MIDWESTERN STORYBOOK OF BROKEN HEARTS
WHAT ARE YOU DOING OUT HERE ALONE, AWAY FROM EVERYONE? Adam Johnson. HASH Books, 2021. 169 pages.
A steady flood of eulogies meets the reader of Adam Johnson’s chilling and sad collection of poems What Are You Doing Out Here Alone, Away From Everyone? Not every subject of the eulogies in fact dies but there is an air of some speaker calmly and gravely, and at some remove, giving a brief report about someone’s life as a summary of their time on earth. More often than not these short bios are tragic and involve needless suffering and blindness on the part of the person in question.
Johnson, whose day job is as a defense attorney from Minneapolis, must have soaked up some truly grisly hard-luck stories in his time, because these doozies have the tang of truth; people really do act this way, you can imagine. These are your neighbors on their worst day imaginable, the faceless people you see listed in the police blotter, given highly detailed countenances. Often people are drunk when they misbehave in these stories. Alcohol is as ever present as original sin. The law is often called, and people are seen at their most catastrophic, being shoved into the back of cop cars in handcuffs after “a domestic.” DUIs linger over a good portion of the population of these poems like the black cloud of foul weather that track cartoon characters wherever they go. The certain grinding of consequence-gears of the law can be heard everywhere.
There is some variation, of course. Many of the stories while full of dire outcomes are quite funny and reveal the vanity and whimsy of people living out bored and besotted lives in the suburbs. In “The Dells,” Harry meets Sue at a Toastmasters and they get together: “they hit it off / they did / I promise.” They get married and learn they can’t have kids, things get rocky, and when looking at a dealership for a new car, Sue takes a car out for a drive with Andy the dealer at the dealership and disappears. Days pass, and a missing persons report is filed. Eventually Harry hires a PI who “knew his stuff / he had a gold ring / on his right hand.” The PI locates Sue and Andy staying together at a hotel in Wisconsin with an all-inclusive water park. Harry is called to drive out and pleads with her to come home. She gets pissy and agrees but it’s a shitty drive home because Andy has to catch a ride with them.
Enough poems end with this kind of comic downbeat that the catalogue of despairing American souls doesn’t get too grueling. But the undertone of lives lost in the conformity and aimless relative privilege is unmistakable in the collection.
Johnson’s lines are short and there is much white negative space on the page. The poems are compacted and delivered in the voice of someone telling anecdotes at the country club about that guy who drove over his wife after years of marriage, the couple distantly acquainted to the horrified listeners. Eulogies, anecdotes, it’s all the same in the Midwestern storybook of broken hearts.
Good poems have powerful ending lines when they are at their best, and Johnson has some killer diller ones. The poems have endings that are like Olympic ski jumps in that they project the reader out into space to float helplessly. Either that or they’re like knockout punches. Either way, there’s an athleticism to the delivery at the end, a great performance that threatens violence and damage behind a facade of well-groomed lawns and mailboxes and children’s yard plastic.