Wednesday, February 15, 2006

I’m convinced that, for whatever reason, Kent Johnson just isn’t having fun if he isn’t up to mischief. Fortunately – an adverb I use with some caution – Johnson has boundless energy when it comes to attracting same. First there was Araki Yasusada, mild-mannered Hiroshima native & fan of Jack Spicer, in some ways the most successful literary hoax since Ern Malley. Much about Yasusada was so evidently politically incorrect – aided none too subtly by having his name reversed as tho it were English (the Japanese would have called him Yasusada Araki, rather like bad-boy photographer Nobuyoshi Araki). This project was followed by The Miseries of Poetry, a series of collaborative “traductions” between Johnson & the equally non-existent Alexandra Papaditsas. Published by the estimable Skanky Possum in 2003, this book appears to be entirely out of print & none of the usual rare book search sites show any copies available for sale. Miseries, which for some reason my imagination always hears as The Miniseries of Poetry, is a 24-page chapbook with a 9-page intro and no less than 12-pages of blurbism purportedly written by everyone from John Ashbery to Alan Sondheim. The book is dedicated to Johnson’s first born with the admonition
Reject Poetry with all of your might.
Most recently, Effing Press, the Possum’s cross-town (and friendly) rival in Austin, brought out Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War, a chapbook that is unique in Johnson’s endeavors – even including his relatively straightforward work as anthologist & literary translator – in that it is a book of poems Johnson claims to have written himself. This is the volume that Johnson compared to Eliot Weinberger’s What I Heard About Iraq as one of two books that
stand as full and open responses to the war
That’s an interesting claim to contemplate, particularly since – like Double Flowering & The Miseries both – it is obsessed with poetry’s relationship to institutions in the global economy (and within that obsession, always the question of identity). Lyric Poetry begins with an open letter to the McCarthyite thugs of Campus Watch, imploring them to turn their lights on Johnson (and the book’s verso notes that “All royalties are to be donated to Campus Watch U.S.A.,” even tho the initiated will understand that Lyric Poetry will generate no royalties). This sort of overt begging for attention, especially in a meta-critical frame, is almost the signature Johnson move. Reading it always feels lurid like coming upon a friend in the act of masturbation, then pausing to watch.
The book then proceeds through a series of nine works, followed by an afterword every bit as winsome and winning as the preface, a review of a Charles Bernstein piece read at an event for the anti-war anthology Enough, in which Bernstein – whose piece is referenced, but largely undescribed – is determined by Johnson to be “exclusivist and fundamentalist in his poetics” apparently because Bernstein has failed to produce the kind of instrumentalist anti-literature that characterizes Weinberger’s pastiche parallelogram. The argument is that if language poets aren’t writing agit-prop anti-war pieces, therefore their politics are corrupt. It’s a deliberately thuggish move on Johnson’s part, and he means it as such, essentially playing Denise Levertov to Bernstein’s Robert Duncan.
But this is not a condemnation of Johnson or his tactics in that piece, which I see less as an assault & more as the perpetual Johnsonian plea for attention, leavened by a serious concern for the war AND a sense of the history of just such one-act morality plays over the past century. Indeed, instead of Levertov, Johnson could just as easily be playing Robert Silliman Hillyer to Bernstein’s Ezra Pound, condemning Pound’s poetics for its politics. Johnson knows, perhaps more than most, that suborning one to the other would be the intellectual equivalent of suicide, an act we’ve seen played out on more than a few occasions.
Further – and I almost want to put that word in caps as well – FURTHER, the nine works that come between these two deliberately falsified provocations demonstrate exactly the kind of knowledge about which his postface feigns ignorance.
The first, “Mission,” is an adaptation not of Archilochus, as Johnson claims, but from another 7th century Greek poet, Mimnermus. Thus Johnson:
We decamped from Pylos, barbarian town smack in a boulder field
and set oar to lovely Asia, making fair Kolophon our base. We gathered
our strength for a fortnight, writing poems and sharpening our swords
by the sea. On the morning the oracle spoke in tongues, the main column
followed the rushing river through the forest, while our unit of ten went upward
and west, along a tributary stream. At a small waterfall we stopped to rest
on some moss and gazed at our golden helmets and shields in reflecting pool.
We spoke in low voices of the beauty around us, of the dark, darting trout,
and of the strange, haunting songs in the towering trees. We spoke of time, and
friendship, and truth. Then each of us drank deeply from the pool.

Aided by the gods, we stormed Smyrna, and burned its profane temples to the ground.
And Mimnermus:
When we left the lofty city of Neleian Pylos, we came by ship to the pleasant land of Asia; and possessing overwhelming violence, we settled at lovely Colophon, leaders full of terrible hybris. From there, we set forth from the Asteis river and by the will of the gods took Aeolian Smyrna.
Johnson follows with a poem called “Baghdad” whose unacknowledged (but patently obvious) primary source turns out to be Margaret Wise Brown, tho note along the way the swipes he takes at Williams & Vendler:
O, little crown of iron forged to likeness of imam's face,
what are you doing in this circle of flaming inspectors and bakers?

And little burnt dinner all set to be eaten
(and crispy girl all dressed with scarf for school),
what are you doing near this shovel for dung-digging,
hissing like ice-cubes in ruins of little museum?

And little shell of bank on which flakes of assets fall,
can't I still withdraw my bonds for baby?

Good night moon.
Good night socks and good night cuckoo clocks.

