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Jessica Johnson, Mettlework: A Mining Daughter on Making Home, Acre Books, 2024

Reviewed by Mary Ardery

[Review Guidelines]



In January 2020, Jessica Johnson and I met at a poetry workshop in an off-season tourist town on Oregon's coast. It was an intimate gathering, but we were in different workshops and didn't really get to know each other. Then, a few weeks later, the pandemic hit. In retrospect, that workshop became a sort of last hoorah. A brightness juxtaposed against the darkness of lockdown. I followed along virtually with the successes of the writers I'd met there—more so, I think, than I would have had we not descended, directly afterward, into a surreal and global isolation. Four years later, I continue to follow along. Reading Jessica Johnson's Mettlework (Acre Books, 2024), a lyrical and immersive memoir, I now know that even before the pandemic, she was no stranger to isolation.
      Mettlework explores the malleability of motherhood, the earth, and narrative itself. It begins with a succinct prologue aptly titled "Antecedents" in which we receive a high-level overview of the metal mining industry. We are also given the personal context: Johnson's father held various roles as a mining company employee and, always, her "mother's job was to follow." Johnson spent her early childhood years in these remote and primitive mining camps. She writes: "This, I believed, was part of my parents' story but not my own." Then, her own entrance into motherhood initiates a closer look at the ripple effects of her family's transient years making home in these inhospitable landscapes. The memoir mainly oscillates between these two portraits of motherhood: Johnson's mother living on the outskirts of society as a full-time homemaker in the '80s, and then Johnson herself raising a family while pursuing a teaching and writing career in Portland, Oregon.
     I see two desires within the writing that, on the surface, seem to contradict one another. There is the desire to document—to tell what happened from the vantage point of an objective observer. Then there is the desire to make meaning—to alchemize in order to reach a deeper place of understanding. Notions of genre often tell us a book can have one of these desires but not the other. The existence of both is what makes this memoir so compelling. Johnson, with her background as a poet (Metabolics, Acre Books, 2023), is able to hold both truths simultaneously, to write both desires. Her research is thorough and multifaceted, and consequently, the meaning she makes of her experiences—both lived and inherited—is deeply nuanced.
     There is nothing prescriptive about the book. Right away, I sensed that this writing was charting its own path. The chapters vary in elements such as length, style, temporal space, and amount of external research. When I began a new chapter, I wasn't always sure where I was going, but I was always fully present, always drawn in. In this way, the structure and style of the book echoes the experience of Johnson's childhood moving between mining camps. As she poignantly explains: "We had one way of understanding why we were wherever we were: because a mine was there." The book is written as an immersive whole. It demands your presence.
     Existentially, the stakes feel high. There is an urgency, a personal need for Johnson to articulate how her unusual upbringing shaped her. In the mining camps of her childhood, she had no accessible distractions aside from the natural world and her rich internal landscape. It is the necessity of this rich internal landscape—likely borne from isolation—that becomes part of the latent criticism of her parents. During her first pregnancy, she wonders: "What was I supposed to do with this endless need to live in language and the deep well of my own attention?" However, throughout the book, she is also careful to acknowledge that at some point, her own agency kicked in:

And my complaint—about their choices and values and the identities we're still supposed to be playing at—is old, a building standing too long after its context. Its timbers are stained with winters of heavy snow, and its child occupant left it long ago to make choices of her own.

These types of considerations are the crux of the book. Of what we inherit, what do we gladly accept, begrudgingly accept, and what do we altogether refuse? I'm reminded of Mary Oliver's words about her own parents: "It is not lack of love / nor lack of sorrow. / But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry."
      One of the most impressive feats of this book is the astute placement of the personal experience within a broader context. As she analyzes the letters her mother wrote to her own mother from these remote mining camps, Johnson reflects on "wilderness ... as an ambient idea for people of [her] parents' time and place." Johnson, on the other hand, understands wilderness as "a false notion in the aftermath of genocide." Passages like these consistently deepen and complicate our understanding of the characters and their accompanying beliefs and actions. Sometimes, Johnson delves into the history. Other times, a gesture of acknowledgement is enough.
      In the hands of a lesser writer, some of the topics here might have moved out of the realm of literature and into political manifesto. The need for family-friendly work policies. Universal healthcare. Back at work after the birth of her daughter, vying for a tenure-track position, Johnson articulates the harrowing imperative to project the image that "you're interchangeable with the previous version of yourself who didn't have the baby." There is no slowing down: "From my father, I had learned extreme subordination to actually unending kinds of work." There is only the dream of reaching an end that doesn't exist.
      A few years later, when Johnson's husband is hospitalized on and off for months with a hard-to-diagnose complication from an autoimmune illness, she is tenured but still unable to slow down. An occupational therapist relays the information that he won't be able to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk for half a year. In a potent moment of normalized sexism, it does not occur to the therapist how limiting this could be for the parents of two toddlers—for a father to be unable to lift his young children. Johnson writes: "He couldn't see us." There is a claustrophobia to this chapter. A relentlessness. Even with help from their nearby family, the granular details from lived stories like these make you wonder: does it have to be this hard? Do we have to do all of this alone? There's an absurdity to the individuality of the American lifestyle that Mettlework makes explicit. It's no wonder people seek out "wilderness." They've been going it alone all along anyway.
      The one criticism I could imagine someone positing against Mettlework would be that it is a memoir written by a poet, for poets: the lyrical prose, the nonlinear structure, the cerebral reflections. But that would be a falsely narrow view and a disservice to the work. The book's project has a much broader aim and appeal. It is a story of isolation and the quest for human connection. It is a story of family dynamics and gender dynamics—and the awareness it takes to break those patterns, if desired. It is a story of the vast, enmeshed systems that harm us here in the United States and the infinite decisions—tiny, colossal—we must make if we want to untangle and alleviate our oppression. The book's underlying question: how do we best take care of this world?
      Toward the end of the memoir, Johnson refers to her mother as her "first home." It is not a reductive or sentimental metaphor. Indeed, it is not even a metaphor. Her mother as home is a source of comfort and conflict. Our origin stories are never just one thing. And Mettlework goes to great lengths to convey that. There is careful attention to language and resistance against any easy metaphor (for mining, motherhood, and writing itself) that would ring false. The thinking is deep. The words, intentional. The hopes, profound.
      I'll leave you with a passage Johnson wrote in a letter to her young daughter:

If I could pass one thing down to you that I did not myself inherit, it would be things I'm still learning myself: people-keeping instead of housekeeping and a more expansive version of whom you might consider kin, whose concerns you understand as linked to yours.