“Scaring the Bears” by Gordon Johnston

Reviewed by Steven Croft

As Gordon Johnston’s fellow Georgia writer Tony Grooms has said, “Writers are, by occupation, collectors—not just of books—but observations and experiences.”  Scaring the Bears: Poems (Mercer University Press, 2021) is a “middle-of-the-journey” consideration by a fifty-something speaker of an entire life: where he has been and where he believes he is going. The poems hold direct experiences, magnified focus on individual objects, reverence for family, and, as these poems move from his youth to the present, an awareness of physical diminishment and a conscious self-diminishment in preparation for what the speaker senses as a distant vanishing point drawing closer year by year.

Bears is divided into three sections, “Things of Earth,” “Durable Goods,” and “Forty Leaven.”  The eponymous poem of the middle section, “Durable Goods,” has some thematic resonance for the whole collection. What can enable a viable life for this latter-twentieth, early twenty-first century Southern man?  For Johnston’s speaker it is something more than the instruction of an effective worldview or religion, it is in part


Fire, nail, muscle, mule, made to do their lasting work—

the hammer’s rhythm, the plowing pace, the flue hum—sacraments

that let generations hold their place in the world and their world

in its place, alive and in truck with mystery, singing one part

in a local, mortal harmony.


But dissipation will inevitably infuse even these useful talismans against the vagaries of life and fate:

The problem is the keeping, not the having—good always goes.

Follow the needle tracks back until, one by one, they vanish:

the arm of your junkie niece is clean. You hold her again

as a baby. Or heft the hammer and square that framed

the home before this home. The hands skilled at using them

are gone. The blackened skillet and cornbread mold, the churn,

a hand-smithed clevis—durable ghosts gather as you grow older….

Reading “Durable Goods,” I think of “Fox Sleep” by W.S. Merwin, where in the beginning section the speaker walks down a mountain road’s vivid natural setting to happen on a ruined mill house and find “a few relics of the life before” set out for purchase, “pale in the daylight”:

a wooden bed stood there on the rocks

a cradle the color of dust a cracked oil jar iron pots

wooden wheels iron wheels stone wheels the tall box of a clock

And most significant to Merwin’s speaker, a mill stone carved around with a worn fox eating its tail in Ouroboros fashion, the speaker then taking up this found object’s cue to the idea of the unity of things material and spiritual and of rebirth in the poem’s succeeding sections. Likewise, Gordon Johnston’s Bears is a study in unifying the material and the spiritual, and is bookended at beginning and end by poems of rebirth.

The beginning poem, “Bear,” is an obviously fabulist account of a hiker, a “man of forty,” surviving a bear attack. It is a sensual meeting of animal and human: “he / is anciently human in his loafers and sweat / which strangle her  their smell like the taste / of brass,” and, “his palms grazing her jowl fur in a touch that in slo-mo would be tender / and he smells the loam along her muzzle….”  This is a man’s meeting with an extremity that certainly will mean death, “his body perceiving there is nothing to save,” but miraculously the speaker lives:

He feels her weight gone from the ground around him

his eyes open in the circle he has made of himself

and already he loves her who has let him live.

This meeting with raw nature personified is important thematically later in the collection because the speaker will make occasional solitary excursions into wilderness in a way that is needed by his psyche for rejuvenation, reminiscent for me of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.”  In “Wasatchie Tanaga,” Johnston’s speaker says of gutting and skinning trout, “my knife under the gill kills quickly—  / opens each brother on the fir log / scrapes his rosy organs onto wood,” and then,

I return it to the creek. Dipped tin mug

washes the blade, the bloody alter,


my cracked hands. The grey slab, rinsed, flares bright

as our fire. Stone, stream, fish, coals — one smoke

rises, weaving, shoaling the stars. Whole.