Good night little bedpans and a trough where once there and inn
(urn of dashed pride)
what are you doing beside little wheelbarrow
beside some fried chickens?

And you, ridiculous wheels spinning on mailman's truck,
truck with ashes of letter from crispy girl all dressed with scarf for school.
why do you seem like American experimental poets going nowhere
on little exercise bikes?

Good night barbells and ballet dancer's shoes
under plastered ceilings of
Saddam Music Hall.
Good night bladder of Helen Vendler and a jar from
(though what are these doing here in

Good night blackened ibis and some keys.
Good night, good night.

(And little mosque popped open like a can, which same as factory
of flypaper has blown outward, covering the shape of man with it
(with mosque): He stumbles up Martyr's Promenade. What does it
matter who is speaking, he murmurs and mutters, head a little bit
on fire. Good night to you too).

Good night moon.
Good night poor people who shall inherit the moon.

Good night first edition of Das Kapital, Novum Organum,
The Symbolic Affinities between Poetry Blogs and Oil Wells
and the Koran.

Good night nobody.

Good night Mr.
Kent, good night, for now you must
soon wake up and rub your eyes and know that you are dead.
There is an elegance here that is quite apart from the structure of Good Night Moon – as there is in “Mission” & almost anything Johnson writes in verse form. But Johnson’s question about Helen Vendler’s bladder is a good one? What is it doing here? And what is the point being made by equating a burned child (crispy girl) with fried chickens with William Carlos Williams? Is Williams being equated here with Col. Sanders & napalm? Like so much that is going on in these poems, these details are like free-floating improvised explosive devices salted throughout what is actually beautiful poetry. It’s a combination that Johnson has been perfecting since the earliest of Araki Yasusada & here it’s particularly effective. But it’s also particularly irresponsible, which I suspect it actually has to be in order to be so effective. Johnson’s poems are like unchained pit bulls tossed into a school yard – somebody is going to get bit. But you almost have to admire all that taut muscle & those unstoppable jaws.
The next piece, “Poem Upon a Typo Found in an Interview of Kenneth Koch, Conducted by David Shapiro,” offers a parody of a particular side of the New York School, that uptown side both Koch & Shapiro have always inhabited. As written, the poem is both loving & spiteful:
7. I remember those good old days, whilom it was me, and Will and Ben and Chris and the wholesome lads of the laste avant-garde.
And, of course, a footnote crediting Shapiro for turning Johnson on to poetry,
thus changing my life. (Whether I should thank Shapiro with all of my heart or send him a very powerful letter bomb is a question I often ask myself.)
That parenthetical sentence is the only one in this book I completely believe.
This poem is followed by what I take as partly a parody of Projectivist poetics, partly a satire on the current generation of poets: “When I First Read Ange Mlinko.” As with the New York School piece, it is both loving & spiteful.
The next piece, “Forwarded Message Follows,” ostensibly is an email from one Ossama Husein at Sudan State University, addressed not to Johnson but to “Dear Mr. David Bromige,” inviting him to the Khartoum Translation Conference, where
We passion to invite another poet of America, Mr. Kent, who also is credenced in your two countries and perhaps others, to be a racist. (In his reply to our Central Council, he spoke: “I am honestly not sure.”) Still we are opened, and we have most little, but our flowing tents which appear (to all purposes and meanings) to be sailboats in the deserts, are yours.
At one level, this is the crudest imitation of English as a Second Language imaginable. Yet soon we have embarked on a very credible translation Leonel Rugama’s most famous poem, “The Earth Is A Satellite Of The Moon,” whose very last line is
Blessed are the poor for they shall inherit the moon.
After which the alleged author writes:
Well, in realness, I do not know why I give this poem, except that I know you very much like poems. Don’t you agree it was translated, without doubtfulness, by someone most self-congratulatory, so angry at his own country, yet blind as Oedipus to the terrorisms of non-white peoples? (Forgive me. I am smoking opium from Afghanistan. It betters my English, which you can tell is getting better as this letter, like a martyr, spills.)
The remainder of this book is every bit as masterful & lame, almost always at the same time, as these pieces. My question here is this: is this a full and open response to anything, let alone the war. It is worth noting at this point, as the reader who doesn’t see Johnson’s attack on Bernstein until the book’s end will almost inevitably sense, that Johnson himself has enacted consistently throughout this book the very same position that Bernstein himself advocated at that reading in 2003. Which is to say that Johnson is using Bernstein to attack himself. An almost perfect Johnsonian move, that.
It is entirely plausible that this is major poetry. Is it major war poetry? Is it war or anti-war poetry at all? Hardly. And I think that is the crux of what is so very hard to figure out about Johnson. At some level, he wants to be the next Richard Pryor of poetry, but it’s very hard to get props for using the N-word – and the blatantly racist parody of Sudanese English is exactly that – if you’re a Midwestern white boy. So what we end up with here is some superb writing, often penned completely without judgment & filled with many nasty little moments therein. That doesn’t make this book bad, but it does make it very weird. At some level, it makes me long for the moral clarity of the Fugs’ song, Kill for Peace.
Over the years since I first met Johnson in Leningrad, I have been both impressed & appalled at his hijinx, often both at once, and will concede to having been the person who brought Double Flowering to its eventual publisher, Roof Books. Johnson & I are, I believe, equally appalled at the horrors of the war in Iraq, famine in Africa & unprecedented oil profits here at home. We differ only in our idea of how poets might go about opposing it. Lyric Poetry may be a remarkably polished tantrum, but it’s a tantrum nonetheless.