“Every November My Father Visited Me” sets—and sustains—a scene of surprisingly tense metaphoricity; while part of its tautness—between, for example, ‘cooking to do’ and ‘skim[ming] the clouds’—is legible, the rest is deeply plaintive and remains out of reach.
‘Starrigavan’ is an absolute dream of place nomenclature, and its high-seas, Viking feel opens an ecstatic space that a less careful poet would certainly have botched with buttresses. Follow Johnson here:
tacked against a bolt of sky
as if winter’s gray needle held them there.
Though I’m not convinced the speaker’s scale really works—I think Johnson compromised any readerly option to imagine what such a ‘needle’ might be by giving it proximity to a tool that ‘tacks’—there is real restraint in her painterly treatment. ‘Strings of darkness gathered, swans our last light’ successfully walks a similar thin line.
When Johnson does begin to bare the feeling at this poem’s core, that turn is marked by taste and delicacy conversant with her previous touches. ‘[O]nly my father and me, our lives trailing out like rope behind a skiff’ includes the vehicle of connection but eyes the single loose anchor that follows; the buoyant element in which this skiff might live isn’t mentioned by the speaker for two more lines.
Do I find the simile connecting the winding drive and the domestic ‘plates passed around a table’ a bit pat? Yes. Yet its entrance, as an image, feels sincere—almost inevitable—and the quickness with which we are returned to the relation between speaker and father is more impressive rein.
This relation, and its ultimate connection to Johnson’s unfolding of scene, is the source of the metaphoricity I termed ‘tense.’ What a wilderness is held suspended here!—man, long wingless, sees himself as ‘un-winged’; ‘evening flutter[s] down’ without the exchange of one word; the hands of father and speaker sit mute and immobile but still close, inferring (again, inevitably) the first gesture of romance and what the predictably romantic cannot hope it achieve in contact.
Johnson is doing impactful work.