Guest Review: Clifford Garstang

hannahandthemtn.jpgHannah and the Mountain
Jonathan Johnson
University of Nebraska Press, 2005
224 pp.

In poet Jonathan Johnson’s lyrical memoir, subtitled “Notes Toward a Wilderness Fatherhood,” every day presents a new challenge: the Idaho snowmelt trickling ominously under the cabin he and his wife, Amy, have built; surviving on Johnson’s meager writing grant, without glass in the window-frames, insulation, electricity or running water. But the challenges, both physical and financial, truly begin when a pregnancy test confirms what Amy already suspects.

Johnson’s richly-observed descriptions of the land–snow-covered mountains, pine and fir trees, the raging river that severs access to the nearest road–prove his vital connection to his surroundings. He is convinced that Baby Hannah was conceived in a nearby field, under the rising moon, and her origin makes Johnson’s ties to the wilderness indissoluble. He prepares for her arrival in this landscape, gradually smoothing the cabin’s rough edges, as his anticipation of fatherhood builds.

Amy’s difficult pregnancy confines her to bed, further stretching the couple’s financial bind and heightening Johnson’s anxiety. He wonders if he has endangered their baby by imposing his backcountry dream on Amy. Did their fragile finances force Amy to work longer than was wise? He is a man under a mountain of worry, but at the bottom of that worry is his love for the baby.

To ward off the snowmelt threatening their cabin’s foundation, Johnson digs a diversionary trench. “The trick to diverting water, I discovered, is just to give it the idea of a new course, to get a little rivulet started where you want it all to eventually go and let time do most of the work for you.” It is a lesson he applies to his own life and his journey toward fatherhood. “I thought of the day, not of any specific thing I did, but of the day itself, how it had moved forward and how I had found its flow. I was crossing new ground, carving a new channel, and this was only one day.” He knows he is not completely powerless. He can divert the stream; he and Amy could have made other choices. But all he can do now is wait for time to determine where his life will lead.

Although the memoir is a deeper exploration of home-building and grief, Johnson has visited this landscape before, in his book of poems, Mastodon, 80% Complete (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2001). In “Domestic” he writes, “The forest/ keeps us, two creatures scouting on instinct/ the edgeless territory of home.” In the memoir, in the early days of Amy’s pregnancy, Johnson visits the cabin’s closest restaurant, The View Cafe, in order to escape his worries over the water flowing under the cabin. From his table he sees, “Across the lake, pine and fir climb the backs of a couple low mountains.” It is beautiful country, but harsh. He doesn’t know what to say to the waitress who recently lost her husband. The same view across the lake appears in the poem, “The View Cafe” as well as the same resilient waitress: “The head waitress’ husband is/ six days into his suicide./ Everywhere, in here, prayers multiply like silverware/ tossed in a plastic bin.” Johnson admits that he is frightened by grief but, he says, “the longer we are here, the more I am beginning to realize that to belong someplace you have to suffer some of its losses. You have to mourn a little with your neighbors. You have to invest yourself in an environment that, like any environment, is constantly threatened and eroding. There is no other way home.”

Ultimately, that’s what this sorrowful memoir is about: Johnson and his wife learn to mourn with their neighbors, and fashion a home and a future together on the mountain.

Clifford Garstang lives near Staunton, Virginia and occasionally blogs at Perpetual Folly. His work has appeared in Bellowing Ark, Eureka Literary Magazine, and North Dakota Quarterly, and is forthcoming in Baltimore Review and Shenandoah.


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