This Human Pharmacopoeia: Jim Johnstone’s The Chemical Life

The poems serve to break down proscriptive distinctions between mood-altering substances found naturally in the body, prescription drugs, and a consort of illicit substances. The lyric self, traditionally pictured as an integrated whole capable of navigating, perceiving, and interpreting the world, is revealed in Johnstone’s opening poem as a weak and variable agent dependent on the “magnanimity” of chemical neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. In this fashion, the poems demystify the so-called naturalness of human emotion by showing just how chemically dependent it is.

In “Kindness,” Johnstone directly juxtaposes the language of drug addiction with human sentiment: “Kindness / Been there, done that.” The poem goes on to detail the body’s reaction to chemical stimulus: “I begin to feel my body / equalize as I smoke… synapses dimmed / like gold rings bubbling / in glasses of champagne.” Even on the figurative level, the action of nicotine on brain functioning is visualized in reference to other chemical agents—the popping of champagne bubbles.

Alongside and intersecting with Johnstone’s interest in the chemical underpinnings of personality, mentality, and behaviour, is a searching and unconventional examination of father-son relationships. Unwilling to lionize father figures in the eulogistic style of Carmine Starnino in Leviathan, and equally unwilling to disown paternal inheritance, Johnstone pictures a son confronting the biochemical legacies of his father. In this work, the poet brilliantly employs the geometry of the Vesica Piscis to graphically represent convergent and divergent personality behaviours between son and father. The Vesica Piscis itself is produced when two circles intersect each other, producing a mandorla where the circles overlap. This visual geometry aids readers to parse Johnstone’s rendering of conflicting and congruent traits. For instance, in “As Conducted by Seiji Ozawa,” Johnstone pictures the father “bruising his hand with his fist / as if he were damping a trombone— / in and out with mock innocence, / so like his son, getting it wrong.” Here, exquisitely rendered, is an unsettling moment of recognition that the inclination to self-harm is shared as a hereditary tie.

Similarly, in “New Values” Johnstone shows the father, again like his son, as prey to the migratory vicissitudes of biochemical imbalance. In this instance, hypoglycemic shock buttresses the father’s familial outbursts, for he was:

the kind of parent
who’d set fire to a summer
drive, tell their kids
to get out of the car
and walk.

The running motif of chemical agency stitches together Johnstone’s hallucinatory, disparate collection, allowing him to inhabit an astonishing breadth of subjects, styles, and locales. The book contains elliptically diverse subjects such as Luis Jacob’s urban murals, the surf of Cuba’s Varadero beach, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Toronto’s Saint Tavern, and an elegy for Lincoln Beachey (the formulator of the flight equation). While Johnstone links the voice of his chemically-inflected protagonist to another tragic high flyer, Icarus, one should recognize in Johnstone’s work the hand of Daedalus, the able craftsman and inventor who not only pays witness to human disaster but acknowledges their own culpability.


D.S. Stymeist’s debut collection, The Bone Weir, was shortlisted for the Canadian Author’s Association award for Poetry in 2016. He currently teaches at Carleton University and is the president of Verse Ottawa, which runs VERSeFest, Ottawa’s annual poetry festival.



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