The first half of Johnson's book (his second, I think) is titled "The Walk Around," and it revolves around the personalities and practices of black vaudeville. Bert Williams, Butterfly McQueen, Pigmeat Markham, Lincoln Perry ("Stepin Fetchit"), the Blackbirds. Though not dramatic monologues, the poems tend to inhabit the performer's perspective, mining the ironies of performing blackness in that era. The performers are conscious of their gifts, confident in their talent, but also up against a hard bar of what audiences would and would not accept from an African American artist. They made a living, it beat breaking rock, and they could occasionally give the audience a glimpse of something else...but they had to work in a pretty tight box.
Since I bought the book at a reading, and the reading was on a college campus, and this campus poetry reading (like most) had a very nearly 100% white audience, I found myself speculating whether Johnson was drawn to this project because he, too, has his own box of "performing blackness" to negotiate. He has a good gig in an MFA program,. his book has been published by one of our stronger small presses (Tupelo)...he's in an enviable situation, in a lot of ways...but one wonders, especially after reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen, whether his box feels a little cramped once in a while.
For example, the second half of the book ("The Olio," another vaudeville term, for an encore set) contains a series of poems about a trip in Europe. They are really good. But had Johnson been trying to sell a volume of poems based on a trip to Europe rather than one based on black vaudeville, would that have been...harder? Would he have to field hints about his Responsibility to the Street or the People or something of the sort?
There is a funny poem by Tony Hoagland ("Write Whiter") that imagines a white writer having to address the kind of expectations African American writers live with: "I know some readers need to see their lives reflected from the page-- / It lets them know they aren't alone." It wouldn't always seem funny, though, I'm sure, to have to live out one's career with those expectations. Judging from his deportment at the reading, Johnson handles it with the same grace and dry irony he lends to his vaudeville performers. Only once in a while do you almost think you hear anger:
And if you wanna go exoskeletal,
Or get all "the cranium's vault,"
Or how the crest is swaybacked
And primitive--well, when push
Comes to shove, I can get
Downright Aeolian on you, son.