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A Review: The Chemical Life

In the shadowy, suspended delirium of The Chemical Life, the speakers sing of their desperation to reach “glory, / or as near as [they] know it”  through the most powerful portal known: the human mind and its infinite dependencies.

It’s in late night drunken revelry, bodies in their sensual escapades, and drugs—from the medicine cabinet to the underbelly of Toronto’s West End—that one unlocks the brain’s altered terrains. But what if reality is so much to bear that one shuts the door between the self and the world forever? In his fifth collection, Jim Johnstone’s poems weave in and out of the real and the hallucinatory. The text is charged with tensions: the mind is in the throes of escapism, as the grip of addiction and madness grow stronger; as the substances provide release, the speaker is once again dragged into the dreaded cycle.

Johnstone’s verse is exact and razor-edged. When detailing the collection’s recurring sense of disorientation, he skirts by the potential for excessive abstractions or overflowing stanzas. His clipped lines and sharp rhythms are like surgical incisions that cut cleanly into both the page and memory. Within, the concrete imagery pulses with the energy of the mayhem it conveys. One example is the poem Crane Fist, in which the brevity fuses with a war drum-like measure that explodes into a barrage of violent snapshots.

Despite his concise diction, the speakers are never overly analytical about their internal conflict. The collection’s power does not arise from detached description, but from each poem’s “flash / of negative knowledge” , as states the book’s epigraph by W.H Auden. When Johnstone dissects a moment, we relive the thick of it, turmoil and all. His language is solid while time and perspective are liquid. The white plain of a line break gives a respite to breathe before being thrust back into chaos, such as in the standout Self-Portrait as Anything at Any Cost:

Developed, mania splits

the mind’s roof,

the sclera where I swoop down

for a look…

part and parcel with what I’ve become.

Like the reader, the speakers are never static and are always experiencing metamorphosis, of themselves or their surroundings. In Ovid, Metamorphoses XIV, 223-319, the eight-part poem alludes to the tale of Ulysses and his crew encountering the sorceress Circe. It’s a different kind of magic that causes the speaker’s friends to transform and gain “long snouts, the hair / of swine, war paint bulging / over wine-stained hides.”

With a concrete foundation beneath layers of searing sensory detail, Jim Johnstone proves himself to be an established voice still able to gaze into the landscape of the mind with startlingly fresh eyes. These poems are potent, yet temporary, and readers will return to The Chemical Life for its phantasmic blasts again and again.

Faith Paré is a writer, performer, and theatre-maker from Tkaronto (Toronto), currently studying English and Creative Writing in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal) at Concordia University. Her work has appeared in Shameless Magazine, and she has been honoured to read alongside poets Shane Koyczan and Parliamentary Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke. When not writing, she is probably falling asleep on a metro car somewhere.


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