Daniel Brock Johnson’s second book of poetry, Shadow Act: An Elegy for Journalist James Foley, is a representation of the relationship between two friends. On the one hand, the journalist James Foley. On the other, the poet. It’s as if the two men were bound together so deeply and eerily that their lives are each other’s shadows. Foley’s adventures—he is eventually murdered abroad—may seem utterly opposite to the quieter life of the poet, but the letters the two men exchange—some of which drive the poetry in this collection—are only part of the revelation that Foley’s hunger for the scene of action, the war zone, the story is drenched in a longing for peace. Just as the poet’s peace reposes at the edge of all the violence and turmoil of our times. Worked out over poems that vary dramatically in shape and style, and that move from the terse and lyrical to the long-lined and prosaic call of grief, this collection is a dazzling display.
The book is the story of a life as glimpsed by way of friendship, pure love among brothers by different mothers—James Foley and Daniel Brock Johnson knew each other for so many years before Foley disappeared into captivity. Came up together, in a sense, and saw the way life changed the other. So the book is intensely personal. At times confessional. As if a documentary had suddenly become a notebook of the heart. And I admit, I’m biased: I should’ve begun by disclosing that I’m Daniel’s editor. I hope you’ll believe me when I say this book is unforgettable. Haunting. A shape you carry, once you’ve read it, like a precious gift left by a friend whose time came too soon.
JESSE NATHAN: A book like this is more than conceptual, and it’s more than coincidental. It’s an accident in the way life itself is an accident, but it’s not something that most people could write, because it’s about your deep and abiding relationship to a person—but also to the story of that person—who most people know mainly because of how his life ended. It’s not like anything else I know of in contemporary poetry. So I’m curious how you came to this book, even though I feel like you couldn’t not write it—I’m curious how you experienced this book’s emergence. Actually, I’d love to know about what brings you to poetry generally.
DANIEL BROCK JOHNSON [Transcribed from audio recorded while driving in the Boston area on two separate days, first on May 12]: Strong coffee—the smell of paper—a Blackwing pencil—my collapsing IKEA desk – (continue on Concord Avenue for two miles)—often, photographs—frequently, an inability to say what I mean, when speaking—small things like snail shells & flat rocks great for skipping—(sounds of automobile traffic)—my grandfather’s 1958 Royal typewriter—often a phrase—(in one thousand feet, continue straight to stay on Trapelo Road)—the rhythm & cadence of language, for sure—(continue straight for half a mile)—a hunger to collect & study, to name & catalogue the strange, the ordinary, the big & the small—(in one thousand feet, turn right onto Belmont Street)— the ugly, the sweet—a love of lists—fear of disappearing into silence—wanting to speak to my father—(take the next left onto Belmont Street)—growing up in Ohio’s Steel Valley—books & books & books—
[And on May 15]: What brings me to poetry? In the case of writing Shadow Act, a deep need to keep speaking to my friend James Foley, who was cut down at age forty. By writing to & about James, or Jim (in eight hundred feet, turn right onto Greenough Boulevard), which is the closest thing I know to prayer, I’ve been able to find a vessel for my frustration & rage,—(continue for half a mile on Greenough Boulevard)—my love & my heartache. I don’t know that poetry has helped me understand or accept Jim’s death—nothing could probably do that—but I’ve been able to speak to Jim, to ask him questions, to spend my winter mornings with him, despite his long absence.
I’m reminded of a story I heard on This American Life (continue on Greenough Boulevard) about Itaru, a young man in Japan, who lost his cousin, one of his closest confidants. Itaru missed him incredibly (turn right onto Eliot Bridge), so he built an English-style phone booth in his garden, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He set an old rotary phone in the booth, (slight right onto Eliot Bridge) but it wasn’t connected to anything. Often at night, Itaru would slip out of his house & he would pick up the “wind phone” to speak to his cousin. Itaru’s voice, he explained, would carry out onto the night & the waves & the wind. It was a way for him to help usher his cousin’s soul to the next plane, to let him know that it was okay to leave & move on.
In 2011, a tsunami hit Otsuchi, Itaru’s small, coastal fishing village, killing & disappearing thousands of people. Itaru opened his garden & offered his wind phone for neighbors & others to come & speak to their missing relatives. Farmers, mothers, fishermen, daughters, grandparents & children traveled to Otsuchi to speak to their missing loved ones into the wind phone. Something like ten thousand grief pilgrims visited over the course of a few years. In one recorded snippet, a teen girl steps into the booth and speaks searchingly into the receiver, “Dad? Mom? Nene? Issei? It’s already been five years since the disaster. If this voice reaches you, please listen…” Raw, unconscious, unfiltered grief & longing, laughter, sorrow, & pleas for forgiveness—the wind phone recordings capture them all. By writing Shadow Act, I’ve tried to keep speaking (stay on Soldier’s Field Road for half a mile), to bear witness, while hoping against hope, that Jim might return.
Daniel Brock Johnson’s Shadow Act: An Elegy for Journalist James Foley is out next month and is available for preorder in our store.
Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.