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Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Average Review Rating Average Rating 9/10 (2 Reviews)
Book Details

Publisher : Finishing Line Press

Published : 2005

Copyright : Carolyn Howard-Johnson 2005

ISBN-10 : PB 1-59924-017-3
ISBN-13 : PB 978-1-59924-0176

Publisher's Write-Up

A Chapbook of Poetry

These are ordinary days, and ordinary recollections, made extraordinary by the power of Howard-Johnson’s observation and the tension between sensation and hindsight. Peppered with imagery that is heady and evocative, this is poetry both historical and psychological.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson's first novel, This is the Place, and Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered are both award-winners. Her fiction, nonfiction and poems have appeared in national magazines, anthologies and review journals. She speaks on culture, tolerance and other subjects and has appeared on TV and hundreds of radio stations nationwide. She is an instructor for UCLA Extension's Writers' Program and has shared her expertise on publishing and writing at venues like San Diego State's world renowned Writers' Conference and Call to Arts! EXPO. She was recently awarded Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment by the California Legislature and her nitty gritty how-to book, The Frugal Book Promoter won USA Book News' "Best Professional Book 2004."

Her chapbook of poetry, Tracings, will be released by Finishing Line Press this fall. She has been a columnist for The Pasadena Star News, The Salt Lake Tribune, Home Décor Buyer and various online publications, She has also reviewed theater and film for The Glendale News-Press and was a staff member at Good Housekeeping Magazine. She loves to travel and has studied writing at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, UK: Herzen University in St. Petersburg, RU; and Charles University in Prague.

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Reader Reviews

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Review by Judith Woolcock Colombo (250906) Rating (9/10)
Review by Magdalena Ball (120106) Rating (9/10)

Review by Judith Woolcock Colombo
Rating 9/10
We live in a Technicolor world. We use colour to illustrate our moods. Blacks, greys, and browns, show that we are sober and reflective, oranges, yellows, and reds emphasize our joy and passion, greens and blues calm and sooth. As children many of us loved to throw gobs of paint on paper, on each other, or on the walls. It didn’t matter. Colour was magical like the Land of Oz or the deep dark woods of Babes in Toyland. As adults colour mesmerizes and entices us. We categorize the different types of love by their colour, the red of passion, the white of pure love, and the fashion experts tell us what colour to wear or paint our walls. Colour permeates our world and fires our imagination.

In Tracings, Howard-Johnson bathes you in colour. From the beginning of her chapbook, she assails the reader with rich vibrant imagery. "Minute by mango coloured minute the sky changes, high clouds whipped like meringue by astral winds..." Reading Tracings is akin to sitting with the poet as she flips through the pages of an album filled with vivid photographs. As you look at the photographs, the poet narrates her life story, stopping occasionally to emphasize a particular point or to engage you in a philosophical discussion on life in general.

Howard-Johnson’s poems speak often of her heritage, her childhood home, and community which she carries within her heart. In 'This Place My Heart Lies', the poet reflects on hurtful words spoken by her mother-in-law, words that cast her as an outsider. She searches for self as she travels the country and world in a way her own mother never thought she would. "...his voice a song finer than Foster or B’rer Rabbit fables read to me by mother who never thought I’d see a black man or the night sky as Hapshutset saw it, a cloak of burned velvet enfolds galaxies, a Bedouin’s bonfire spits embers into its depth…" But as the poet travels her heart stays behind in the place she claims as home. In 'Everywhere My Dream', she speaks again of leaving home to follow her dream and the sense of both loss and fulfillment this evoked. She also compares her mother’s bitterness because she stayed behind to her own sense of loss because she went away. "She a bitter seed now because she stayed, I so lost because I went away."

The author paints the pages of this book with her memories of childhood. She speaks of her first remembered sound, air raid sirens, startling her where she sat in her father’s lap, and her first experience with loss as her father and later her uncle go off to war and leave her behind She remembers that her father smelled 'of gabardine and good-byes' and she remembers the smell of her uncle’s Barbasol shaving cream as he leaves to fly B 42’s.

The poems although recounting the story of one woman’s life are varied and rich, evoking images we all can relate to. In 'Portraits and Poses', she states, "Some photos are best destroyed," a sentiment many of us share, but she also expresses the reluctance we feel in destroying something that represents a memory even if it "cuts too deep."

