The Shrubberies. (Brief Reviews).
When we say a poem is true to experience, we mean something else, at least when the poem is successful. We may, for example, mean that it transforms the world, or names it anew, or places it at a remove. In this sense, a visionary poetics can be understood as exemplary practice, the extreme case that sharpens our sense of the normal, or into which the norm turns out to be folded. Conversely, the visionary or mystical poem impinges on the day-today more powerfully than our categories might suggest. Blake provides the crucial example here: a mystical poet but a political one, too, a poet of seeing and of history and of the body.
Ronald Johnson (1935-1998) is an heir to Blake, nowhere more clearly than in RADI OS (1977), a poem he composed by crossing out, page by page, nearly all the words in Paradise Lost I-IV, and thereby discovering a different poem and a different myth. Here, for example, is Johnson's version of Milton's opening 16 lines: "O / tree / into the World, / Man //// the chosen // Rose out of Chaos: /// song ///." The book-length architectural poem ARK (1996) shares the same lineage. As Johnson notes in a postscript, it is a work of "the eye, the ear, the mind," written by attending to Blake's advice "to pay attention every moment: the very lightning, then thunder: a voice out of a cloud." In ARK, Johnson perfected a visionary syntax that is all his own and yet fully embedded in traditions of Romantic and Modern and contemporary poetic practice. ARK is, for example, marked by the imperative ("Line eye us / Web stir us"; "let up the blinds / as sap mount into tree") and the indicative ("I looked n the land of the living" ; "I saw sun shining into like depths, / both planet and the stubble"). Somehow, both moods instantly tell us we are not quite where we think we are. At its most dense, then, Johnson's imperative becomes Parmenidean in its simplicity: "BE / the man that walks in the way of day and night"; similarly with his indicative: "I s / i S." If "is" is Isis, it is also Oz (Johnson hailed from Kansas), just as Oz itself becomes, for Johnson, both an example and the symbol of the imaginary: "That day // was Kansas // Ozymandias." In such a syntax as this, there is little room for the conditional or subjunctive mood; even the copula is always just about to disappear into the single "web" or "knot," the "rumor", "maze," "blizzard" or "dazzle" that for Johnson constitutes the real.
The Shrubberies is Johnson's last book, written as Peter O'Leary tells us in his fine afterword, between 1994 and 1998, when Johnson died from a brain tumor. In these tiny poems, from which I have just now cited some of Johnson's words for the intricate totality that is his theme, nouns resolve more concretely than in any of his earlier work into visionary equivalence. Partly, this is a question of the particular's place in Johnson's aesthetic, its way of differentiating and uniting the perceived world:
an eye for an eye
white petal stripped
to golden center
The center of the daisy is incandescent, a mirror of the eye's own incandescence, because it resists consumption. "All art is quite useless," Wilde wrote, his eye on the same peculiarly tuned ethics as Johnson's. The title of Johnson's poem (one of the very few in the book that is named) is "Item' a word for "unit" or "entry" but also for "intimation," here the intimation of a superb connection.
Johnson writes in pursuit of the particular, but a particular known only at the moment the eye or mind weds it to a whole made up of all particulars. So understood, the world is ambivalence and oscillation, a text or note becoming all versions of itself. Here is a short poem about the fragility of knowing in this way, of sensing the priority of a particular that is just on the verge of disappearing: "Mozart's knots / of forget-me-nots / / against white cloud / / & darkling sky / / multiplied naughts". Rather than reading or decoding the world, the poet remarks it:
wave of warblers weaving
chirp to chirp message
athrill of nest-sight
or passing to Canada
under wild moonlight
The weaving, like Penelope's, is textual. The birdsong tells of home and away or, seasons being what they are, two kinds of home. One of these approaches the absolute, a north achieved through signs rather than only as isolation or emptiness. And the birds, collectively, are Hermes, guide to the underworld but also, supremely, the messenger god.
