By Gary David Johnson
Published December 2006
Date reviewed: April 19, 2007
Originally reviewed at: BookReview.com
Like most everyone who’s taken an English course, I had to sit through weeks of studying English sonnets and memorize the form until I counted syllables in my sleep – which is one of the reasons I enjoyed reading Gary David Johnson’s “Head Trauma” so much. It’s a book of sonnets that keeps some of the basic structural elements, but takes them beyond the boundaries set by Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser.
While his poems mostly keep to the “abab” rhyme scheme and the quatrain format, Johnson is nowhere near as strict as the old masters. Syllable count changes, one sentence runs on for three lines and there may not be a single rhyme in the poem until the last couplet. Johnson claims in his introduction that he is drawn to the discipline of the sonnet form, but I think the fact that he deviates slightly from that discipline is what makes his poems unique.
Johnson branches out topically as well as stylistically, covering a broad portfolio ranging from “Tookie” Williams’ execution to a woolly mammoth hair. My personal favorites include “I Make No Pact With You, Walt Whitman,” which makes no secret of his distaste for the legendary poet; and “The Life Electric,” an excellent metaphor connecting people to light bulbs. Honorable mention goes to “Starkweather’s Confession, 1958,” a sonnet assembled solely from lines of a serial killer’s actual confession.
“Head Trauma,” the poem which the book takes its title from, is an outlier in the book and an interesting piece of work. It’s a blend of free verse and sonnet, mixing Latin phrases and Greek mythology with insect metaphors on par with William S. Burroughs. Less accessible than the other poems, it’s still an interesting read that exposes mankind’s false perception and apologizes for the consequences.
When I read poetry, I look for someone who’s willing to experiment with tradition, and that’s what I got out of “Head Trauma.” Johnson’s work removes the sonnet from the bondage of iambic pentameter and crafts some truly innovative prose.