Speaking the Language of Stars

A review of 'Vapor' by Sara Eliza Johnson

This September we asked five Dark Mountain editors to recommend new books that speak to the systemic collapse of a known world – both what this faces us with and what possibilities it allows in. In our final post in the series, poetry editor Michael McClane selects a startling second collection by the US poet Sara Eliza Johnson. With three poems that explore the beauty and brutality of transformation.
is a poet, essayist, and editor from Salt Lake City, Utah. He is the author of the chapbooks Trace Elements: Mapping the Great Basin and its Peripheries and Fume. His work has appeared in numerous journals, including Dark Mountain, Terrain.org, and South Dakota Review He currently lives in New Zealand where he is a PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington.

Vapor by Sara Eliza Johnson (Milkweed Editions, 2022)


There is a moment mid-way through Matt Bell’s 2012 novella, Cataclysm Baby – a litany of baby names for a host of looming apocalypses – where the father/narrator simultaneously mourns and celebrates the loss of his precognitive children, children who foretold every misstep and failure he and his wife would ever make, by offering a strange little prayer:

Know there is a finite amount of everything remaining.

Know this future is almost over, know we will

live to see it end.

And afterward: Whatever cataclysm follows, at

last a surprise.

There is preternatural calm in Bell’s speaker despite the paradoxical ‘finite amount of everything,’ he faces, the ‘it’ of his world and his family ending. He discovers curiosity in what springs forth from calamity.

I thought of these lines often while reading Sara Eliza Johnson’s new collection, Vapor. It, too, is a litany of cataclysm: nuclear or volcanic, Biblical or interstellar. The Anthropocene and post-apocalyptic are ubiquitous subjects in contemporary literature with entire genres rising to explore issues of climate crisis and the geopolitical issues inextricable from them, but there is something in Johnson’s poems that feels ‘at last a surprise.’ In part, this newness stems from the settings of her work, which range from a single cell to the Alaskan tundra, from the moons of Saturn to time-bending wormholes. Her concerns are not confined to Earth alone; they alternate between the micro and macro and are at their most fascinating where these two modes collide, when worlds too small and too large for our eyes or minds to comprehend are fused in a single lyric phrase.

Sites of tragedy and violence nearly always function simultaneously as places of reimagining and reordering.

It is a wonder of these poems that sites of tragedy and violence nearly always function simultaneously as places of reimagining and reordering. Each work feels a dislocation, a conflation of space and time, human and non-human, reminding us that the disasters we suffer, are data points in a chain of violence which encompasses every cell, entity, moon, planet, exoplanet. – the finite amount of everything remaining. 

The first poem in the book, ‘Planktonic Foramnifera,’ begins in the Cambrian era 570 million years ago and ends in:

a vibration you can still feel

when you press your forehead

to anything

alive or dead.

Subsequent poems locate the reader in the oceanic abyssal zone and in a gravitational field, only to end in similarly disarming and personal moments or ‘that sensation of belonging…that last breath of kindness / that passes through me, / now passing through you.’ These moves are jarring emotionally and yet seamless, slipping in and out of deep time and metaphysical invocation and creating a fusion of science and metaphor that acknowledges our inevitable futures and comforts us in the beauty of disintegration. This is perhaps nowhere more acute than in ‘Lazarus,’ where Johnson describes seeing through the eyes of Earth’s first mammals:

…My first eye stares back at mine

and into my chest pours a weight, an infinite

pressure inside my heart or left lung

like an extinction echoing backward

into the first cell of its animal,

my body colder in that spot.

A thumbprint blooms between my breasts

where a stranger once pressed

and being so alone

I open like a grave.


Change of state is at the heart of so many of these poems. Time has no linearity, no boundaries. It liquefies, sublimates, every second permeating every other. Bees rise from blossoms only to become ‘tiny flames in the sun.’ The atoms of two humans touch, ‘their shadows / merging into a shadow galaxy’ where every cell in the body ‘is a dark pool of jelly.’

Change of state is at the heart of so many of these poems. Time has no linearity, no boundaries. It liquefies, sublimates, every second permeating every other.

In her essay, ‘Annihilation,’ published shortly after the release of Vapor, Johnson writes of her obsession with what she calls the ‘Apocalyptic Sublime,’ and admits ‘A part of me fears such sublime annihilation, while another part of me desires it: pure oblivion, the eternal fusion of human and inhuman matter, which I imagine as particles merging like biological cells into a syncytium.’ This fusion appears again and again in Vapor where bodies and boundaries are permeable, ingestible, renewable in endless forms though never able to be wholly recreated, much like her exploration of lithium in Annihilation,’ where the substance is simultaneously pharmaceutical, elemental, and alchemical.  

Supernovas—those apocalyptic self-destructing stars—also create lithium. While the big bang created a small amount of lithium in the initial formation of the universe, the majority of lithium gets manufactured in the nuclear reactions that power the nova explosions, NASA reports on its website, suggesting that the nova explosions would then distribute that lithium throughout the galaxy, and deliver most of the lithium we use today in electronics and medicine. I’ve always wanted to speak the language of stars.

This passage feels right at home in Vapor with its ability to carry inconceivable weight, to condense a billion years into a few characters, that paragraph and single line turn reaching the critical mass necessary to both break and mend a heart. While the poems are rarely overtly elegiac, the pain, trauma, and resilience  of human existence is as much at the forefront as the data of the physicist or the biologist, though it seems to always appear from the most unlikely of spaces  – the perseverance of the anthrax spore that survives the death of its reindeer host only to reanimate when the carcass thaws or the ‘miracle of the worm regrowing its head after children cut it off.’ 

