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Broadsides to Books: Feel Your Strangeness

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by Jessica E. Johnson
Acre Books, 2023
ISBN: 978-1946724571
$15.81, purchase at 
Review by Joely Fitch


Reviewer’s Note:

In writing about Metabolics, I’m trying something that I’ve been practicing in my reviews and criticism more broadly: writing about a text in a way that’s also an imitationor a thinking-with, an attempt to let the book’s language (its syntax, its logic, et cetera) infiltrate my own brain-world. This is an ongoing experiment, which makes perfect sense for Jessica Johnson’s Metabolics, a hybrid poetry collection that chronicles a human self trying to make sense of an overwhelming world. Johnson dedicates this collection “to those who feel their strangeness,” and Metabolics very much made me feel mine. Read below for my forays into her “cloudland,” read our conversation below that if you’re intrigued, and read Metabolics if anything here makes you think, wait, what? Tell me more!  
– Joely (Broadsided)


It takes you half a year to write about the book because the book says: 

Accounts of the body circulate. We take them in and they are incomplete. In which accounting can we understand love, and being loved, and all the ways that we might break? 

One day at the table, the girl was drawing. “Is this really the shape of a heart?” she asked. We unlocked the device to watch the freakish beat. I drew the chambers, labeled the parts. She colored the empty blood, the full. 

What is the shape of a heart? What is the right way to account for the body, the I of it? In which accounting can we understand anything? You tangle in your questions and get stuck, find a loophole, turn everything inside-out, start again. 

In the opening and closing sections, both titled “Herein,” the person at the center of Metabolics calls herself I, but all throughout she’s you

Investigation loops back to one spot. You’re entangled in artifacts of history: at play at work asleep in bad bones. You your body in this place an artifact of history the whiskered creatures pacing your house.

You call yourself you, sometimes, too. You, like anyone, are entangled in history, entangled in the present, inseparable from the world of objects and devices and other yous and other creatures. 

Johnson offers that Metabolics “might be read as a long attention to microscopic, daily countervailing forces.” The forces spin and drift. You speak the words on the page into your phone—your own “thin portal to vast streams”—so that you can carry them with you, think with them in the car at sunrise, walking by the creek at sunset, in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep. Sometimes you forget it’s your own voice speaking you‘s words that aren’t yours and you find yourself wondering whose voice is this that sounds so much like mine? You find a portal to your own attention in this extended meditation on attention and its difficulties, its slipperiness, its failures, its glimmers of possibility. 

You could call yourself I to be able to say a sentence like: I loved this book. You did, and do: you with your own hands “converting nerve-impulses into keystrokes,” a strange-shaped heart doing its heart-thing, keeping you alive. You “unfold and touch down” on sentences, on rhymes that tug words towards each other, on the intricacies of someone else’s dailiness. So like and unlike your own. You want to know, too, what it means to know. Maybe to understand how “to cedar that is to inhabit space and be the main home thing without wanting to be less.” 

Here’s my invitation, reader: take the time, make the time, to feel your strangeness with these poems. Give it a chance. You might surprise yourself. You might remember “you are something more than you imagined.”

The Broadsided Poem:

“Overheard at the Zoo,” words by Jessica E. Johnson and art by Se Thut Quon, published in April 1, 2017.

Three Questions from Broadsided Press; Three Answers from Jessica E. Johnson: 

Bsided: Can you tell us the story of this collection’s title Metabolics and what it does as a poetic form? I’m thinking about the opening section of “Herein,” in which you write about being in a biology class. You distinguish between two kinds of knowing: “They wanted us to learn what companies can use. I wanted to transform the way I see.” “Metabolics” as a word or concept connects most directly to the parts of this book that focus explicitly on embodiment—running, tracking food, trying to shape one’s body in particular ways. But I wonder if there’s also a way in which we have a metabolism for information, which of course is constantly overwhelmed.

Jessica Johnson: Here’s the origin story: For a while I had a writing group with students in the Women’s Resource Center at the college where I teach. We’d do quick free-writes, then share them, talking about life stuff before and after. The students had been talking about the aesthetic pleasure of science textbooks and science classes. I was thinking about the shape of metabolic pathways and how they convert components, produce energy, self-regulate, and produce deep transformation, just through a series of motions the textbooks depict as a cyclical turning.

As a teacher and parent, I’d been going through life managing a variety of material and emotional accumulations that often verged into overwhelm, and yet my life felt very bound to the cycles of the academic calendar and the rhythms of the people in my care. I craved this notion that the cyclical could amount to something larger, or even answer to the problems it created. One day in this writing group, I decided to see if I could use poetry to enact the shape of a self-regulating metabolic pathway, and this is how the book got started.

