In Full Velvet

reviewed by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Johnson’s first book of poems takes on subject matter such as growing up queer in America and how politicized the queer female body is. Her imagery is sharp, and she consistently brings us into liminal and charged spaces, like when she is a flower girl holding up a wedding ceremony with her attention to the petals and their distribution. In “Gay Marriage Poem” the speaker takes us to an imaginary edge, ending with: “Of such loves unwrit, at the boundary layer / between earth and air, / I feel most clear.” References to Rilke and Hopkins appear in these poems, as well as pop culture luminaries like Cyndi Lauper and Patti Smith. In “Aria,” a poem about a party for a friend having gender-reassignment top surgery, we hear Aretha Franklin singing, “You make me feel like…” bringing into question the queer’s body relationship to normative gender and to words and ideas such as “natural.” In this same poem we learn that “In 1902 the last / castrato sang ‘Ave Maria,’” reminding us that states of transition and what is considered in between have always been a part of human experience that is in constant relationship to change and flux, as gender is. In the memorable “Little Apophat,” yet another poem that enlarges our idea of gender, the speaker is shown a picture of a child and finds herself reflecting that she feels “inexplicably like a father / though I am nothing other / than an ex-girlfriend / falling in and out of touch.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2017.