Also, though, the meeting with extremity in the poem “Bear” is perhaps a desired fantasy of Johnston’s speaker stemming from his surrendering to the conformity of being a dutiful son, loving husband and father. Filling these traditional roles can be rewarding, and certainly for Johnston’s speaker it is, but it can also be confining. In “Ties” he writes, “Ties: a man’s secret handshake with himself…Useless, utterly necessary…all order and propriety were pressed / in their odd folds,” and makes the point that they were “bought by women, worn by men. Ladies hovered / over racks of them in stores, draping three or four over / cellophane shirts…”. When the adolescent speaker’s father is unable, “His veiny hands close,” to teach him to tie one, he gets unexpected help:

On my bus, a dark-eyed senior girl turned and looked softly

down at me. She said my sister had told her I couldn’t tie a tie.

She put a folded paper in my hand.

At home I locked my door, opened her letter.

  1. Let the slender end hang to where a woman’s breast

would be.


I don’t remember two….


I stood at the mirror, ghosts of her small hands about me,

waiting to show him this new knot at my throat.

Maybe Johnston feels pulled here by a siren call, like Eliot’s Prufrock who asks, “Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress?”  In “Attention Deficit Disorder” Johnston says, “Women once I woke to them, / wore me out. The timbre of girls talking brimmed me over — / their ripple and breath, the way they laughed.”  Still, he is a willing thrall for the temptations of adolescence, for the bonds of marriage. The rewards of family figure highly, are described beautifully in these poems, while the desire to break from family’s constraints surfaces too. In the poem “Wish” Johnston says, “Let me be the car thief with his slim jim, / slipping it along the glass…. / Precisely as it cures he twists the sham key, / savoring the friction. The V8 roars. He’s free.”  William Faulkner once said, “I believe I have discovered the reason inherent in human nature why warfare will never be abolished; it’s the only condition under which a man who is not a scoundrel can escape for a while from his female kin.”  Johnston’s speaker is too wise to choose “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t ever fantasize it, or a wilderness meeting with a bear. This is no contradiction; it is just an harmonic tension in the psyche of a man whose Southern inheritance of patriarchal dominance is voluntarily subjugated to the role of a dutiful and caring husband and father.

Gordon Johnston

In the latter-half of the volume, poems chronicle the beginnings of the speaker’s physical decline: “Knees,” “Eyes,” “After Kelsy Freezes My Pre-Cancer.”  It is a clinical detailing and devoid of much gloom. “Two-hand Touch” is a documentary slo-mo of the poet’s fall “past the grass to the cement sidewalk” in attempting to tag his swift seventeen-year-old son in a touch football game. Over the momentum of his fall rises his pride in his son’s athletic prowess: “my heart so crows his grace that his juke / is the bright bulb behind the whole reel, limning each sand grain, / each carat of quartz on the concrete plain I’m on final approach to.”  Throughout Scaring the Bears is a hint of solipsism, a mood of imaginative solitude and nonattachment. Take, for example, “Crossing Mulkiteo Ferry,” where he leaves his warm life with his family sleeping in their car to walk the length of the boat, vividly viewing at an existentialist-seeming remove the few silent people also out of their cars with whom he has no attachment or emotional involvement. He is with his family but also on his own journey. I think “middle-of-the-journey” is a psychologically appropriate time for a poet, or anyone, to consider both his or her beginning and end. Almost between the lines, this poet seems to seek personal diminishment—in “Sunset” he says, “I see you now. I am not shut yet, life under, life over. I am / my own son and brother. You pull us to you like a lover.” All the while he does his best to be a good man, husband, and father, bringing harm to no one. Surely many future poems will come from the voice of this fifty-something poet, but here, at the end of Bears, he imagines his meeting, his “marriage” with the great ultimate. In the final poem, “White Shirt,” he says,

Thank you God for this page I don’t have to fill with words,

for the joy of being blank, finding in the closet silence

I can wear….


I will not mean but be, drawing daylight like a clean kitchen curtain,

certain that a man, like this, can be a bride.



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