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New England Literary News

Sara Eliza Johnson's new poetry collection swings from the quotidian to the cosmic.Fotofly Studio

Visceral verses

“Everything bleeds,” writes poet Sara Eliza Johnson in her outstanding second collection, “Vapor” (Milkweed). And not just the bodies with their eyes and tongues and bones, but the trees and the stars and all the cells and atoms forward and back. Hers are poems that drop into the dark soup of chaos, to the primal places, the primeval places, to the places before there was shape or thought let alone words to tell about it. Everything bleeds, and everything touches everything else, “a vibration you can still feel/ when you press your forehead/ to anything/ alive or dead.” Johnson, who was born in Connecticut and now lives and teaches in Alaska, writes of the marrow, of what’s dark and wet, of wind traveling the dust over the fields, of what we shed and take in from others’ shedding. Some register as strange sorts of love poems: “When our skin touches/ our atoms touch, their shadows/ merging into a shadow galaxy.” She gets at the big-and-smallness of us, of the awful, beautiful strands that link us all together, revealing the uncomfortable paradox never being safe means never being alone. “I am choking on my own ghost,” she writes, suggesting the nightmare moment of not being able to call for help, not being able to say what is and what isn’t. These poems touch the wound, touch the fraying edges of the universe with curious, tender fingertips. They touch with a shadowed tenderness, one of the most intimate kinds, one that rises out of, translates, and transfers the original touch.


Celebrating books in Provincetown

The varied, vigorous, and longstanding literary atmosphere of Provincetown will be celebrated and showcased at the sixth annual Provincetown Book Festival taking place next weekend. A number of writers from the Cape and beyond will descend on the tip of the state for readings and discussions. The festival opens on Friday, Sept. 16, with the Rose Dorothea Award ceremony, given to a writer “with a strong connection to the Outer Cape” who’s made a significant literary contribution; this year’s winner is Paul Lisicky. On Saturday, Scott Bane and Melissa Homestead will discuss biographies of queer and artistic partnerships; Julia Glass and Kerri Maher will talk historical and speculative fiction; Dolen Perkins-Valdez and Linda Villarosa will discuss race, health, and history in fiction and nonfiction; and Ruth Ozeki and Emma Straub will be in conversation. On Sunday, the topic for Saumya Dave and Sara Novic is happy families; Elizabeth Bradfield and Rio Cortez discuss “Poetry, Polar and Afro Pioneers”; and Edgar Gomez and Joe Okonkwo discuss memory and desire in queer fiction and nonfiction. For more information and a complete schedule, visit provincetownbookfestival.org.


Poems to savor

The New England Poetry Club has announced the winners of its 2022 poetry contests. The Samuel Washington Allen Prize, for a long poem or poem sequence of three to 10 pages, goes to “eulogy for empire” by Dean Gessie. The Amy Lowell Prize, for an outstanding any-length poem by a poet with strong New England ties, goes to Jennifer Edwards for “This Poem Can’t Poem Today.” M.P. Carver won the E.E. Cummings Prize, for an experimental or lyrical poem no more than 21 lines, with “You and God and I.” Nina Berberova’s “To Shakespeare” won the Diana Der-Hovanessian Prize, for a translation from any language. Daniel Barnum won the Jean Pedrick Chapbook prize with “names for animals.” And the Sheila Margaret Motton Book Prize goes to Laura Budofsky’s “Sanctuary, Vermont.” The Prize-Winners’ Reading will take place Sunday, Oct. 2. For more information, visit nepoetryclub.org.


Coming out

Woman Without Shameby Sandra Cisneros (Knopf)

Normal Distanceby Elisa Gabbert (Soft Skull)

Life’s Workby David Milch (Random House)

Pick of the week

Jaeyon Jo at Riffraff Bookstore in Providence recommends “Voices in the Evening” by Natalia Ginzburg (New Directions): “It’s about war, but then it’s not. It’s about the weight of the past, but then it’s simply about the pain of surviving the present. It’s about everyone, and then it’s about one woman. This book effortlessly takes you through a myriad of voices and visions, and then leaves you heartbroken.”

Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Wake, Siren.” She can be reached at nmaclaughlin@gmail.com.