Combustion by Sara Eliza Johnson is a poem that reflects on the interconnection of everything on earth and the importance of reflecting on the small things. Johnson takes us on a scientific journey through an examination of natural elements at the molecular level in order to capture the essence of how each and everything on earth is related somehow and more importantly that even things that appear simple on the outside are positively livid with energy. Johnson’s use of heavy imagery and continuous alliteration creates a vivid and compelling effect for the reader.
Johnson commences her poem with a brief anatomy lesson; mentioning the number of bones and vertebrae in our body, the number of cells, and furthermore the atoms in our cells. She starts the anatomy lesson with the word if showing us that she is drawing a conclusion from the facts that she had stated. The conclusion that she comes to is that if there are so many, hundreds of trillions of elements to our outwardly simple body then
the lilacs across the yard are nebulae beginning to star.
This verse is beautiful in its significance. Johnson is using imagery to try to do justice to the heavy proposition being made. The world is so much more complex than what we see on the outside. If at the molecular level there is so much going on then the pretty lilacs we see growing outside are not docile organisms waiting to be watered whilst swaying in the wind. They are in reality energy-packed living beings in the fullest sense of the word. Photosynthesizing, growing, using every last resource their bodies can muster to grow more and produce more. Nebulae require tremendous amounts of energy to cause star formation, in fact, a combustion reaction must occur in order for the star to form. This is where the title of the poem could have been derived from. Johnson is trying to drive home the point that every living thing is not docile, but rather so beautiful because of the energy and potential it withholds.
The next line takes an unexpected turn and Johnson uses a simile to liken fruit flies rising off of oranges to the photons rising to create a bomb explosion ‘miles away’. This line is fascinating and the first thing that it shows is that everything is interconnected. There is relatedness to the way a bomb blast explodes and the way fruit flies rise off of oranges, and that relatedness is energy. Once again bringing attention to the notion that all living things are full of energy. The voice in the poem explains that the moment of the bomb explosion, or perhaps the moment of the explosion of energy created when fruit flies exercising a multitude of different mechanisms to lift up into the air, both of which are being drawn to be of equal importance by Johnson, the voice feels as if there are nails suspended in honey. This shows that the voice feels like something so horrific and harmful, something with the potential to do so much damage is rendered harmless and made beautiful and sweet. The explosion of energy is not something harmful because it has been controlled by natural circumstances to be sweet.
An important observation is Johnson’s emphasis on the presence of shadows. The shadows of atoms and echoes being shadows of sound. Johnson could be addressing the shadows of varying elements on earth to once again draw attention to how everything on earth is interconnected. All shadows big or small carry the ability to mix with one another effortlessly. Johnson’s mentioning of shadows could be to remind us that all things really are one and the same.
The next few lines once again focus on explaining the interconnection of everything on earth. Johnson skillfully entwines the loss of hearing that a man experiences due to a bomb blast that he feels with the voice narrating the poem hearing their spouse call them in the house. With this artful connection Johnson shows quite powerfully how, at the end of the day, all sound is simply just particles and atoms being shifted in the air at varying amplitudes and wavelengths. Therefore all sound is connected in one way or the other.
The last few lines go back to the voice observing the lilacs and this time the voice clearly states that it feels static energy, power, rising from the lilacs. Os much energy in fact that it appears the lilacs could disappear at any given moment. The voice ‘licks’ the honey and steps outside feeling like fire. This honey could refer to the honey the voice had spread on the toast earlier. If this meaning is taken then Johnson could be drawing to light how something as simple as licking honey, when examined at the molecular level is so much more advanced. The glucose going into your body, ATP production, chemical and cellular reaction after reaction. Which all ends with the same conclusion; producing energy, which is why the voice may have felt like it was ‘on fire’ another way of saying bursting with energy. However if a more symbolic meaning is taken for the honey, the honey in which the nail was suspended earlier, the n an altogether different conclusion can be taken. ‘I lick the honey’ could mean that the voice dared to taste the sweet way in which energy has been controlled by nature. The voice is attempting to understand and submerging itself into the scientific world in order to understand how so much energy can be tamed by nature. In doing so the voice metaphorically steps outside and sees the light feeling as if it is on fire because it is beginning to understand the trillions of components that make human beings function on a daily basis
Combustion by Sara Eliza Johnson is a poem that describes the way everything on earth is interconnected. Johnson’s poem truly opens your eyes to value even the simple things, because there is so much more going on than meets the eye. Sarah Eliza Johnson has managed to craft a poem that carries both scientific fact and skillful art hand in hand. The mood of the poem is awe and amazement. This is relevant as Johnson is trying to put on paper a tremendous realization. To be able to even begin to fathom the atomic level of our daily activities can humble even the most lively of us.
About Sara Eliza Johnson
Sara Eliza Johnson graduated from Cornell University with a degree in poetry. She has had her work published in many journals and newspapers including:
- Boston Review
- New England Review
- Ninth Letter
- Best New Poets 2009
- Crab Orchard Review
- Tampa Review
- Memorious, Vinyl
- Pleiades, Meridian
- TriQuarterly Online
- Gulf Coast, Salt Hill
- Anthologies Read Women
Her work has also been especially showcased on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and the Academy of American Poets website. Apart from these publications, she has authored a book entitled Bone Map. This book has had the honor of holding the title for the 2013 National Poetry Series. She has received many honors, including a 2009-2010 and 2015-2016 Winter Fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center. She currently instructs online poetry courses in 24 Pearl Street, the Fine Arts Work Center.