Angela Veronica Wong’s “Dear Johnny, In Your Last Letter” was selected by the estimable Bib Hicok, as the best of the manuscripts he reviewed for this Poetry Society of America chapbooks competition. As Hicok puts it in his introduction, “This is the book I couldn’t say no to.
“These are,” Hicok continues, “the poems I thought of unbidden while vacuuming or petting a dog or walking through Montreal.”
It is not difficult to grasp Bob’s point or to share his enthusiasm.
Ms. Wong’s manuscript is very cleverly organized around an epistolary conceit. She quotes an account of the so-called “dear John” letter that GIs dreaded receiving during World War II. The “dear John” letter, written by the soldier’s wife or girlfriend, announced that she had found and become involved with someone else and that therefore a divorce or just a goodbye was in order.
What Ms. Wong does in her poems is turn the conceit upside down and address her poems to a “Johnny” who may or may not exist but with whom the poet has a real or theoretical relationship of immense complexity and depth that can give rise to outbursts of lyrical intensity or raw emotion spiked with the humor that comes as a byproduct of candor.
The first in “dear Johnny” series characteristically begins, “I would have sent you this text: new bikini wax and not wearing underwear. But I don’t have your number.”
The letters, some in prose, some in verse, do what love letters should do: conduct a courtship, woo a lover, express longing, review the past, anticipate what is to come. The poems are full of arresting disclosures. For example, “Today I went to the Cloisters and was turned on by the headless torso of Jesus.” Or, “I self-medicate / by purchasing vacation / deals online.” Or, “I can’t stop wanting / our children to grow / into beautiful birds, but / we women are inventive / and full of hope -- / drafting love letters / while hiding morphine / in curled hair.”
Veronica’s poems are as singular as an ”untwinned earring,” as intimate as “sand / in my belly button,” and as sexy as the list poem in which the lover’s body is identified as a hand grenade, an anchor, a ship, a polite explosion, [an] immigrant, a thousand-dollar bill, the international date line, foreign soil, and western medicine.” Johnny is one lucky dude.
Bob Hickok, in his introduction, notes that the book with the assertion that “an empty bed is a terrible weapon.” These, he adds, are “words [he himself] never would have written, and words [he’ll] never forget.” I feel the same way and would add that not since Joe Wenderoth’s celebrated Letters to Wendy’s have I encountered a collection of epistolary poems as savvy and lively and jubilant as those in Dear Johnny.
To find out more about the awards and recipients, visit the PSA website.