I thought of each prose block as a turn in a metabolic cycle and I called the accumulation of them (in book form) “metabolics.” That was the first title, and though there were many other titles, it ended up being the final one.  

The book traces many quantities that seem to pool up, and information is definitely one. Another, related quantity is what the book calls “Excess Feeling,” sometimes specifically named as rage. Intimacies pool up too, as does commuter dread, paper products, candy, even jokes in a group of friends. Clouds and rain, too, accumulate. And then various actions and motions can sometimes convert those accumulating quantities to something else. On the other hand, the book notes substances like plastic that can’t be metabolized.

Bsided: Thank you! Next question: I’m intrigued by the way you use the ‘you’ in Metabolics, which I’m reading as a form of address-to-self. I’ve often thought that poems that do this create a curious form of relation between the poem and its audience, both inviting a reader in and keeping them at arm’s length. (I tried to do this above in my own writing about the book, which created its own difficulties and joys in critical prose!) How does the second-person voice play into that—the question of reader/text intimacy—for you?

JJ: The “you” in poetry (and other genres) is so complex! One idea that comes up in Metabolics is, within this sphere of nuclear family, the speaker feels like “a person sometimes, other times a role.” She moves in and out of a sense of self-coherence. So she’s sometimes “you” and sometimes “mother,” but never “I.” Though, “I” is present as a more authorial voice in the sections entitled “Herein,” which function more as a preface and an afterword.  

I think of the “you” in these poems as a (less gendered) self that is perhaps closer to the speaker’s experienced consciousness, and “mother” as a (gendered) self constructed by the maternal role—which is also a part of her experience because she’s living in that role, day to day in an embodied way. “You” is self-address, and “mother” is the role she finds herself inhabiting but so fundamentally that she has to locate herself there too. The speaker doesn’t speak from a clear sense of self-identity, though perhaps through all this multiplicity, the reader does get a sense of a coherent person.

The speaker’s attempts at a distant perspective are also kind of ironic—she’s taking a distant, observational perspective about the most intimate, emotional, and domestic details, betraying the fact that this world she’s attempting to treat with objectivity is the one in which she’s most deeply invested. So, I think the complexity of “you,” not to mention “mother,” is doing a lot to simultaneously construct and undermine even the notion of distance or separation.

Bsided: That makes a lot of sense—I love that you were able to create a text in which the experience of feeling divided / performing different versions of oneself can be enacted that way. I also want to ask about your Broadsided poem, “Overheard at the Zoo,” which uses overheard speech to sketch a scene of humans watching animals in action, fascinated and bewildered. There’s something about this strategy that reminds me of the way you write about domestic life in lines like “The boy and girl find mother ask for mother find her cheek her neck: all this together pools.” You write about familiar intimacies in surprising syntax that reminds me of a storybook or, fittingly, a biology textbook—there’s a scientific quality of looking at the ordinary world. How did you think about intimacy and distance in writing these poems, and what do formal choices have to do with that?

JJ: In “Overheard at the Zoo,” I selected these pieces of overheard speech because they had this sometimes-funny, sometimes-painful relationship to the scene. The people are trying to connect with what they imagine the animals are experiencing, but probably very imperfectly, using a very limited palette of language and experience. In the moment that inspired the poem, I heard a lot of distance in those attempts at intimacy, a sort of observational longing.

In Metabolics, my formal inspiration was metabolic pathways, as understood from biology textbooks. I was drawn to these shapes because they create profound transformation and also regulation within the body—two motions that seemed—and still seem—deeply necessary in the context of the political situation, specifically the climate crisis and all related crises.

Whereas in “Overheard at the Zoo,” I was tracing the motions of casual observational speech, in Metabolics, I was following the motions of conversion, pooling, catalyzing, throwing off, uptake—these shapes from the micro-world described in textbooks overlaid on the macro-world of my daily parenting and teaching life. The parenting part of that life involves so many intimacies! I was trying to trace, in the speaker’s pseudo-objective voice, the motions of those intimacies, hopefully toward a sense of deep, iterative transformation and becoming.

Bsided: I love how you’ve put that, “a sense of deep, iterative transformation and becoming” — I myself found that in reading Metabolics and in writing about your words and thinking with you/the book at various points in the last year. Jessica, thank you so much for this exchange!

Jo(ely) Fitch is a “poet” “living” in & around Cincinnati, Ohio. Find them wherever.

About Broadsides to Books: To honor and celebrate the writers we’ve published, we began Broadsides to Books in the spring of 2018. Here, we feature brief mini-reviews of books by Broadsided authors followed by a few questions about how broadside and book connect.
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