A style that joins "wave" and "weave" implies a physics as much as it does a metaphysics or epistemology. As wave and particle, we know, light reveals a reality that exists because of how the thing is seen or the question asked, a world of halves and of aspect:
the halftones of reality
thus is the muscle of man
specifics of the imaginary
astir the realm of elms
the particolor of it all
Johnson's pun (a form of discovery that will be familiar to readers of ARK) is inspired: particolor, particular, particle, the half-color that renames the "halftone" of the opening line, the particular that is the substratum or ground of color, and the color that is essence rather than attribute or accident. To put this in terms of a later physics, the object of Johnson's attention is the magic by which particle spin and probability are converted into substance. Physics here is a science of the imagination, and Johnson renders its mysterious instabilities, on the one hand, as a modus scribendi ("put spin on everything," he writes) and, on the other, as the particular shape a story takes:
zephyr sparkle drizzle
whistle up the wind
ask only sequence
(bowed under sways)
This poem proposes two logics for ordering the resonating world of nouns in the first line. With the imperatives in the second and third lines ("whistle," "ask"), Johnson both imagines and enacts the imposition of a human syntax on a natural one: the whistler's expelled breath answers as song the rain and wind; the asker responds to sparkle with the logic of narrative. In the Poetics, Aristotle, too, asked for "sequence and consequence," for an art that is universal to the extent that the plot or action is ordered according to the probable relation of cause and effect. Modifying or supplementing this first pattern, Johnson's parenthesis introduces the forces from beyond the action sealed off as aesthetic sequence. Like light, which also bends ("incurved rays / pure white lily," as Johnson has it), we are all subject to gravity, to the heavy illogic of the contingent and the body.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Johnson's last poems should turn so resolutely to the erotic life. If the mind enables the vision of the world as connection, the body locates the further connection between seeing and seen: "now plot of herbs / ...now knot of flesh / ...sum of the parts." The body is an emblem, too, of the particular's singular and irreducible place in a visionary syntax, since the pleasure of the body is discrete but never only discrete: "sunlight thru slat / onto rumpled bed / lie kindly our kin / oft, oft, softly / skin to like skin." The way that one body mirrors another is an instance of the repetition whereby the singular moment or event is preserved even as it is woven into a complete and recursive whole. Another poem begins, more boldly than anything else in Johnson, within this cycle of eroticism. From there, it moves through a physics of ecstasy to end as a homage to Whitman, a poet whose song also placed the multiplying particular deeply within the ife of the body. Here is Johnson's poem:
uncut pale-caramel cock
one among many such
lightning crack earth
away on horizon sway
O radiant saraband!
companion along the way.
"One among many such": like the companion or the dance, this poignant and human repetition is a consolation for existence.
The Shrubberies is in fact haunted by loss, at times the specific devastation wrought by AIDS. A spider's web is "smashed lace for us / / or those of us left." Another poem remembers "scattered many buddies' ashes / all swept in waltz of death." In Johnson's last years, during which he knew he was dying, he was obliged to leave his home in San Francisco and return to his parents' house in Kansas. This was not an easy decision, as attested to in a poem in which "descend wild swans / upon immaculate pool / the middle of nowhere." In these circumstances, Johnson's consolation is that the middle of nowhere, that vast expanse of the plains, is also Oz or, to give Oz another name, Utopia:
buzz of the flies
in the honeysuckle
far flung Utopia
stretched to limits
The poet finds himself in an exemplary state, a "Province of wheat," a "place not on any map / snapping & crackling / between antipodes": between antipodes, which is to say nowhere, but also in-between rather than above or apart from. And it is the potency of this situatedness, at once here and now and elsewhere, that Johnson ceaselessly records:
Williams' larks ascending
a parachute of poppies
balloon of lit particles
bound for Samarkand
my parents' back porch
To be here is also to be elsewhere. In one remarkable poem, that insight is registered as a matter of vision itself and the eye's own limitations:
loft bare plain
I live on the prairie
as far as I can see
as an Indian would
yet to prod prosody
The poet lives on the prairie as far as he can see. In the line-break between the second and third lines, however, Johnson discovers that he lives "on" places, also, beyond what he can see. The poem's last lines define the mechanics of that visionary accommodation. A monument marks a time and place; but Johnson's monument, his attention to prosody, wholly transforms the perception of a here and now. The prairie, then, is Duncan's field. The monument is Horace's, a poem "more lasting than bronze." So Johnson begins the poem following this one with "a desk cleared for planting": planting poems, of course, but also "a large / pink daisy with a bronze / center in shape of hive / as well native of Kansas." Bronze is a peculiar alloy. And the native is born, as well, to other places.
