[Acre Books; 2024]

Where does one’s self end and the spaces in which we mark our days and the people we fill our lives with begin? Mettlework: a Mining Daughter on Making Home by poet Jessica E. Johnson returns again and again to the term selvedge. It’s a word that perfectly encapsulates the obsessions of this book, as its author circles themes of home, motherhood, memory, the act of making—babies, books, gardens—and how a woman’s identity can be both trapped and expanded by these elements. They first define selvedge as “the plane that marks the difference between metal and nonmetal . . . a word for the divide created by the nature of a thing itself: the self edge.” Johnson’s father worked for both large and small mining companies over the years as an engineer, among other jobs; their mother’s job was “to follow.” Growing up in the wilderness, their “adventurous” parents moving them from mine to mine, Johnson’s language—the way they narrate their story, the metaphors and descriptions used—come from their knowledge of geography and mines, the earth’s shapes and contours, what it can give and what we take from it.

The book is broken up into four main sections and an epilogue, moving through time and space in a logical pattern, but one that relies on theme and schema, the way one memory might lead us to another, sometimes chronologically unrelated, but connected by emotion or scene. Within these sections, the reader moves through two threads, one tracing Johnson’s adult search for the right home for their family in Portland, filled with the right kind of life, and the other detailing their mother’s letters and polaroids and memories, tracking the family’s moves from Alaska’s backcountry to Colorado to Oregon to Idaho. In these places, Johnson’s family lived in small remote towns aptly named Leadville, Slick Rock, and Granite. The descriptions of life there display the same kind of dissonance that shows up throughout much of the book in the many ways we search for home: the promise and “possibility of a wild and free good life amid and in search of elements,” yet an isolated one, in which all of the domestic labor falls to the woman of the house.

Before reading this book, what I knew about mining had come mostly from television shows like Justified and Poldark. There’s an awareness in these shows of the lengths that humans will go to for survival, often for wealth, to find metal deep inside the earth. Johnson explores this idea more thoroughly, questioning a process that requires such a plundering of the earth’s resources, not to mention the mental and physical resources sacrificed by the poorly paid workers who do the brunt of the work. This life and industry demands “the removal of so much for so little.” And what all of it amounts to is “a slightly shining strand” of gold or silver or copper, a kind of wealth that you can take with you in your pocket. Johnson calls the story of their early life one “for profit, not for care.” Their mother works so hard to make a home, one of “care,” but it’s almost impossible in the wildernesses in which they live.  

Though Johnson questions this endless capacity to want more from the spaces around us, when they first move to Portland with their partner to create a home together, they acknowledge that their “thoughts about any place started with what [they] could gain from it.” So much within these pages concerns the relationship between self and place, and between place and environment, what we do to it and take from it. Even children have this need to seek and find and take: Johnson’s kids’ favorite video game is one in which they “tunnel obsessively into virtual mine shafts in search of material they can trade or use to build strange homes under the earth.”

It is in Johnson’s own story of making a home and becoming a mother that this book comes truly alive. There’s a vitality in these sections, reminiscent of the way they compare the remove in their mother’s letters—which convey an active sense of recording memories how she wants to remember them—and the immediacy of the text messages Johnson sends to their poet-mom text group, and to others in the midst of daily chaos, filled with wtf and omg. Johnson does a lot of introspection here, too, acknowledging the ways in which their life resembles that of their parents, even though they’ve turned away from the endless moves of the mining life for a more stable existence. When looking for a new house once the children come along, Johnson and their husband see their future identities inescapably tied to the home they seek, through the people they might become in their new neighborhood, “in the land of resources.”

Home, though, for all its connection to place seems just as connected to what we do there as where it is. What matters as much (or more?) than the place itself is what you make inside of it. In new motherhood, Johnson begins to lose their sense of self, showing the ways in which their experience mirrors their mother’s attempts to survive with young children in the wild. In addition to the pressures of actually caring for children and working a tenure-track teaching job, there is immense pressure to make their home one where “creativity, connection, gathering,” and “abundance” can thrive. But how can any of these take place when the very bodies required to do the work of making the home are sick—the husband, Kevin, with lupus, and Johnson with pneumonia? During these stressful times, Johnson is stretched thin and barely surviving. In this section of the book, the title becomes clear. Living with a baby and a toddler in uninhabited Slick Rock or Leadville requires a certain kind of “mettle” and “work,” but so does making any good home. Luckily, Johnson has what their mother did not: access to extended family to help out when they really need it. What they also have, and rely on, is their writing practice.

In one scene in the book, in the midst of familial turmoil on Christmas Eve, Johnson waits with their two toddlers, in a hospital basement for their husband’s prescription. He’s just had numerous hospital stays because of infections caused by lupus, and he needs this medication as soon as possible. After twenty minutes of waiting, Johnson begins to cry, then describes their situation in a text to the poet-mom group they belong to. It is in this act that solace finally comes in the form of words from the other moms: “pinging instantly, threaded with welcome absurdity (one wishing herself into the hallway so that she could take a vindictive shit in the fake plant’s pot).” Johnson writes, “Having simply written where I was, I started to exist again in one moment and one place, started dropping into character.”

In many ways, the ability to write about their experiences is partially how they make their memories from them, how they decide what’s important and what to keep. Their mother had letters, and Johnson has poems. The last section of the book includes a letter from the author to their daughter, Clementine, whose child-self brightens up the pages like the fruit she’s named after, along with Johnson’s youngest, Paul. He has one of the great lines in the book, telling his mom, “You’re going to have to help me get this place out of my mind,” when they take a drive to Granite, Oregon to check out Johnson’s childhood home there.

The letter begins, as Johnson’s writing often does, with a description of place, describing to their daughter the cedars and the maples yet to leaf and a “blue distant hill” which they can see as they write. They then come to an essential realization: they too are a “place,” like their mother was for them, and still is. In this letter to Clementine, Johnson includes part of a letter from their own mother, and in closing, writes, “The fact that she wrote her life at all, allows me to see her story through the lens of my own time, to pick up and consider the artifacts of her life. I can choose what to revise or carry forward, as you will too.”

It’s a great ending to a story still being written. Though writing teachers, as Johnson states, like to compare writing to mining one’s experiences, they make an important distinction: “What I find here, I’m not taking.”

Amber Wheeler Bacon is a writer and teacher whose work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Ecotone, Epiphany, Five Points, Prairie Schooner and Witness. You can find her writing online at Ploughshares and CRAFT. She’s the recipient of the 2018 Breakout Writers Prize sponsored by The Author’s Guild and a 2021 Bread Loaf scholarship. She received the 2022 Lit/South Award for flash fiction and a 2023 Prairie Schooner Award. Amber has an MFA from Bennington College and teaches English at Coastal Carolina University.

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