While the poems in Vapor are often solidly rooted in science, Johnson’s work is at its most unflinching, its most raw, when these elements overlap with those of phantasmagoria, of the eldritch and the weird.  Jonson uses these modes to make death and trauma, whether on an individual or planetary scale, something alchemical, a transformation In ‘Wormhole,’ she writes

When time here parts, another time slides through it, like a python shedding its skin, a memory of sunlight that lays itself before me in contrition, wanting love. I wrap my arms around it, lay my head against it. I put my mouth to its mouth, suck the fluid from its throat, and give it my breath, and my skin, which once was my shadow…

Similarly, in ‘Hadean,’ an interplanetary collision provides proof that there is

sea inside every thing. Mine is molten, an ancient red, and at its bottom is an exit wound that opens into another sea, immaculate and blue, that could move a dead planet to bloom.

Sites of sudden and extreme transformation are ubiquitous in Vapor and in Johnson’s work as a whole. The results are often as brutal as they are beautiful, and this disconnect can, at times, disorient. For Johnson, the Anthropocene is part of a destructive spectrum that is as much subatomic as it is intergalactic. In the same way that catastrophe, whether  experienced or imminent, can necessitate revisiting and revising the old myths and stories we comfort ourselves with, so too can it require we reevaluate our relationship with grief and inevitable loss. This is what these poems offer their reader. Grief is not merely a weight, something from which to be unburdened. It is a state change, a sublimation that permeates time and space, a thing animate and evolving, ‘like another animal, dark and small, coming out / into the light for the first time’.

Planktonic Foraminifera

foraminifera fossils date to the earliest Cambrian era, 570 million years ago


Before microbes clustered to gleam

like the scales of alien fish


across the back of your hand

(your eyelashes, your lips),


before the first sunlight

wormed through the sleep behind your eyes,


before worms hollowed out the long tooth

of the tiger in the valley


where now the milk cows

dust their mouths

with petals and powdered bone,


where the hearts

of the dead are bloodcrystals

rotting inside their chests,


before there were bodies

as far as sunlight

can see, more than the light could bury,


black water covered the planet,

and within that ocean, plankton

glowed, constellations


that sank into the seabed,

became fossilized


translations for thought, the first thought, the first

dream, for all language

you try to protect.


Written into the basalt:

cornea, follicle, fingernail

moon, wrist vein, feral bloom.


The ocean, like all oceans, tried to give the earth a message it could not articulate

before disappearing,


a vibration you can still feel

when you press your forehead

to anything

alive or dead.




You feel dead now, but there are ways

to reach through time,

to resurrect yourself. Listen: many

years ago, a reindeer died


from anthrax in the tundra. The ice

kept its body intact, and when the permafrost

melted, the carcass

thawed, and the spores


awoke inside its lungs and heart, little

lesions another reindeer ate, and

infected the herd, which all died, and

the shepherd boy


who tended the herd died, too,

after contaminating his whole village.

Sometimes the horrors of the world amaze me.


In laboratories, scientists have

revived bacteria frozen eight

million years,

and prehistoric viruses from meltwater


which became infectious in

seconds. From this you learn

we’re never safe but maybe it

means we’re never alone.


Under a microscope, the bacteria in me

moves like a moonfield with an

amoebic flowerat its center, an

ancestral organ, petaled


afterglow nothing can see, not

even itself. I know it by the fever

that waxes and wanes against my

forehead, as a name


you repeat to not forget, or a word

for home when you’re far away, that

homesickness when you’ve never

been home before


but—like the miracle of the worm

regrowing its head after children cut it

off— can still somehow find your way




All the wildflowers turn away from me

as I pull my shame up

from my throat,

hold it up to sunlight to inspect its anatomy.

See how this organ labors to breathe in

my palm, a black jellyfish, a tentacled

heart still

connected to me by a single blue vein?

I know everything needs love,

even this creature which opens, despite its  pain, to

show me its insides,

a secret I cannot tell you

because I also have a secret. Sometimes

I pin my hair up to expose my neck to

the breeze, release it in a cloud when I

hear you coming.

Sometimes I cover my skin when I feel

your eyes as if I

might turn inside out. I

am the dream with a mind but no mouth.

Or a mouth

with dreams, but no tongue. Or I’m a 

tongue skinned from speaking, which is

like a corpse

in the process of blooming a tree that will

hide it for centuries. If only I could let you inside

my mouth, you’d understand why it’s so

hard for me to speak. Even my kisses turn

to blisters. If I let you inside you’ll never find

your way out. Some desires can’t live outside

water or wombs. Some words crumble

outside the mouth like bone fragments unearthed in disaster.

Let me explain. Deep within a nuclear power plant

where many men died saving their city

a mass of black corium swells inside

a concrete sarcophagus. One day, its radiation

will leak back out into the land, no matter

how many times they try to reseal

its tomb.

They call this substance the elephant’s foot

and say its skin looks like tree

bark, but even now it burns a p

oison light

only the dead can see, and this is like me:

I am an irradiated thing that needs

someone to hold it closed, and no one

can hold a thing like that long enough

to love it

unless maybe they, too, have been

ruined, cast out or kept hidden,

named abomination

after someone tried to bury their power and failed.


Dark Mountain: Issue 21

Our Spring 2022 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that revolves around the theme of confluence


Read more


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *