Sara Eliza Johnson’s much-anticipated second collection traces human emotion and experience across a Gothic landscape of glacial and cosmic scale.
With a mind informed by physics, and a heart yearning for sky burial, Vapor’s epic vision swerves from the microscopic to telescopic, evoking an Anthropocene for a body and planet that are continually dying: “So alone / I open like a grave,” Johnson chronicles her love for “all this emptiness, this warp and transparence, the whorl of atoms I brush from your brow,” and considers how “each skull, / like a geode, holds a crystal colony inside.”
Almost omnipresently, Vapor stitches stars to microbes, oceans to space, and love to pain, collapsing time and space to converge everything at once. Blood and honey, fire and shadow, even death and mercy are secondary to a profoundly constant flux. Facing sunlight, Johnson wonders what it would mean to “put my mouth to its / mouth, suck the fluid / from its throat, and give / it my breath, my skin, / which was once my / shadow,” while elsewhere the moon “is molten, an ancient red, and at its bottom is an exit wound that opens into another sea, immaculate and blue, that could move a dead planet to bloom.”
In Vapor, Sara Eliza Johnson establishes herself as a profound translator of the physical world and the body that moves within it, delivering poems that show us how to die, and live.
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Praise and Prizes
“These poems touch the wound, touch the fraying edges of the universe with curious, tender fingertips. They touch with a shadowed tenderness, one of the most intimate kinds, one that rises out of, translates, and transfers the original touch.”
“I concur: in reading Sara Eliza Johnson’s Vapor, ‘My body is wrapped in honey. When I step outside / I become fire.’ I become air in the cells of these elegies for the eternal. Impossibly visceral, these poems peel back epidermis and discover a field of fever, unlock a nebula from a lilac, and find an altar for one’s head, in wind whirling at the speed of light. Each poem illuminates the volition and velocity of violence, and each poem is a rebirth. No one writes like Johnson.”
“In Vapor, Sara Eliza Johnson’s remarkable poems detail the pressures of survival, and the horrors of it. They reach for the edges of darkness—from the abyssal plains of the sea and extremes of exoplanets—in search of debridement and mathematical truth, for a vapor with the anatomy of a shame. These gorgeous, lyric poems find their inspirations in science, but Johnson does more than that. She can find the pulse in a fossil, the wind trapped in a glacier. Johnson's primordial poems have an urgent message: a reminder that it’s never too late to be alive.”
“Sara Eliza Johnson’s Vapor is a sci-fi romance and phantasmagoria for the Anthropocene, where the speaker is ‘meat blossoming in the mouth of the earth,’ and ‘a nail drilled / into the forehead of time.’ The journey is one of shamanic dismemberment: ‘I break my spine, fold / my body inside, and become paradise’ and ‘shatter to make a new spring.’ Lush description meets scientific precision in these poems, as do tenderness and blade, in settings and situations as vast and violent as the combustions that power stars. Vapor is bracing, exhilarating, and mind-blowing—there is nothing quite like it in contemporary poetry: ‘My infidel, before the wind tears our flesh: one more photon for your tongue.’
“[Vapor is] a litany of cataclysm: nuclear or volcanic, Biblical or interstellar.The Anthropocene and post-apocalyptic are ubiquitous subjects in contemporary literature with entire genres rising to explore issues of climate crisis and the geopolitical issues inextricable from them, but there is something in Johnson’s poems that feels ‘at last a surprise.’”