Wednesday, December 15, 2004




If all you knew about Devin Johnston as a poet was that he was involved in the publication of Flood Editions, you would expect that his poetry would show extraordinary care, a total awareness of what other new poets are doing, and a certain fondness for a certain side of the New American poetry, that vein which leads through Robert Duncan & Ronald Johnson and more recently via the likes of John Taggart & Tom Pickard. You would not be wrong.


Along the way, Johnston wrote – and published via Wesleyan – what I take to have been his dissertation, the only really credible look we have at poetry & the occult, Precipitations. Johnston is currently, or so sayeth his website at St. Louis University, working on a new book of essays on birds, pastoralism, and poverty in modern poetry.

None of which really prepares you for the poetry. Johnston may just be the poet most deeply committed to the idea of repose, stillness & subtlety in American poetry since Tom Meyer. Dig:


In an Orchard


Shades of Gram

somatic code


I sense some strain

of you in what


I am – or did

in turning down


a cell path

choked with vines


from a relict rose

or metal vetch




of what I own

to what I owe


the shadow of

a seed unfurled


I was a wolf

and not a lamb


as your thoughts

turned to mine


ensconced in pulp

I found you


hard but not


so difficult

to understand


This poem, from Aversions, his new book from Omnidawn, just floors me. What convinces me first is the knowledge that I would go to enormous, irrational lengths to be able to pen a line as compact & lush in the same moment as ensconced in pulp. Poetry literally doesn’t get any better. Yet there is so much more going on in this poem. For example, a less attentive poet would have composed it entirely in couplets whereas Johnston has understand exactly where – and how – to regulate the pace of the text by having a text that goes 5-1-5-1-1 in which both of the fives & that final one represent couplets. The line impediments refers as much to the linguistic gaudiness of such word choices as relict & vetch as to the problem of clogged paths. Similarly, Johnston sets up the four syllable line – present in five of the first six lines – just so that he can later vary it to audible effect. This is a complicated remarkably dense love poem – there’s some erotic stalking going on – much more so than is immediately apparent to a reader’s eye reacting to the spareness of these lines.


Not every poem in Aversions is this successful, tho one could say the same of almost any book of poems. However, more of this book reaches this high degree of torque, at least to my ear, than Johnston’s earlier Telepathy, published by Paper Bark Press in Australia. Telepathy may actually take more risks – it shows a broader range formally – than Aversions, but Johnston is a poet who is at his best when he stays closest to a core sense of the poem as language infinitely focused. In a way, I think Johnston understands that the risk of quietness is not noise, but muddle. He plays with that in a poem late in the earlier book, “Insinuations”:


Some call it base

to cocker lust –


as starlings flock


or skirr


for cockling crust


and pithless hull –


some call it base;


their line’s a hedge

for quiet & division.


Where every hinge

brings its own contagion.


But when we talk –

of what I don’t recall


dans sa presque

disparition vibratoire –


it’s like the moon.

Or fallen seeds.


Or swarms of bees.

Or helium.


A trembling horizon

of elocution.


Wry wit indeed & wise is the writer who knows himself half this well. Johnston actually has a new chapbook, newer even than Aversions, entitled Looking Out, printed as a fine press chapbook by Johnston’s own LVNG as “supplemental series number 8.” A collaboration really, with superb line drawings by Brian Calvin (whose name goes first on the cover), Looking Out contains just four poems, but each one is a beauty. Consider, by way of a taste, this first stanza of “Clouds”:


What and what and what and what

reiterate the clouds, igneous

in source and crushing weight

ten thousand feet above the earth.


You can understand why Johnston would be writing essays on the subject of pastoralism, tho it’s a well-read nature, as we note later on:


Yet the active file distinguishes

hounds, greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs;

gate and mirror; heads of lettuce


glazed with rain; Taj Mahal

and traveler; marching trees of

Birnam Wood; sheep from Deuteronomy.


Never have clouds been quite so cataloged as here. Johnston seems to be arriving as one of our best poets of a certain sensibility – not unlike Lisa Jarnot & Graham Foust (both Flood authors) or, say, Leonard Schwartz, Johnston is bringing forward a tradition in American poetry that has seemed muted in recent years. I can detect the echoes of Williams in that first stanza of “Clouds,” even more than in that latter appropriation, but I hear Duncan also & at least one side of Zukofsky, the fine discriminations of LZ’s shorter poems.


So much of American poetry has always moved forward precisely through such renewal, bringing back influences that had earlier seemed to recede. I don’t think I would characterize this as a movement, at least not yet, but it certainly is one of the healthiest & most interesting trends now happening in contemporary poetry. And that somebody writing as subtly as does Johnston can be at the heart of this new tendency seems to me the very best news of all.