Thursday, August 07, 2003
Ronald Johnson's final work The Shrubberies is a text of exceptional concision very much in the vein of Louis Zukofsky's parallel text 80 Flowers. One could make a convincing case for Johnson as a major poet on this volume alone, were it not for all the other wonderful works he has left us.
The central pleasure in reading The Shrubberies comes from watching a master of condensare at the height of his powers:
Simple as this seems, this poem hinges on the move from the single syllable words of the first five lines to the tactile transformation of “prickle.” Thus it would have been a completely different poem — and very much a lesser one — to have put “of” on its own line, whereas here, as the first of three soft syllables, it lends the poem's last line exactly the flourish it needs.
Similarly, “Two Seasons,” one of the relatively few poems to have a title, is a marvel of the sensuousness of language, the tone leading of vowels in consort with the physicality of consonants:
cardinal and bluejay
interloping same bush
in goldened shower
wren wrench song
on risen bough
after recent rain
There is almost no occasion in which the hand-crafted descriptor “goldened” is going to sound anything less than silly, but Johnson has found the perfect instance here. And The Shrubberies is filled with such occasions.
Johnson was exceptionally fortunate to have discovered Peter O'Leary, now his literary executor, and whose work here as editor has given us the most sustained volume Johnson would ever produce. Would that Robert Duncan or even Zukofsky shared such fortune.
is remarkably straightforward in its account of the editing. Johnson explicitly
instructed O'Leary to “prune the shrubs” of a “great shaggy manuscript,”
and prune he has. The result, to follow this analogy out, is closer to the
topiary of the
Johnson, according to Leary, appears to have considered two schemes for the organization of the volume, one a record of the seasons, the other a characteristically Johnsonian tour of an imagined ideal garden. Yet there are poems here —
on the screen
the primal scene
a scream of out
— that absolutely fall outside of either strategy. To
complicate matters, Johnson himself never settled on a final strategy and
appears to have been inconsistent in his marginal notations regarding placement
of individual poems. All of this is, however, completely consistent with the
Ronald Johnson I knew in
beyond, a Province of wheat
and streams to grind the grain
fields framed by scarlet poppies
and bluest bachelor-buttons
and borderline to the stars
I want to
strike that final “and” with the
thickest red pen I have as well as to question the en
dash in the penultimate line. Also I would strike that upper-case P. And it all makes me wonder — if this poem gets into
the final selection of 124 pieces, what exactly did O'Leary leave out?
And that, I think, will be the final drama of this work, the simple knowledge that there exist perhaps 175 additional poems not included here. I would not be surprised to see a cottage industry of sorts spring up to get some or all of these works out into journals & webzines over the next few years. Perhaps someday FSG books will decide to issue the Complete Poems of a good poet (or Flood Editions, which has become the most responsible publisher for all things Projectivist [which is how you might describe Johnson were he not so visibly influenced by Zukofsky], or perhaps even Talisman House) will issue the Complete Ronald Johnson, and thus will give us the “great shaggy manuscript.” Until then, this diamond hard concentration will represent the final sweep of one of the great lives of poetry of our time.