At Once Elegant and Deadly: Joan Biddle on Daniel Johnson’s How to Catch a Falling Knife


Daniel Johnson, How to Catch a Falling Knife, Alice James Books

To enter the world of Daniel Johnson’s How to Catch a Falling Knife is to enter a playful, celebratory, real, and dangerous place. Johnson’s smooth, clear, colloquial verse is familiar and laid-back, constructed into beautiful odes to his hometown, growing up in the Steel Valley, and his family. The clean, pared down diction recreates real life through the lens of time passed. His poems explore something fearful yet warm, familiar. In his homages to childhood, there is always the hint of something sinister, something about to turn. For example, in “My Father, The Small Town Sadist,” Johnson describes laughing at a story his dentist father tells: “I clap and laugh with my mouth / open wide and my head thrown back / til something in the room turns.”

Johnson’s love poems stand out to me the most. In “For Ebele” Johnson writes, “you light / my body like // nineteen rooms / at the water’s edge.” Here, he puts an undefined feeling into the best words he can use to describe it. The image of the nineteen lit rooms at the water’s edge suggests the reflection of light in the water, light multiplied. This image and the short lines not only elicit physical desire but deeper love beyond that, a love that brings life to every part of him.

In “Late for Dinner With Kenji and Yoon,” Johnson creates a love poem out of an ordinary, if not everyday, situation. The speaker observes his wife trim her pubic hair, and this simple act heightens his love. He writes, “[I] joke that I will wear your sex / around my neck as an amulet / when I bike into traffic at dusk, / when I am bodyless, no more / than a blinking white light.” The “pagan keepsake” of her shorn pubic hair becomes a talisman, his only self when his self is not left any longer, when he is without his body. Johnson expresses a depth of love and passion through an unconventional tale; he twists the fairy tale notion around to express simple love in a way it hasn’t been done before. The immediacy of the title grounds the poem, furthering the notion that love is often about little moments, even crude ones.

In “Apt. 2” he again celebrates the small and ordinary. Of moving out of an apartment, he writes, “But it’s not the treelined street I’ll miss— / it’s the bedroom light switch // and the filthy nimbus ringing it.” The latter line is its own stanza, set apart in a poem of couplets. Of all the things the speaker will miss, it is the dirt from fingers turning the light on and off each day. The poem resists change as it represents change, cherishing the old as it moves into the new. It praises the everyday things remembered that are never what one expects.

The title How to Catch a Falling Knife exhibits danger, helplessness, and not knowing how to deal with a tough situation. It also presents a lovely, filmic image, at once elegant and deadly. The title poem “To Catch a Falling Knife” is about faith and doubt, and the line like a knife blade between the two. You must doubt, the poem says, or the falling knife will separate “what you believe, / once and for all, / from what you don’t.” It is a poem of the precariousness of life and death, good and evil, faith and doubt.

“Description of a Badly Drawn Horse” is the first poem I read of Johnson’s when it was reprinted in Poetry Daily. The poem’s willingness to admit failure and unbridled (no pun intended) enthusiasm struck me. The artist in the poem keeps on with his work, even though it is malformed – the horse’s head “squared off and wooden the way an animal’s is not.” The speaker draws a boy who is “smiling. Terribly.” The figure has both a terribly drawn smile and also overflowing and unexplainable enthusiasm for riding this horse. It is how an artist should feel, how a poet sometimes feels when writing, even when the work is bad. It is also how one should feel about life. Smile terribly in the face of what’s gone wrong just as much as what’s gone right.

This celebratory note comes out as well in “Steel Valley Songbook, Volume I,” in which Johnson takes on a scriptural cadence in his praise song for his hometown. This is a happy poem full of memories of undesirable things that somehow end up rosy in hindsight. In the poem, he praises “dead-end signs peppered with buckshot” and “the Cuyahoga caught fire.” He writes, “Praise the sign that reads DANGER: DO NOT WADE, SWIM, OR / FISH HERE! Praise, in jean shorts and ripped concert T-shirts, / the girls who swim anyway.” His list exhibits a joy for the past, things good and things dangerous, things desired and risks taken when one is too young to know better.

Johnson’s poems are unrhymed, and move slowly and deliberately through couplet, triplet, or single stanzas, developing family relationships, referencing the speaker’s father, brother, wife, and others close to him. Some explore death, as in “When It’s Time,” where Johnson writes, “To the rusted bridge I will offer, / Here is my name weighing no more than sunlight, // my height and weight, the blue from my eyes.” In this poem, he exhibits a humble relinquishing of worldly things in the face of death. These things are of no importance in the grander scheme. He offers up his pens and notebook, and sings that he is “the son of a photograph,” until “my voice sounds strange floating / like smoke into cottonwoods.” Writing may remain, but the physical parts of us become meaningless, our names “weighing no more than sunlight.”

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Joan Biddle is a writer, editor, and English instructor at The University of Memphis in Memphis, TN. She holds an MA from Johns Hopkins University and an MFA from The New School University. Her poetry and book reviews have appeared in Half-Drunk Muse, The Yalobusha Review, The Red Booth Review, The Country Dog Review, and Small Spiral Notebook. An audio podcast of Biddle reading her poetry can be found on apostrophecast.com. Her website is joanbiddle.net

One response to “At Once Elegant and Deadly: Joan Biddle on Daniel Johnson’s How to Catch a Falling Knife

  1. This review does what a review should do: it gives the reader a clear sense of the book, and reveals its strengths, supporting the quotations with succinct impressions. Amazing how simple that is, and how few reviews manage to do it. In the process, Joan Biddle has made this book sound very worthwhile.