The poet ends as she begins, reminiscing on the richness of life with both its joys and sorrows. She remembers with love her aunt who is dying and who she says, " too alive to die..." She reflects on this loss and recounts her mother’s wish not to outlive her child. In the poem 'The War Museum at Oslo', Howard-Johnson speaks again of the brutality of war and how as a child she really never understood what it meant when her father went to war, but now as a grandmother she reflects on what it means to her as she watches her grandson go off to fight. "I leave the dark halls, history encased, to sit outside fortress walls, put my head between my knees... Once I was a child who did not have to say goodbye, now a grandmother who must pay the price. My grandson heads for heat and oil and sand".

While reading Tracings, I didn’t have a favourite as I sometimes do when I read a collection of poems or stories. Instead I fell in love with the language as a whole. "Night comes. Like Van Gogh, flames smear vermilion on indigo. Smoke blots stars, heat breathes on my nape." These are words to wrap your tongue around and savour. They are words that linger in your mind long after the poem is read and the book closed.
Judith Woolcock Colombo (25th September 2006)

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Review by Magdalena Ball
Rating 9/10
Tracings is a relatively small collection of poems - only 29 in total, but the impact belies its size. Carolyn Howard-Johnson has chosen well, producing a quiet and evocative collection which goes deep under the surface of everyday life and recollection to muse on such subjects as life, death, love, and loss. At first glance the poetry seems light, but the moment’s respite--a wild holly hock or dead insect on the carpet, becomes a melancholy epiphany, looking coolly into the fragile, tenacious nature of life:

Tracings. Echoes. Deeds done
and undone, transformed
existence, loved ones here and gone. (“An Apparition”)

The poems are heavily rooted in place and time, from the claustrophobia of Utah in the 1940s to the lonely airspace of a flight between Utah and Los Angeles. These are ordinary days, and ordinary recollections, make extraordinary by the power of Howard-Johnson’s observation and the tension between sensation and hindsight. Peppered with imagery that is heady and evocative, the poetry is both historical and psychological. Howard Johnson conjures Utah during World War Two from a child‘s perspective, uniting the dark “velvet” night with the loss of a father, an air raid siren, a ***** cap, grosgrain ribbons and the smell of gabardine. The impact is immediate:

Oh, nothing, an air raid
my mother answers
as if her words were lyrics
she wanted to forget.
Would the lights return
charged with that sound that split
my father’s hand from mine. (“Earliest Remembered Sound”)

Most of the poetry tends towards the iconic, full of American symbols like Wonderbread, Lux, Barbasol, Kerr canning jars, Keds, Barbie, Guess jeans, Chevrolet, Hershey’s Kisses, Jell-o, or a 1940s Fostoria Bowl, each evoking a certain time and place, and lending a concrete visual image in the midst of introspection. The landscape is deftly portrayed through a child’s eye, from the impact of war on a child left behind, or the helplessness of a child facing a lie about her parents’ divorce. The poetry manages to be simultaneously immediate and distanced, as if we were in the mind or heart of an older, wiser observer, at the same time as we are experiencing the moment firsthand. It is an eerie combination of voyeur and participant, as we watch an older man and younger woman come together in “From the Observation Deck,” or LA burn in “Faith in LA”:

Peaks protrude through
an undulating mix of cloud and smoke
and I, even knowing my home may be
charred timbers, see how lovely, lovely
this masked inferno is.

There is melancholy, but also a kind of muted joy, in revisiting places, people, and times now gone. The past is a series of sensations, images in a snapshot (“Portraits and Poses”), or sensory impressions, which in a Proustian way, reveal themselves only with distance. The landscape of youth, lost innocence and beauty is mourned, but at the same time, there is pride in wisdom and age, and the development of a new kind of beauty:

Our observations are
time congealed; we believe our
bent perceptions, that an event begins and
ends, that time separates one from another.
I reason (if I can trust my reason still)
that my metaphors, squashed like putty,
pulled like taffy, piled line on line
in a mixing dish, transparent or not,
are clear and real today and yesterday
if only because I thought
of them that way. (“Poetry, Quantum Mechanics and Other Trifles“)

Tracings is a warm and wonderful collection of poems. None of the poems are overtly ornate or rhetorical, and however melancholy the memory. Howard-Johnson resists the urge towards sentimentality. The poetry is always slouching towards the bigger meaning, turning the micro perspective of the moment into the broader macro perspective of the poet-god. The poems are immediately accessible and will appeal to readers from all backgrounds, but their simplicity belies the fact that these are profound pieces, worthy of re-readings.
Magdalena Ball (12th January 2006)

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