Johnson's poems have always been deeply if obliquely allusive. The title of The Shrubberies (OED: "shrubs collectively or in mass") itself recalls The Underwood, Ben Jonson's wry title for his last collection of short poems; through Jonson, one hears the knowing modesty of Horace when he insists that, as opposed to epic, his urbane sermones "creep along the ground." Like the poems of those two progenitors, Johnson's poems are resonant with a history of poetic practice. Spenser appears ("an enchanted hedge / outthrust of swords"), as do Vaughan, Marvell ("the sound of Mower himself / all afternoon surround"), Keats, and Yeats. Typically, Johnson's allusion is indirect, the trace of a phrase or syntactic turn. Here is his "Kubla Khan":
therein seep sources clear
one of the great rivers
that cause a civilization
Apart from the river, one registers the connection to Coleridge through the
open syntax of the first line, a precise rendering of Coleridge's own adverbs, through which he likewise approaches the mystery of a source: "And from this chasm... // Amid whose swift half-intermittent bursts... // And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever/It flung up momently the sacred river." What deserves emphasis here, in Johnson's hard-earned style, is the link between his concentration of allusion into a single word and his thematic exploration of a particular that vision renders resonant.
Kenneth Fields has noted that Zukofksy's final, dense, punning exploration of form in 80 Flowers stands under or beside Johnson's own final garden. Johnson certainly took his punning from Zukofsky, as well as his love of puzzles. In the final poem of The Shrubberies, he invokes Shakespeare's "bare ruined choirs" as the "ruins in which poet lives / under monkeypuzzle tree." To be puzzled, of course, is to begin to know. And knowing, in turn, involves holding on as long as possible to logics other than the familiar ones. Thus one poem offers itself as a kind of time machine, a puzzling and instructive disruption of sequence:
time gone backward
among the alders
alter shift of view
thru when & here
a date you select
bring back a token
In semiotics, a token is a particular sign rather than a type; here, it is also a keepsake, an index of all that is passing, part of a vast collection to which Johnson can see no end. In the same vein, he writes of "prairies of memorabilia," "a room of dried lavender / cupboards of euphoria," and of the marvelous collection that puzzlingly gives rise to all others: "billions mistakes / amoebae into man."
Johnson's own dying remained for him the greatest puzzle of all, to the end a productive irritant. He renders it as his own curious obituary:
victim of Fate
before the Times
wished thus to say
bluejay yell bough
extract the wind
I don't know if Johnson received an obituary in The New York Times, but this one would have been peculiarly appropriate. For in the second stanza, the poet has his eye trained on another form, this one associated most closely with the other Times: a clue in a cryptic crossword--five words linked through a fragile syntax of association ("bluejay," "bough") and sound ("jay," "legacy, ecstasy"); and, in the final line, a command that promises to resolve all to a singular and wry meaning. Extract the wind: meaning achieved at the moment it is surrendered.
I want to conclude with perhaps my favorite poem in the volume, so small as almost to disappear in the saying, and yet a perfect embodiment of Johnson's poetic aims and achievement:
light put into words
like an iceberg
sunk unceasing sea
The first line is pedagogy a modus scribendi: words are to be seen and entered into; like the iceberg, their meanings are partly submerged, not always on the surface. The second and third lines put the lesson into practice, conceiving both a marvelous definition of an object and the lyrical means of reaching towards the object. The poem imagines the iceberg, which is sea and not quite sea, in song and as song: "sunk unceasing sea"; sung unsea, sing sea--a superb balance, discovered in sound, between sameness and difference, or between continuity and limit. And above all this, the song of that seeing through which the word is made to float in its surround: sing see.
Johnson's mind and book are so rich that one could continue drawing connections, and be certain that, intended or unintended, they are there. There is infinite pleasure in reading these dense, playful, funny, serious poems. Like the lived details that are their subject, Johnson's poems constantly turn back on themselves: "the always revisiting / mind all-revising / yet another vision." The irony or comedy of a late twentieth-century visionary poetics is evident here, as is its seriousness. Johnson polemically asks us to see and resee and see yet again, and hear yet again. Seeing or hearing is doing, just as poetry is. In ARK, Johnson boldly insists, "THIS I DID"; in The Shrubberies, his smallest and perhaps his greatest book, he urges the reader to "let in light of galaxies" "yet saddle a wind / harness the mind." A little like their forbears, these visionary imperatives and indicatives contain a final lesson, for once a simple one: BUY this book; it is available through your local bookshop or directly from t he publisher at Flood Editions, P.O. Box 3865, Chicago, Illinois 60654-0865.
Bradin Cormack teaches English at the University of Chicago.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2001|
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