Beginning with ‘core’, Neutron Star by Kevin Charles Johnson II, focuses on identity, family, love and legacy. Johnson grounds his identity in his blackness and in the power of his spoken and written word. ‘Birthday’ is fantastically honest and shares with the reader who Johnson is. It is also a hallmark piece, showcasing the poet’s rhythmic, spoken style which characterises all of the pieces in this collection. ‘Increments’ reflects wonderfully on the writing process – how it makes and breaks us whilst ‘Conqueror’ is a powerful use of metaphor, superbly challenging society’s desire to marginalise communities: “if there’s life in the voice i’ve received / then i’ve made a way to revive the tides like moon / and inspire people that end and rescind like water”.
The personal beginning is extended in ‘density’ as Johnson writes about familial relationships and for his relatives. The tributes to his mother and brother are beautiful and ‘Domonique’ is haunting in both its love and grief.
“drowning isn’t in the fabric of black boys
black moms reach hands like
lifeboats into the hearts of their sons” [The Core of a Son]
To build upon poems like ‘The Core of a Son’, ‘star death’ moves swiftly and unapologetically into poems focused on the black empowerment and his fight for social justice. ‘Tracks’ is a stark reminder of how much has been built by enslaved people: “creating has always been our life blood / ask who really built this nation”. ‘Motives’ gave me goosebumps and awakened within me the fight Johnson claims so powerfully. His words push for the intersectionality we must embrace; our fight for black lives cannot be conditional. Finally, ‘Black Margins’ in this section should be required reading. Johnson himself calls it a poetic lesson and I am inclined to agree. At no point do these words shy away from reality and the truth.
Here, the collection shifts slightly as ‘aurora’ begins and Johnson ruminates upon love – both given and unrequited. ‘Boys my Age’ is a superb indictment of toxic masculinity, illustrating what it really means to be a man in love. ‘Mausoleum’ showcases yet again Johnson’s control of extended metaphor and ‘Soulmates’ and ‘Nova’ were simply beautiful pieces.
“you use your bones as matchsticks
desperate to feel like
you did when you held stars in your jaws
and your smile never set in the west” [Nova]
Finally, Neutron Star draws to a close with phenomenal pieces reflecting on the modern world and current affairs in ‘spectrum’. ‘Visions of Another World’ was perhaps my favourite piece of the entire collection, employing opposites to reveal reality beneath a harsh light. These truths are developed intelligently in ‘Misguided Lead’ and then in the final section, ‘12 days in august’. Both ‘8/1’ and ‘8/11’ were poignant, powerful and gorgeously evocative pieces, demonstrating the masterful structure of Neutron Star as a whole. Johnson never loses sight of his legacy and every piece from beginning to end contributes to his final message in ‘Not a Poem’ that our power rests in what we leave behind: “you are in control of your place among the stars”.