Review by Evie Christie

The Velocity of Escape
Jim Johnstone
Guernica Editions, 2008
51 pages, $15

Jim Johnstone’s debut collection, The Velocity of Escape, is rife with peculiar, redolent detail. The jacket text points out for us the occurrences of “Siamese twins, circus performers, burn victims and scientists” and their uncommon link with “rhetorical science.” So frequently are first books attempting to shock some attention for themselves that they rely on bizarre imagery and indeed suggestive copy to gain the reader’s interest, if not admiration, often enough that we tire of such imagery and hope for more than flashy one-liners and burlesque, freak-show tributes. We hope to be rankled, surprised, and messed with, and, if we’re lucky, to come out a little more wretched than we were coming into the book.

Much of The Velocity of Escape will fulfill expectations; we find first-book preoccupations with family, identity, musings on love and sex. There is, fortunately, none of the moral shriving, the saccharine, youthful perfection.

And at its best, the language is not slack for the sake of the narrative, a decidedly rural example in “Hulahoppers”

…the rainbow of freshly abandoned lures
dancing on the power lines.

Rusted jitterbugs and frayed
skirts of hulahoppers
catch the lips of fishermen,
Graphite rods starve for the gleam of minnows,
The gentle struggle of bait.

There is no bathos, no extra stanzas the writer could not let go, instead a fine undercutting of emotion for the poem’s sake. Johnstone refuses to give the reader everything; “Double Helix” doesn’t provide me with notes on “adenine,” “guanine,” “cystosine,” or “thymine” — a risk, to be sure, if the reader is wary of cracking her google knuckles for a poem, but much of the scientific terminology charms us into the poems that work as frank minuets regardless of how indolent we may be.

The strongest work in The Velocity of Escape is undoubtedly the interconnected (pun away) “Conjoined Twin” poems for which (as the book’s acknowledgments tell me) Johnstone won the E. J. Pratt Poetry Prize in 2005-2006. These poems are as much about the self/identity and the traumatic separation from home/lovers/who-one-was-at-one-time as they are dreadfully beautiful snapshots of these characters in the corporeal.

The domestic (“Sweet ’n Low”) and the medical, scientific (“Conjoined Dreams”) depictions meet in a few of these poems. Most striking is “Phantom Limbs,” its frank delivery of the natural, bodily imagery, the heartbreaking and anticlimactic resolution at its clearest here, in the poem’s final stanza:

Flicking on lights
like burnt nerves
even though he is alone.

I first read Johnstone’s work in The Invertebrate Poems (which took second prize in the CBC Poetry Competition this year), and while I was particularly impressed with these poems, I wasn’t disappointed with the poet’s earlier work. Part of Guernica’s First Poets Series, this is another slim volume, a mere 51 pages — most of them entertaining, erotic, and dangerous, and at times brute in their clean, heart-wrenching details. Johnstone’s gift is the quiet, understated handling of his characters and material, the subtle aggression and joy that will likely be overlooked by those who are used to more a bombastic approach.

Evie Christie is a Toronto poet and reviewer. Her debut collection, Gutted, was published by ECW Press in 2005.

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