Book Review: ‘Memento Vivere’ by Laura Johnson

In Memento Vivere (Cabin Bear Books), a tiny volume of rebellion against death, Cedar Rapids poet Laura Johnson creates a still life of delights and damages reminding both herself and the reader: Remember you must live. (For those missing the reference, “memento mori” is a commonly used phrase meaning “remember you must die.”)

In the introductory poem, Johnson introduces us to her dying father. “He is thinking of immigrating: a final, / permanent move, according to / Mother. But Dad and I know / his step over will be a first move / into a new kingdom.” She follows this poem — full of feathers, flight and ailing birds — with a short calendar of fragments, seeming to tell its readers that any moment can be a sign of life.

While the repeated imagery of birds, feathers, eggs and flight often appear to be literal vignettes from real life, they also serve as anchoring metaphors between the difficulties of grief both personal and abstract. The book makes several references to 2020, COVID-19 and isolation, as in the poem “Two Thousand and Twenty, Anno Domini”: “These days offer little cosseting. / We search for health and hope– / a scavenger hunt we did not want. / Today, I startle, greeted by a fluttering of parental wings, / in the nest, a small clutch of eggs.”

Journeying through Memento Vivere with 2020 in mind is a helpful compass. We can see the narrator slowing down (“no longer a luxury but an imperative,” she writes in “Two Thousand and Twenty”), questioning priorities and observing the domestic anew. Some texts of reflection and documentation covering 2020 have been hard to read, leaving the reader feeling hopeless and reliving their own traumas. Memento Vivere is full of hope and awe, revolving around reflection, always erring on the side of stoic, as in “Tornado Warning”: “Rebuilding felt easier now / that trust had fled and left us, / leaving no reparations.”

I want to pair this collection with a cheap wine, something that hurts to swallow but leaves you warm. There’s a slow creep to the sadness weathered by the narrator. Everything comes out soft and hopeful, but we can see Johnson training to speak in silver linings. My favorite poem, “Half Life” (the last in the book), puts words to this in-between place with these phrases, “The house: half decorated,” “Poems shiver half-naked,” “I find myself half-orphaned,” “White mug: half-empty” as the author sits “half-hearted” to “try / to write warmth into being.”

Memento Vivere is a eulogy for 2020. So much of its composition is built as epitaphs trying to notice how beautiful the scenery is. Johnson claims, in “Autumn’s Benediction”, “No secrets are revealed / this autumn morning and I am an / observer to these magic majesties / as countryside transforms.” If Johnson is bearing witness to this year, she is also our guide through making meaning of our shared hardship, reminding us to live.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 303.