Kaylene Johnson: Writer and Photojournalist

Our Perfect Wild

An unlikely couple—a wild boy and a good girl—Ray and Barbara Bane, both teachers, set off from the sooty landscape of West Virginia into the snowy panoramas of Alaska. There they make another unlikely commitment: to learn the Old Ways of the land they come to adopt—and defend. With her characteristic poise and bravery, distinguished Alaskan journalist Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan chronicles the Banes’ story of environmental gumption in the wilderness.

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--Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Paradise, Piece By Piece.

A Tender Distance
Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska

A Poet’s Unusual Neighbors

November 9th, 2015 by

On the heels of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, it seems appropriate to review a book that I recently finished by a poet whose work I admire. Next Door to the Dead is a reflection on living in an old country church just outside Louisville, Kentucky. Next to the church is an antiquated cemetery. Driskell takes to visiting the “neighbors” which is the basis for this collection of poems. I have heard Kathleen read her poetry aloud and her words can bring a lump to my throat and at times makes me laugh.

I was reading Next Door to the Dead when my father grew ill.  I flew to Portland to help the family with Dad’s care and left the book behind. In the crisis that ensued, I forgot all about the book and Driskell’s poems.

Each day, as I drove to visit Dad, the road I took passed by two old cemeteries. Huge maple and oak trees stood sentry over the headstones. The moss-covered grave markers listed with age. I tried not to look at the graves as I drove past, tried to look instead at the autumn brilliance of maple leaves against the blue sky. I did not want to contemplate the inevitable.

Then my father died. And a few days later, our family stood at a different cemetery. This one looked more like a golf course – neat, sunny, and freshly mowed.  We left the service both numb and wailing inside with some of Dad’s last words emblazoned in our minds. “Be brave,” he had said. What other choice did we have?

I returned back home to Alaska and suddenly Next Door to the Dead became a whole other realm of reading. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to finish the book. It seemed too soon, too raw to be gallivanting around a graveyard with words. Aren’t some things better left to the quiet?

I picked up the book anyway. Driskell’s poetry is accessible and earthy and, as her poems have in the past, the words gave me pause to consider the beauty and nuance of language. Every word of this book felt like the thump of my heart. Her words brought people to life, gave substance to names and dates, and created a context around lives that had long since passed.

Driskell had been told on purchasing her home that the old cemetery had fallen out of use. So she was astonished when she came home from shopping to discover a hearse and a congregation of mourners next door.  In the poem “Living Next to the Dead Acre” she writes:

 

… I slid in behind the long row of cars

      and parked as if I belonged there. I did

My best to hush the rustle of grocery store bags,

      to hush my kid trying to kick free

From his car seat. He bleated to be

      let loose, to be allowed to join that party.

 

The poems offer meditations that weave the past with the present and the living with the dead.  She also discusses visitors, including birds and deer and the man who mows the grass.

There are poems about the miller’s wife, about the slave girl, the Civil War infantryman, the snake handler, and the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who buried his poetry with his wife. Bereaved, she had died of an overdose following the birth of their stillborn child. Later Rosetti dug the poetry up again.

 

Rosetti stood by the fogging window

and watched the wet street

for the men’s return. Despite

The storm, it was a good day

For those who had been parted.

While all know the lesson that life must go on, a few had learned

so will love, and others

had learned, so must art.

 

Rather than finding Next Door to the Dead morbid, even during my own time of grieving, I re-discovered Driscoll’s gift of turning a phrase that packs a wallop while maintaining a sense of humor. She lets us laugh at ourselves even in the shadow of death. That may be one of the best gifts of this book. In her poem “Infant Daughter, Marcus 2 Years Old, Myra 8 Days” she writes:

 

Among these tiny grave markers, I think of my own

little terrorists, my budding suicide bombers.

They shriek against inoculations, squirm, refusing

spinach on their plates, try to swallow marbles …

Every day, with such joy, they threaten to blow apart my heart so utterly. 

 

In any collection of poetry, I find poems that I connect with deeply and a few whose resonance eludes me. But in this slim volume Next Door to the Dead, I found myself finishing the book and then starting again from the beginning.

It was but a small bravery to pick up this book just a few weeks after my father’s funeral. But the courage and humor of Next Door to the Dead made it worth the persistent lump in my throat.

 

For more information about Kathleen Driskell and her poetry, please visit  her website at:

http://www.kathleendriskell.blogspot.com/

2 Comments

2 responses to “A Poet’s Unusual Neighbors”

  1. Dear Kaylene,

    What a touching review of poetry in such an extraordinary circumstance. My condolences to you on the loss of your father; my congratulations to you on experiencing a slant of understanding that most of us who have read Kathleen’s lovely book might have missed.

    Best wishes,
    Kathleen Thompson

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  • About Kaylene

    Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is a long-time Alaskan who makes her home in Palmer. She has found adventure on Mt. McKinley, the Chugach Mountains and as a wrangler and cook in the Brooks Range. Her award-winning articles have appeared in Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Louisville Review and other publications. Her books include Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith; A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska;Trails Across Time: History of An Alaska Mountain Corridor; and Portrait of the Alaska Railroad.

    She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.

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