Book Bag: ‘Plunge’ by Terry S. Johnson; ‘In Memory of Susan Freedom’ by Bob Drinkwater

Published: 2/14/2020 8:49:41 AM

By Steve Pfarrer


By Terry S. Johnson

Off the Common Books

A former teacher at Mark’s Meadow Elementary School in Amherst, and at one time an aspiring classical musician who studied piano and harpsichord, Terry S. Johnson has been following a different path over the past 15-odd years: earning an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, helping start the Straw Dog Writers Guild of Western Massachusetts and writing poetry.

Johnson, of Amherst, released her first poetry collection, “Coalescence,” in 2014 and has had her work published in journals such as the Berkshire Review. Now she’s released a second collection, “Plunge,” which begins with a poem of the same name, recalling how her father, a fighter pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II, was shot down over northern Italy in early 1945.

“Bullets strafe his P-47 / as stuttering pistons bleed / a firestorm, downward spiral / a physicist would admire / yet my father always hated math. / Panic-racked / his canopy jammed / life be damned! / How many seconds left / to pull the cord?”

Her father, Wilbur H. Johnson, did manage to parachute to safety and was quickly found by Italian partisans, who dressed him in rough peasant clothes and spirited him into hiding: “The Germans, tedeschi, are / everywhere.”

In her collection, published by Off the Common Books in Amherst, Johnson uses that dramatic opening to tell a story of wartime hardship, personal and family history and the connections between different generations. As a younger woman, Johnson would travel to Italy and build lasting friendships with the Italian families who hid her father from the Nazis. (He was captured in March 1945 and spent about a month and a half in a German POW camp before being liberated in late April, shortly before the war ended.)

Johnson uses a number of poetic forms, including free verse and prose poetry, to tell the whole story, such as the first time she met Sylvio, an Italian man who had helped hide her father. It’s 1977, and Sylvio is now in his late seventies: “I am surprised he is so little, / this man of quiet strength, this man who risked his family / for my future. // Tears, laughter, interviews / from Brescia’s big city newspapers. / Sylvio proud to see his picture / on the front page, a celebrity.”

There are profiles of other Italians in this extended family, such as Clara (“She commands the ship of her family / from the galley kitchen”), Pier Emilio (“He first learned English as a POW, / a seaman captured off the North African / coast”), and Signora Nora, and elderly woman who hunts only the best wild herbs and spices for making her meals but during the war “could not be / so particular. Even a family’s cats / were consumed, their lean meat / a faint reminder of rabbit.”

And Johnson circles back to write about her father as a post-war businessman living in the suburbs of New York City; as he nears the end of his life, she writes “I imagine him flying // released from the guilt / of bombing anything, / of killing anyone.”

“Think of this book as a family photo album, in which both the sepia images of the poet’s father — war hero, pilot, POW — and the Polaroids depicting the poet’s own youth, speak to one another across time,” writes one reviewer. “Plunge honors the past with vigor, invention, and a big-hearted generosity of spirit.”


By Bob Drinkwater

Levellers Press

Bob Drinkwater, an historical archaeologist with a masters in anthropology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has spent decades studying and photographing 18th- and early 19th-century gravestones in western Massachusetts. For “In Memory of Susan Freedom,” published by Levellers Press of Amherst, Drinkwater has concentrated on old gravestones of African Americans in the region to try to discover their stories.

“Several years ago, I began to realize that in most New England burying grounds … Africans and African Americans are an invisible, seldom discussed presence,” Drinkwater writes in his book’s introduction. Using a variety of sources, Drinkwater researched African-American history in the region, including the Colonial era, when most blacks in New England were enslaved, and visited cemeteries in Northampton, Amherst, Deerfield, Springfield, Great Barrington and several other towns.

The Susan Freedom of the book’s title was buried in the Pine Street Section of the Springfield Cemetery in that city in 1803 at the age of 19 and was likely born into a life of slavery, Drinkwater writes, given the epitaph on her gravestone: “Tho’ short her life, and humble her station, she faithfully performed all the duties of it.”

His book comes with dozens of black and white photographs of gravestones and background information on many of the African Americans buried in these plots.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

There will be a book launch for “In Memory of Susan Freedom” on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Florence Civic Center.


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