Review: Mercer professor’s debut poetry book demonstrates finding solace in nature

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Image: Ivy Marie Clarke

The titular poem of Gordon Johnson’s debut poetry book.

How does one cope with aging, loss, death, sickness—the tribulations of life? “Scaring the Bears,” the debut poetry book by Mercer Professor of Creative Writing Gordon Johnston, suggests that it is by connecting with nature that we find solace.

Johnston’s collection has been long-anticipated and is well worth the wait. The 47 poems are grounded in the natural world and supplemented by trust in God while weaving in Johnston’s life experiences and observations, from youth through adulthood.

The first two poems capture the collection’s movement and intent. In the first, “Bear,” a 40-year-old man is nearly mauled by the titular animal. While he races to remember what he knows about surviving bear attacks, the narrator flashes back to key memories, like the last time he walked in the woods and his ex-wife.

Ultimately, the subject is spared by the bear, and the poem concludes that “he loves her who has let him live”—live to make more memories, live to appreciate the realness of the world he is part of.

The second poem, “The Things of Earth,” abruptly moves back in time to the speaker’s childhood, signified by the presence of “my mother” and “Wrigley’s wrappers” and reference to “grown-ups” whom the speaker refers to as “Mr” and “Miss.” God is introduced in this poem, and the speaker finds that God is not necessarily contained within a church’s walls, but also within the rays of “twilight.” In nature, Johnston communicates, he finds spiritual meaning.

The following poems expand upon these initial themes and subjects as Johnston traverses high school, young adulthood and beginning a family, to whom he passes on the beliefs and lessons he’s learned in his own trials and errors.

At once thoughtful and humorous, clear and evocative, “Scaring the Bears” explores what it means to fully engage with the world through the senses.

It can be ordered through Mercer University Press.