Her Animals by Emily Johnston

Hummingbird Press, 2015

(Trade Edition $18, Special Edition $32)



Johnston says in her acknowledgements, “This book was knit quickly, after much time gathering wool.” Time perhaps, being of the essence, she picked up her careful needles and began: 


I’m sorry. 

By the time we understood, the winds were so hard against us. 

You cannot imagine what it felt like. 

Every day, waking up in this ravishing world. Knowing.

(from poems I, ll, llI, and IV)


Knowing what? That the tally is in and the numbers are harsh. That the temperature is rising and the seawaters are forever changed, that millions of species have disappeared, that the earth will go on but her animals won’t. 



I make no excuses—none are possible. And yet…I love we who

did this, as I love every reed that bends toward the lake when I 

run each day. The eagles—the sparrows—the colors of the water

as days and seasons move through. We have shared this glowing 

world together: its web, its weaver, its prey. 


I will sit at her side until I cannot, speaking what truths I can of love

and failure.

(from XVIII)


Paradox. This book is a letter of love told from deep ache. A book for the future/now. A letter to some someone somewhere whom Johnston isn’t sure will be there to read it. An apology to an age yet to come that will or won’t forgive. Poetic essay. Chorus of haunting voices, calling like Bernd Heinrich’s frog: “Therefore when calling in the dark, he must be hopeful and call for as long and vigorously as possible.”

(from the first leaf quotes, B.H. Why We Run)



It isn’t new. These are cases in point I’ve come across in the past week without even seeking. 1: “The inescapable fact that the decline of wildlife is linked with human destinies is being driven home … Wildlife … is dwindling because its home is being destroyed.” Rachel Carson, 1938. Case in point 2: The last passenger pigeon. 1914  Case in point 3: “There dwelt the last red deer; those antler’d kings …” Letitia Elizabeth Landon, 1824  

the clear cuts             the clear cuts       the clear cuts      




When the roof falls in

We will see the stars again

Here—sit by my side

(from the unnumbered leaf opposite XCIII)

Dear unraveling conscience, dear bees, dear icebergs, dear exotic species, dear God, hunger, choice, devastation, extinction, evolution, habitat, agriculture, responsibility, dear hummingbirds, cockroaches, apes, humans, dear regret, dear love. Is it too late to pay attention? Is it possible to unravel the sweater and begin again? Johnston tells us the Anna’s Hummingbird is the only animal that can fly backwards. 



This book is an honest book: I live in a house. I drive a car. I go to movies. I have a dog. I live with bees. I am cheerful. I’m (almost) heedless.  


But the house is mine and I can be here alone … 

when I choose to. Such luxury seems 

preposterous—even terrible sometimes.  


I never stop loving it.

(from XXIX)                                                                             



This spring at the pond nearby there were evenings of a thousand red-winged blackbirds. Mornings the sun rises. Evenings it sets. There is rain, wind and snow. Butterflies will come. “Twenty years ago, I’d see Brown Thrashers in my yard,” my father says. “I haven’t seen one in years.” 


How readily we seize reassurance: a few hundred bumblebees

amongst the blossoms of a cherry tree, 

and all seems right with the world. 


Until it doesn’t, of course, when that day fails to come. 

(from LXXVIII)



Though the threads of the yarn are dark, Johnston herself can’t help but hope here and there: 


Such an inadequate thing, apology. The deepest regret is a fistful of 

flowers, picked with great care, that wilt as soon as they are offered. 


Yet the seeds fall to the ground, even so. 

One or two may even take root. 

(from XLIII)  



And here’s another stitch of sudden hope in the amazing tenacity of life: 


Here’s one thing I know: when their world was obliterated by 

eruptions and an asteroid and decades of winter followed, some

dinosaurs did not, in fact, go entirely extinct. 


They evolved into birds. 

(from XCVIII)



Leave it alone—oh please, leave it alone. 

(from XL)


Johnston’s compelling prose and poetry has power, paradox, dilemma, reality, choice, love and tears. She draws you in. She’s dangerous. She makes you pay attention to your own water faucet, your gas usage, your choice and use of vehicle. She makes you look up at the sky for eagles, down at the dirt for life. She makes you want to turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth. Before it’s too late. 


When mailing a manuscript, I am asked the obligatory questions: anything liquid, perishable, fragile or hazardous? I want to say I hope all poetry is at least a tad hazardous. Disclaimer: Her Animals is all four. Liquid prose. Perishable world. Fragile as a hummingbird’s wing. Dangerous to not pay attention. 



This is just to say we have eaten the world that was left and that you were probably hoping to live in. I  am sorry. It was so ravishing, 


The opalescence of a fly. 

The alchemy of a maggot, returning the fallen

to life—and life—and life again: rich and wondrous like dirt. 

Every rustling leaf or swaying grass. Every cell, every cell. 

(from XIX)



K1P1: Word. Image. Precise. Careful. Simple wools. Exquisitely woven. All the way down to the paper choice, luxurious in the hand.  And recycled. 


What we do matters.  E.J.  


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