Book Review

Reading Sara Eliza Johnson’s second collection of poetry, Vapor, evokes a feeling similar to lying in grass beneath a starry night sky: insignificance—so small, so impotently human—juxtaposed with a deep metaphysical connection to our boundless cosmos. The collection’s poems zoom in and out, from photons to exoplanets, from blood to black holes, from necks to nebulae to nuclear annihilation to nails. What results is a collection that demonstrates—through mind-bending links between the corporeal and the celestial—how the human experience both contains and exists within the infinitudes of a violently dynamic cosmos.

Vapor’s forty-four free-verse poems are arranged in seven sections, which, at face value, appear to explore themes of destruction and transformation across broad topics such as time, space, and emotional pain. However, such categorization is reductive of the physical and emotional expanse of Johnson’s poetry and the detailed intricacy it contains. For example, in the collection’s opening poem, “Planktonic Foraminifera” (regarding fossilized plankton from the sea bed), the reader is immediately transported physically and temporally:

Before microbes clustered to gleam
like the scales of alien fish

            across the back of your hand
                        (your eyelashes, your lips),

before the first sunlight
wormed through the sleep behind your eyes,

before worms hollowed out the long tooth
            of the tiger in the valley

where now the milk cows
                                    dust their mouths
with petals and powdered bone,

Johnson continues: “black water covered the planet, / and within that ocean, plankton / glowed, constellations.” The plankton (“fossilized // translations for thought”) are a message from the ocean, “a vibration you can still feel / when you press your forehead / to anything / alive or dead.” By contracting and expanding the reader’s field of view to include eyelash microbes, ancient plankton fossils, the immense ocean, and what those fossilized animals “write” into the evolution of future life, Johnson illustrates an interconnectedness transcending time and species that is both bewildering and comforting.

There are many such moments of transcendence throughout the collection. For example, in “Combustion,” the speaker is preparing food for a beloved when a bomb explodes in the distance. This moment contains multitudes—cells, atoms, fruit flies, lilacs, care, devotion, inertia—described with straight-forward diction:

If a human has two hundred and six bones,
thirty trillion cells, and each cell
has one hundred trillion atoms, if the spine
has thirty-three vertebrae—
            if each atom
has a shadow—then the lilacs across the yard
are nebulae beginning to star.
If the fruit flies that settle on the orange
on the table rise
like the photons
                  from a bomb fire miles away,
my thoughts at the moment of explosion
are nails suspended
in a jar of honey.

“Combustion” exemplifies Johnson’s incisive tone and fluent interweaving of science and emotion. For instance, atoms become a metaphor for the speaker’s connection their beloved; as their skin touches, “our atoms touch, their shadows / merging into a shadow galaxy.”

Physicality and the body are also vehicles for emotional pain. In “Pyroclast,” titled for lava fragments ejected during an eruption, the speaker’s body is “blown open,” and their pain emerges “a newborn foal.” Referring to this zoomorphic pain, the speaker reflects, “a heart can beat / outside a body. So can a wound.” In “Terra Incognita,” the speaker is “lonely enough to open / my body for anyone that finds me.” They invite an unnamed addressee to “slit me from neck to groin // as if peeling a fruit,” their pain “a pearl in nectar trickling / into your cupped hands.” In one of the final and most visceral poems of the collection, “Mutant,” the speaker extracts “shame” from their own throat and examines it: “See how this organ labors to breathe in my palm, / a black jellyfish, a tentacled heart still / connected to me by a single blue vein?” The speaker then likens their shame to “a mass of black corium” sealed away after a nuclear powerplant accident:

I am an irradiated thing that needs someone
to hold it closed, and no one can hold a thing
like that long enough to love it
unless maybe they, too, have been ruined,
cast out or kept hidden,
named abomination
after someone tried to bury their power
and failed.

In Vapor’s titular fourth section, all five poems, each titled “Vapor,” depict the unknowable experience of vaporizing at the moment of nuclear annihilation. Written in couplets, projective verse, and prose, the poem employ visual caesurae, spreading across the page like vapor, while engaging with chilling themes of destruction, violent transformation, and what comes after. In the final “Vapor” poem, the tone is elegiac; a post-nuclear bomb wind “still smells human || of bone dust / and skin” and “this world will never know itself again” even as new life may emerge.

Johnson’s Vapor is not a light read, but it is a worthy one. It engages deeply with the universe—from the infinitesimal to the cosmic, from the objective to the subjective—and makes plain that the devastation inherent to living is ubiquitous, necessary, even beautiful. In powerful, lyric language, Johnson challenges the reader to explode, implode, and shape-shift through pain and suffering. This destructiveness is transformative, and in it, there is implicit consolation and hope; nothing disappears, only changes shape. In Vapor’s penultimate poem, “Migration,” the persona of a shadow “returning to the trees” elucidates the hope inherent to continual metamorphosis:

When I reach the forest, the trees are soft enough
to push a hand through. I find mine among them
and, ready to begin the long work of growing
away from the sunlight that still laps its memory
at the edge of my mind, I break my spine, fold
my body inside, and become paradise.

About the Reviewer

Karen Sherk Chio (she/her) is an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of New Orleans and an Associate Poetry Editor for Bayou Magazine. Her poetry and flash fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Salamander, CALYX Journal, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. In 2022, she was a runner-up for the Andrea Saunders Gereighty/ Academy of American Poets Award and the Samuel Mockbee Award in Nonfiction. She lives outside of Boston, MA, with her spouse, kids, and dogs.