I recently had the pleasure of reading While the Kettle’s On (Little Balkans Press, 2014), a State Library of Kansas Notable Book by Melissa Fite Johnson. Johnson was selected by Little Balkans Press to showcase this, her first published book of poetry, as part of the Strip Pit Poetry Series, which recognizes the work of outstanding southeastern Kansas poets. Such acknowledgment is by invitation only. The book is available in trade paperback through Amazon.com https://www.amazon.com/While-Kettles-Melissa-Fite-Johnson/dp/0982454953 for $12.00. It is divided into five sections of ten poems each.
The first section, “Four Generations,” contains poems with themes that mainly touch upon memories of the poet’s parents and grandparents. While readers generally enjoy poems about the family of someone famous, there is a danger in publishing poetry about one’s family if one is not famous. The risk is that the poetry would be too personal, too specific, leaving the reader out of the experience. There is a fine line to tread. For the most part, Johnson succeeds in this by evoking a sense of the universal within the personal experience. A good example is the titular poem for this section. Here Johnson conveys the bittersweet feelings that accompany remembering the good times about a departed grandfather and father with the hope that a daughter will eventually be able to share the poet's fond memories.
The second section, “Revising the Body,” contains poems about the poignancy and awkwardness of the poet’s adolescence. Here again, Johnson for the most part succeeds in bringing the universal into the personal. The titular poem for this section is perhaps my favorite of the entire collection. Here the poet at first laments her over-padded curves, but by the end optimistically declares, “mine is the Rubenesque look / certain to make a comeback.”
The third section, “Good Housekeeping,” points out the beauty, even the sublimity that may be found in the mundane. “Ode to Washing Dishes” is perhaps the best example. The poet urges the reader when washing dishes to be sure to “...be kind to your reflection. / Appreciate your long arms that disappear / at the wrists....”
The fourth section, “Vulnerability,” contains poems with many different themes. Some contemplate death and fear. Others explore feelings of ineptitude and the titular vulnerability. Still others touch upon what it means to be a poet--my favorites in this section. For example, in “When Asked If I Write Poetry,” the poet answers,
I knew what I wanted the answer to be:
Yes! I feel things deeply
and own a black beret.
When shown a half-eaten apple,
I picture original sin.
Poets do not see the world the same way that others do. But even here, ostensibly in her comfort zone, this poet admits to a certain uncertainty about her authenticity as the first line of the poem reveals. How interesting!
The final section, “The Ballad of Marc and Melissa,” contains poems about the poet’s courtship and marriage. This is the most personal and least universal selection of poems, and one might think it would be therefore the least successful. However, by this time, having read the forty poems preceding, readers should feel (as did I) that they are a part of the poet’s life, and such intimacy allows this section to be perhaps the most successful of all.
--Steven Wittenberg Gordon