Aid and Comfort: Poems

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Language itself is the focal point of fiction writer Johnson's first collection of poetry: the words family and doctors don't say to those who are dying; the friend who wants to go out with a good exit line; even a brilliant poem about a heterosexual man hearing the words safe sex for the first time. In the lyrical and sensitive poems that fill the book's first half, AIDS is a "clever acronym that denies / just what it spells." In the second half, the speaker seems to withdraw slightly from emotions that threaten to overwhelm him and recalls that AIDS is not the only cause of death. Rhyme, used sparingly but perfectly in the first section, becomes a bit more intrusive. These poems--about literary figures (Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf), strangers viewed in a crowd or read about in newspapers, the wrinkles on one's face that are "little deaths"--lose some of their potency but none of their integrity. This is, after all, the same poet who, in the book's second poem, shows someone visiting a dying man he was never really close to. The book's overall power rivals that of Paul Monette's recent poems.