Gatekeeper: Poems book cover


“A book for the age of the cloud, a volume of poetry that is at once novelistic and intensely lyrical.” —KHALED MATTAWA
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Winner of a Wisconsin Library Association “Outstanding Achievement Award”

What is the deep web? A locked door. A tool for oppression and for revolution. “An emptying drain, driven by gravity.” And in Patrick Johnson’s Gatekeeper—selected by Khaled Mattawa as the winner of the 2019 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry—it is the place where connection is darkly transfigured by distance and power.

So we learn as Johnson’s speaker descends into his inferno, his Virgil a hacker for whom “nothing to stop him is reason enough to keep going,” his Beatrice the elusive Anon, another faceless user of the deep web. Here is unnameable horror—human trafficking, hitmen, terrorism recruitment. And here, too, is the lure of the beloved. But gone are the orderly circles of hell. Instead, Johnson’s map of the deep web is recursive and interrogatory, drawing inspiration and forms from the natural world and from science, as his speaker attempts to find a stable grasp on the complexities of this exhilarating and frightening digital world.

Spooky and spare, Gatekeeper is a striking debut collection and a suspenseful odyssey for these troubled times.

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6 × 9 × 0.25 in
6 oz

Patrick Johnson

Patrick Johnson earned his MFA in poetry at Washington University in St. Louis and completed his undergraduate at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently studying to become a physician assistant, and lives in Madison.

Praise and Prizes

  • “Fragmented and fractured, Johnson pushes this book to its structural limits—and the result is a successfully jarring and disturbing collection. This is a book of the internet, and of our internal selves: of pursuit, lust, and a closing into the spirit.”

    The Millions
  • “Impressive and formally versatile … ‘The individual becomes invisible,’ [Johnson] observes, positioning the reader as collaborator and co-conspirator in this thought-provoking collection.”

    Publishers Weekly
    starred review
  • “Spooky and spare, Gatekeeper is a striking debut collection and a suspenseful odyssey for these troubled times.”

    Chicago Review of Books
  • “The poems are … expository and lyrical and create an aura of narrative potential.”

    Michigan Quarterly Review
  • “The collection … relates perfectly how we can feel more known by someone we have never met and lives behind a screen than the people who are right in front of our eyes, with hints at how isolating that feels and how dangerous it might be. In an age where the digital world rules and online friends are less of a stigma, Gatekeeper fits right in.”

    Call Me Brackets
  • Gatekeeper is a book for the age of the cloud, a volume of poetry that is at once novelistic and intensely lyrical. Armed with Plato and Agamben and writing in a pliable style that suits his book’s various tones and narrative turns, Patrick Johnson probes the changing nature of selfhood in our time, how we’ve become utterly unknowable and vulnerably exposed, and how the body and its desires and yearnings are reeled toward something that only be described as oneself. Gatekeeper stands out for its focus, suspense, and intense interrogation of its subject matter. A deeply engaging and intelligent book, and a thoroughly enjoyable one.”

    Khaled Mattawa
  • “This is an odyssey into the dark recess of the internet. Johnson’s speaker traverses the deepest horrors of the dark web, beasts that shouldn’t and wouldn’t have a platform if it wasn’t for the digital cage we have built for them … Our narrator desperately tries to maintain his sanity as a computerized reality begins to eclipse human sensibilities … This collection of startlingly unforgiving prose serves as a reminder and a warning of what we are allowing ourselves to become the further we move into the haunted cosmos of the internet. Selected by Khaled Mattawa as the winner of the 2019 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry, Gatekeeper feels like a socially relevant distress signal, something to be enjoyed for its beauty but also respected for the size of its teeth.”

    Aimée Keeble
    Main Street Books (NC)
  • “In Patrick Johnson’s unsettling debut collection, Gatekeeper, we are taken into the online world of the dark web, where we watch as individuals seek out community despite the inherent facelessness of the platform. In these poems our nameless guide encounters another being known only as Anon, who in time past Emily Dickinson might have referred to simply as ‘Master.’ Observers our guide, ‘I have no sense of what’s at stake for me / The half-life of love et cetera.’ As Johnson ultimately proves, the limits on vulnerability are self-imposed and result in our deepest woundings. Gatekeeper unnerves even as it shines.”

    Amy Quan Barry
  • Gatekeeper’s subject is the permeable self, at once virtual and visceral. Patrick Johnson gathers shards of experience—online and off—into an unsettled and exceedingly contemporary portrait of love, obsession, danger, death, voyeurism, anxiety, guilt, paranoia, loneliness, and connection. Discarding the usual easy (and false) divisions, this is a book that expands outward as it stares deep within.”

    Edward McPherson
  • “These fascinating poems rest on the assumption that each of us has two selves: one that occupies space in the ‘real’ world and another that exists only in a movie that plays continuously at the back of our minds. With our hands on a computer keyboard, we have a third, cyborg, self. The poetic enactment of the splitting of these multiple selves is mesmerizing.”

    Mary Jo Bang