Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I’ve always suspected that Devin Johnston must be one of those poets whom readers either love or hate. He has a very distinct personality & is quite clear about his goals in writing. Either you buy it or you don’t. Somehow, though, I always find myself in the middle, never fully certain just how much I love his work or feel frustrated by it. This I think might be because you can read Johnston in a couple of different ways. In one reading, he follows a heritage of great precision in avant & post-avant writing, one that looks to Louis Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, John Taggart, Frank Samperi, Jonathan Greene, Lorine Niedecker, Gustav Sobin, George Oppen & Ronald Johnson. In the other, he’s something of a maverick Quietist & the names that come to mind might include Wendell Berry, Kay Ryan, Jean Valentine, Thom Gunn or Charles Tomlinson. Both lists, you will note, are made up of excellent writers, but the number of ways in which one tradition joins to the other (Tomlinson’s work on Williams, Greene’s interest in Berry) are sufficiently few that you can point them out one at a time.

What both groups have in common is a commitment to the idea that craft is at the heart of the poem. If your pleasure is the astonishingly well-wrought urn, these are the poets to whom you are apt to turn. I can open Sources, Johnston’s most recent book, almost anywhere and find an example:

The Greeks

Ladder and source,
we find no ease

never quite
at home at home.

No, never, not
darken the page

in a childish script.
Winter has come.

Ladders lean
against the sky,

sources whistle
past our lips.

Pacing rugs
or battered roads

we wait for what
we know we know.

There is not a hair (nor a pixel) out of place in this poem. If anything, there are a number of grace notes (the alliteration in the 5th, 9th & 15th lines for example, or the echo of reiteration from the third line with the last) that elevate our reading experience. The poem is both sufficiently specific for us to know what Johnston is saying & sufficiently evocative for any number of envisionments to come into play around terms like ladders & sources.

Yet the poem – it’s the very last one in this slim, well-constructed book, the source for the volume’s title – captures precisely what I find disquieting about Johnston’s writing: a compulsion for stillness. This is a poem, indeed this is a book, in which no one shouts, ever. What is the action here? Waiting.

What seems to me so amazing is that Johnston appears to be complaining about this, calling it to our attention. If I look back to those lists of antecedents to his writing (“what we know we know”), Williams & Zukofsky are the two with a much greater overall range – this comes perilously close to LZ’s “lower limit” of speech – tho Creeley can in places get to song, to playful wisdom, even in the constrained spaces of his miniatures. Play, the ludic, is not a term I would use to characterize Johnston & indeed his suffix for child is -ish not -like, with all the attendant value judgments that implies. If there is a music to these poems, and there is, what it calls to mind might be the harpsichord, the cello, the harp. Yet the folk-rock (or maybe anti-folk) harp of a Joanna Newsom would seem grating & jarring here, let alone the reverb feedback of a Jimi Hendrix guitar. Or a turntable. This is a poetics for a world in which hiphop – that 30-year-old phenomenon – isn’t even imaginable. No strolling over to the Gem Spa just to buy a Coke & be fabulous.

So I find myself torn. On the one hand, here is a deftness with image & the line second to no one. Devin Johnston can be breathtaking when he wants. On the other, I have this ontological problem: where is the world I know? And what does it mean that Johnston understands this problem, seems completely to get it? That is the part of this book I find totally spooky.