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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Praise and Prizes
“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.”
"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."
"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."
"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."