Vapor by Sara Eliza Johnson (Milkweed Editions, 2022)
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
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’.
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
that sank into the seabed,
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
a vibration you can still feel
when you press your forehead
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
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
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
They call this substance the elephant’s foot
and say its skin looks like tree
bark, but even now it burns a p
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,
after someone tried to bury their power and failed.