What is the deep web? A locked door. A tool for oppression and for revolution. “An emptying drain, driven by gravity.” And in Patrick Johnson’s Gatekeeper—selected by Khaled Mattawa as the winner of the 2019 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry—it is the place where connection is darkly transfigured by distance and power.
So we learn as Johnson’s speaker descends into his inferno, his Virgil a hacker for whom “nothing to stop him is reason enough to keep going,” his Beatrice the elusive Anon, another faceless user of the deep web. Here is unnameable horror—human trafficking, hitmen, terrorism recruitment. And here, too, is the lure of the beloved. But gone are the orderly circles of hell. Instead, Johnson’s map of the deep web is recursive and interrogatory, drawing inspiration and forms from the natural world and from science, as his speaker attempts to find a stable grasp on the complexities of this exhilarating and frightening digital world.
Spooky and spare, Gatekeeper is a striking debut collection and a suspenseful odyssey for these troubled times.