Clam Gulch fisher hooked on poetry

Posted: Thursday, June 10, 2004

Brent Johnson has a thing for rhymes. He's taken the publishing plunge and issued his first book of poetry, "Ricochet Rhyme." He subtitles it "Poetry that abounds in binary sounds with memoirs."

Shakespeare he ain't. But Johnson's effort has a wacky exuberance and eccentric charm.

Readers who prefer their poetry serious, with layers of insight and metaphor set in blank verse, probably will turn up their noses at this book. But those who like their poetry with rhymed couplets and funny punch lines may find this playful debut anthology a breath of fresh air.

Johnson cites Robert Service and Shel Silverstein as his models. He says in his introduction that his audience is people who appreciate humor, surprises and puns.

In his closing comments he describes his writing life:

"What ugly bug compels a fool to write?

Most likely pride at its height.

Of course I ran into a hitch or two

as amateurs are apt to do.

Alaskan computers must freeze up more

than those on California's shore.

And every time I found creative's mode

I had to go and plow the road."

"Ricochet Rhyme" includes poems ranging from elaborate ballads to haiku, an array of goofy little clip-art illustrations and a smattering of prose memoirs about growing up between Soldotna and Ninilchik. A few deal with the serious matters of religion and a death in the family. But nearly all are light-hearted, and most are suitable for children as well as adults.

The book includes epigrams, which are fairly rare in contemporary literature. Some of these are real gems, as in this comment promoting fish consumption, titled "Travel Light:"

"Ground beef, and fly with fish!"

He keeps his humor but sharpens its point to satire when he turns to topics that provoke him such as politics and fishery management. An example is this little ditty, "We are a Government:"

"OF the people (that vote), BY the people (elected), FOR the people (with money)."

Johnson has lived nearly all his life in Clam Gulch, moving there as a tyke with his homesteading parents in 1959. He's been busy over the years raising a family and setnetting, but he found time to join the Kenai Writers' Group.

The prose sections of the book reflect directly on this upbringing. These reminisces sketch out a working Alaska life, humble and humorous, revolving around fishing, boundless curiosity and a warm-hearted family life. They also reveal a gift of gab and provide some of the book's high points.

Many of his poem topics will resonate with Kenai Peninsula readers as well. He versifies about the "Exxon Valdez" oil spill, the spruce bark beetle infestation and salmon.

"We catch the sockeye, fresh.

Called reds, they have a silver skin.

Named for the color of the flesh,

Robustly wrapped within.

"This hard pace,

mingles oft with mirth.

And appreciation of our place,

An Eden here on earth," he writes.

At times he waxes lyrical, but Johnson also can be crude, as in this commentary on gender differences:

"Raunchy odors rip from men

that starve a girl of oxygen.

Pointless weepings leak from wives

and cut at men like rubber knives."

Johnson sometimes skirts the line between playful and questionable. This reader wonders how his wife feels about his sharing through romantic verse his opinion that she is "blest with a chest of well-marked pylons!"

In general, his shorter poems are better than the long ones. When they stretch out, weak stanzas mingle with stronger material, as if he cannot bear to turn down any rhyme.

Johnson's writing lacks polish. It would benefit from more attention to meter, punctuation, spelling and rigorous culling. But "Ricochet Rhyme" has a spark of wit and wisdom that suggests a diamond in the rough.

In sum: It's doggerel verse, but we've seen worse. He's a nice guy, so give it a try.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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