Thursday, January 30, 2020

Poem366: “A Crooked Door Cut into the Sky” by Melissa Fite Johnson

A Crooked Door Cut into the Sky by Melissa Fite Johnson

A Crooked Door Cut into the Sky by Melissa Fite Johnson, Providence, Rhode Island: Paper Nautilus Books, 2018.

Melissa Fite Johnson dedicates A Crooked Door Cut into the Sky to her father, and with this, she begins a difficult dive into memories of childhood and her adult decisions about not having children.­­ In the set of poems that make up this chapbook, the defining characteristic is tenderness — even toward the self.

“Visiting My Sixteen-Year-Old Self” offers a beautiful example of this tenderness. She begins, “I want to smooth your hair / like a big sister as you sit on your bed / raw.” We meet her young self on the day of her dad’s funeral, pondering how she squandered the last days of her father’s life with a boy, “making you less than you were.”

The adult version of the self seems worried, though she knows how things will turn out. She writes,

I follow you, class to class,
a few steps behind, never quite able
to catch up, to touch the backpack
strapped to your shoulders,
a defective parachute.

There’s nothing the older consciousness can do for the teen, and the poem ends with the narrator of the poem saying words of comfort that the sixteen-year-old can’t hear. It’s a painful way to reflect on loss, and I’m probably not the only reader who goes down that dark well with Johnson through this haunting poem.

This one is followed by a heartbreaking moment of connection between the teenage speaker of a poem and her father, whom she must drive around following a stroke, and another that shows her experiencing a glimpse of what her father went through with immobility as she, at seventeen, deals with a broken leg. The love for this father is palpable, and the book is such a moving tribute to him.

The collection moves into reflections on family with “Apologia for Not Wanting Children,” in which the speaker seems both wistful and triumphant about a decision not to reproduce. If it seems that those moods are incompatible, I guess you have to read it:

Nothing is missing.
No baby cries from a blanket
spread on the floor as if for a picnic.
No chubby arms reach for me.
No hands open and close
like lips desperate for words.
But nothing is missing. You have
my full attention. I have yours.

Obviously, that’s a lot of clear, specific description of the nothing that is missing, though the idea of the two being fully available to one of the other at the end is enviable in its own right. I’d call this a pretty powerful love poem, and more a celebration of being part of a couple than a wistful expression of what could have been.

My favorite poem in the collection is the brief one from which the title is taken, “Visiting the Dead.” Here, the poet imagines a “crooked door / cut into the sky” and how she can use go through it to visit her father. Their interactions are tender:

                  I’d touch his Adam’s apple—
new, plugging the hole cancer made—
and hear his gravelly voice for the first time.

After visiting, though, the speaker is happy to leave — to return to the husband who waits to join her.

The poems here don’t shy away from big topics; most of it is thanatopsis, a deep reflection on death — but they never fail to be original as they probe what must be our oldest obsession. I was moved and inspired by this complex study.


  1. Wow -- I really appreciate this thorough review. I'm ordering the book now.

    Thanks so much for introducing your readers to insightful and largely unsung poets. I've just recently found your site and appreciate your time and effort. You're doing good work!

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