The death of any close friend or loved one is a wrenching, dislocating experience. The knowns disappear, replaced by unknowns. Simple things – a regular afternoon visit, the way the dinner table is set, a shared piece of music – suddenly disappear or become painful reminders. For Christians, the loss is tempered by the knowledge and hope of heaven, but the loss and absence is no less great.
When one loses a parent, a number of transitions begin, some immediately. Some say the loss of a parent is when you truly become an adult. Death sets certain processes in motion – legal processes, family processes, personal processes. If there is a surviving parent, that relationship will change as well. Things can both ravel and unravel, and at the same time.
It is those ideas underlying the death of a parent that inform After the Ark: Poems by Luke Johnson. Johnson, whose poems have appeared in such publications as The New York Quarterly and Best Young Poets and who’s received awards from the Academy of American Poets and Atlantic Monthly, lost his mother to cancer when she was 54. Both of his parents were ministers, and so faith plays through these poems as well, a faith that simultaneously questions and accepts.
Here’s the opening poem in the collection, “Moving Day:”
All that was left were the boxes of sermons
collected in her study, thirty years
of readings and reflections, prayers ready
to be gathered and stored away.
I could feel the weight of her words
as I carried the stack of boxes, unsorted,
to my car. With her body of work
tucked into my mid-sized trunk, I returned
for her size-five boots in the crux
of the doorway, dropped them in the backseat.
The breeze stroked the leaves above me,
Their rustling like a flock of small birds
Taking flight, perhaps frightened
By the muffled click of the trunk’s latch.
It’s a fine introductory poem for the collection, combining professional and personal elements of his mother’s life – the sermons and the size-five boots, the sermons tucked carefully into the trunk and the boots dropped in the backseat. While he recognizes it is the sermons that are the important things, the products of her mind and faith, it is the boots that truly bring home the magnitude of the loss he’s feeling, and he casually drops them in the backseat as if to deny the pain.
All of these poems are about the changes in relationships – with his father, his brother, even his dead mother, and perhaps most of all with himself. They are moving poems, thoughtful and thought-provoking, questioning but always coming back to a center. And they speak much about the importance of faith in a time of loss.