A Review and Excerpt
from the
Award-winning Chapbook




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Winner of the Military Society of America's Award of Excellence and named to the
Compulsive Reader's Ten Best Reads of 2005

A Review of Tracings

 Reviewed by Judith Woolcock Colombo
Originally published in The Gleaner, New York and Puerto Rico

We live in a Technicolor world. We use color to illustrate our moods. Blacks, grays, and browns, show that we are sober and reflective, oranges, yellows, and reds emphasize our joy and passion, greens and blues calm and sooth. As children many of us loved to throw gobs of paint on paper, on each other, or on the walls. It didn’t matter. Color was magical like the Land of Oz or the deep dark woods of Babes in Toyland. As adults color mesmerizes and entices us. We categorize the different types of love by their color, the red of passion, the white of pure love, and the fashion experts tell us what color to wear or paint our walls. Color permeates our world and fires our imagination. 

In Tracings, Howard-Johnson bathes you in color. From the beginning of her chapbook, she assails the reader with rich vibrant imagery. “Minute by mango colored minute the sky changes, high clouds whipped like meringue by astral winds,…”  Reading Tracings is akin to sitting with the poet as she flips through the pages of an album filled with vivid photographs. As you look at the photographs, the poet narrates her life story, stopping occasionally to emphasize a particular point or to engage you in a philosophical discussion on life in general.

Howard-Johnson’s poems speak often of her heritage, her childhood home, and community which she carries within her heart.  In "This Place My Heart Lies," the poet reflects on hurtful words spoken by her mother-in-law, words that cast her as an outsider. She searches for self as she travels the country and world in a way her own mother never thought she would. “…….his voice a song finer than Foster or B’rer Rabbit fables read to me by mother who never thought I’d see a black man or the night sky as Hapshutset saw it, a cloak of burned velvet enfolds galaxies, a Bedouin’s bonfire spits embers into its depth…” But as the poet travels her heart stays behind in the place she claims as home.  "In Everywhere My Dream,"   she speaks again of leaving home to follow her dream and the sense of both loss and fulfillment this evoked. She also compares her mother’s bitterness because she stayed behind to her own sense of loss because she went away. “She a bitter seed now because she stayed, I so lost because I went away.”

 The author paints the pages of this book with her memories of childhood. She speaks of her first remembered sound, air raid sirens, startling her where she sat in her father’s lap, and her first experience with loss as her father and later her uncle go off to war and leave her behind She remembers that her father smelled “of gabardine and good-byes” and she remembers the smell of her uncle’s Barbasol  shaving cream as he leaves to fly B 42’s.

 The poems although recounting the story of one woman’s life are varied and rich, evoking images we all can relate to. In Portraits and Poses, she states, “Some photos are best destroyed,” a sentiment many of us share, but she also expresses the reluctance we feel in destroying something that represents a memory even if it “cuts too deep.”

 The poet ends as she begins, reminiscing on the richness of life with both its joys and sorrows.  She remembers with love her aunt who is dying and who she says, “..is too alive to die….” She reflects on this loss and recounts her mother’s wish not to outlive her child. In the poem The War Museum at Oslo,   Howard-Johnson speaks again of the brutality of war and how as a child she really never understood what it meant when her father went to war, but now as a grandmother she reflects on what it means to her as she watches her grandson go off to fight. “I leave the dark halls, history encased, to sit outside fortress walls, put my head between my knees. …. Once I was a child who did not have to say goodbye, now a grandmother who must pay the price. My grandson heads for heat and oil and sand. “ 

 While reading Tracings, I didn’t have a favorite as I sometimes do when I read a collection of poems or stories. Instead I fell in love with the language as a whole. “Night comes. Like Van Gogh, flames smear vermilion on indigo. Smoke blots stars, heat breathes on my nape.” These are words to wrap your tongue around and savor. They are words that linger in your mind long after the poem is read and the book closed.

Copyright 2005 by Carolyn Howard-Johnson                       Price: $12.00                                           Publisher: Finishing Line Books

An Excerpt from Tracings

Earliest Remembered Sound

All the sound in the world sucked
to a wavering, wailing note
I perch on my father’s knee,
afraid, look through our window
Utah’s lights snuff, quickly, quickly,
silver sequins turn dark
until the skyline disappears
against deep velvet. There,
among our overstuffed chairs
doilies protect fat rolled arms.
The siren whines to silence.

What could that have been?

Oh, nothing, an air raid
my mother answers
as if her words were lyrics
she wanted to forget.
Would the lights return
charged with that sound that split
my father’s hand from mine.

Father wears a cunt cap, grosgrain ribbons
across his heart; smells of gabardine
and good-byes. His eyelids twitch
Mother, once again, says

Oh, probably nothing at all.


Poems from Tracings Published Elsewhere

"Poetry be Damned": The Journal of The Image Warehouse (Print)                           

 "Perfectly Flawed": The Journal of The Image Warehouse (Print)                                   

"Faith in LA": Published by Re)verb, Cricket Lee, Editor, June 2004                 

 "Deciphering Earliest Remembered Sound": Apollos Lyre May 2004

For more of Carolyn's poetry including a Valentine's chapbook of unconventional love poetry click here

Photo by Leora Krygier, author and photographer.

Sona Ovasapyan, Rita Gabrielyan, Carolyn Howard-Johnson,
Christine Alexanians (l. to r.) show off their certificates of recognition
from Paul Kirakosian, California State Legislature. 
The poetry-centered event was sponsored by the Glendale Central Library.

Carolyn sending you her unsyrupy brand
of love in a
Valentine's chapbook.

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