‘Inheritance’: Poetry of Listening and Watching

It’s hard to know where to start writing about a book like Inheritance, a book that doesn’t make a show of its intentions, so maybe it’s better to start with the author’s words. When Taylor Johnson ends their bio by writing “Taylor lives in southern Louisiana where they listen,” they’re not saying that to sound mysterious. This is poetry of listening and watching, of being honest about the distance that intimacy bridges. Although the speaker of these poems is active and present in their world, their friendships, lovers, and family, they’re present through a solitude and longing that reaches out to others to care for and to touch.

The world of this speaker, full of trees and city streets and memory and pop culture and philosophy, feels like a backdrop to the mind. Objects and waypoints often appear as a partial memory or a piece of evidence. Or they appear in a moment of sudden and brief focus on the present. As a reader I expect to feel privy to this speaker’s secrets, but I end up spending time with a voice that doesn’t prioritize confession or worry about orientating me. I’m the reader, the customer in this literary transaction, but I’m still a guest. It’s a privilege to see this voice walk us through the process of building itself. Or, rather, to see a voice aware and accepting of the world’s fluidity and making an art of re-building it.

The descriptions of anything tangible frequently feel loose: not surreal, but maybe ungraspable. At times even the most direct language is arranged like phonetic poetry (“The sound is a / hovering. A presence pressure. Sound wraith. Wraith’s whir.”). At times the outside world feels disarmingly interior. And when I’m tempted to scour for more details and setting that I can see for myself, I’m repeatedly taught that I’ve been given enough.

That might be the first strength to look for in judging a book of poetry: the apparent trustworthiness of the poet and your willingness to hear how they’re teaching you to read them. With speakers and narrators, sure, there are plenty of interesting things the poet can do with the spectrum of their unreliability. But in a world so full of different voices, the first thing we’re all looking for in a poet, whether we know it or not, is trust that we can let our guard down, follow their lead, and enjoy and enrich ourselves. This might be obvious to you, but I mean it all to say that Johnson encourages this trust with skill, tenderness, and play.

It’s this balance of tenderness and intimacy with contemplation and intellectual distance that makes this book feel so rich. The first two poems, “Since I Quit That Internet Service” and “Pennsylvania Ave. SE” immediately exemplify this balance. In the first, Johnson invokes the “transitive properties in books. The words, the palimpsest of images accruing in my brain”: specific, technical diction that speaks to the author’s authority as an intellect. But the philosophy opens to its purpose of deepening an immediately comprehensible desire: “It’s like turning the record over. Knowing you’re hearing what I’m hearing. / Easing up on the edge of the chair. It’s like we’re holding hands now at the edge of a white / silence, from which we are to make a music of our being here…”

In the second poem, Johnson even points out a subtle moment of identity fluidity with the parenthetical “(see how I did that).” Later in the collection they ask, surprisingly, “Is this a poem yet?”

That’s what I mean about the way a good poet teaches you how to read. Johnson teaches you that they’re serious about both the rigor and the play of their poetry. There’s equal weight given to Derrida as there is to Sam Cooke. There’s importance in intellectualizing the world as well as engaging with it. In fact, this book of poetry makes the equal importance of these things feel so natural that it feels redundant to mention it here.

Politically resonant topics like gender fluidity and race are present in many of these poems as a part of the interiority and personal history of the speaker. Johnson approaches these subjects directly but never relinquishes control over the poem. The poem is the poet’s, aware and a part of the public conversation but not commanded by it. And by making this choice, the speaker feels capable of overcoming and living life alongside grief.

“If I was already an inconvenience to the language, then she is right.
If she is right, then there is an elsewhere to which I belong.
If there is an elsewhere, then there is a clearing in the woods.
If there are woods, then there is a ground that abstains ruin.”

Near the end of this collection, Johnson quotes Frank Bidart’s Desire and it clicks in a bright way. Behind everything apollonian and idea-driven is the importance of humanity, the body, and the choice to reach out to others and the rest of yourself. This choice is affirmed with compassionate and open wonder, as worshipful and graceful as Bidart. But Johnson’s poetry is more solitary, not as interested in the pleasures of excess and more reserved in its exaltations.

Again and again I open this book and am immediately struck by its warmth, even and maybe especially when it’s contemplating fear, shame, class, or loneliness. In the middle of a pandemic and during an apocalyptic political climate, the honest and unsentimental benevolence of these poems is a defense of the use and value of poetry. I don’t think what I’ve said about this book communicates how much I admire it, so instead of saying more, let me end just end with a couple of Johnson’s lines:

“Sometimes I feel so outside. Then you invite me in.
This is how I keep time, and I keep to it, you inviting me in.”

Inheritance
by Taylor Johnson
Alice James Books
November 10, 2020