A Poet's Evolution
Johnston's purpose is to explore the tension between the subjective and the objective, to keep these two realms of experience in balance.
Traveler by Devin Johnston. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 80pp.
The sleek, blue volume looks wistful on my desk. Opening it, as opening any other FSG book, feels like a luxury. On the title page, written in blue ink under a small, perfectly typeset "TRAVELER" are the words "for Aaron, old friend! Love, DJ." Seems not long ago—though it was more than ten years—I first met a version of Devin Johnston that hadn't published a full-length book of poems. His first, Telepathy, would come out the following summer. This year's Traveler is his fourth.
I suppose I'm showing my hand, and you might assume that I would automatically give a good review to anything from an old friend's notebook. But I've come to respect Devin's work as a poet and an editor well enough that I don't think I would pander. I have nothing left to gain. And my own poetry is so different from his (although we share an influence in John Ashbery, which is to say we both eat food) that any false move of mine would certainly appear false. Ron Silliman once expressed surprise that Devin and I are even connected. "Improbable" was his word.
Our poetry may differ, but our vision for poetry does not. The book's first lines strike me just right. "From Medicine Lodge / to Coldwater, from Coldwater / to Protection and beyond, / this undulating line / intersects no industry" reminds me of Ashbery's "Into the Dusk-Charged Air," but then it changes into what Johnston himself loves: "finally frays / in shallow tracks / where Black Kettle / and Standing Feather / took their geologic time / and left no cairn." Where Ashbery's list of river names calls attention to différence, Johnston's quietly centres his subject in time and space. In fact, there's not another proper noun in the poem's final 25 lines. This poet prefers to tell the story of how the Kansas plains evolved, concluding with some reflection on what this particular space in time means to him, or meant to him as he composed this poem. "Everything shuts down / but cloudworks, unfinished / parts of a world."
There's comfort in the idea that, not only is everything particular, but it all came from particularities and will go to them, too. Maybe the only way to survive the incessant drone of particulars is to imagine them as part of a story, one of which the poet, too, is part. Enter the imagination. "I made this up from nothing," begins the second poem, titled "Nothing Song." "It's not myself I sing," it continues, modifying the Whitmanic trope, "or love, or anything / that has a source. / I dreamed these words while riding / on my horse."
And it is here that we encounter something new in Johnston's poetry, or at least something I haven't noticed before. The (sometimes heavy-handed) clockwork of meter is there, the images (carefully selected) held in place as flies in amber, but in this second poem we have a playful image of the poet thinking his own poems, then shaking and clutching his heart "beneath a sheet," "though part of me—aloof, opaque— / remains apart." The uneasy intersection of the mind's eye and the physical eye become apparent, which gives way to psychotic mis-feeling, the misplaced sentimentality of "A friend I've never met, / unknown to me as yet, / has kindled no regret / or happiness." In the poet's mind, time moves out of sequence, away from the familiarity of physical erosion.
So Johnston's purpose is to explore this tension between the subjective and the objective, to keep these two realms of experience in balance. This is a very old-fashioned purpose, at least as old as Plato and much explored in early 19th century philosophy. Judging by this book's Louis Zukofsky epigraph, Zukofsky's debt to Wallace Stevens, Ashbery's debt to Stevens, and my personal familiarity with the poet, I'd say Devin Johnston is a 21st-century objectivist who's grown a little further down the branch than the New York School poets ever did (perhaps due to his academic pedigree) and is now developing a new shoot off to the side. It's like he missed the sixties. And the new shoot is bearing fruit that must taste musky, or at least strange, to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E folks.
The title poem is very Devin Johnston, in the more traditional sense—"From the foot of Cotopaxi / and across the Gulf / a Blackburnian warbler / follows a pulse"—as are poems like "Set Apart" ("A sapling in 1700, / it rose like smoke / from leaf litter"), "Burren" ("a bluff / arisen from the sea / compressed its lacy cuff / in fossil memory"), "Roget's Thesaurus" ("Peter Roget took up a list") and "The Young Pretender," which versifies a delightful bit of Scottish history. But here and there I'm detecting something more playful and, again, new in this poetry. After "Nothing Song" I see it again in "Nowhere," which begins:
Sifu John has left the dojo
and struck out on his own.
No more shit from Master Jong,
no endless adjudications
of single whip, no banquets,
belts, dues, or membership.
His only student—big dude
with the tight, slick ponytail
of Steven Seagal—
got lit and locked
a bartender in tiger claw,
then spent a night in jail.
Steven Seagal? When the poem eventually mentions a local St. Louis grocery chain (rather comically) named "Schnucks," it becomes clear Johnston dreamed these words while riding on his horse.
Later, the poem "Early April," set "Under the Sinclair's brontosaurus sign" features men "ruminat[ing] on plastic mugs." This is reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station," and suggests that Bishop might be a fruitful next stop for Johnston as his persona continues to emerge. But it's also typically Johnston, as it refers to a brontosaurus and as its second stanza begins with the scientific term "Tympanuchus cupido." Here, where Belz would have employed the equivalent term, "Greater Prairie Chicken"—even probably titled a book that way—Johnston prefers the Latin.
One more example of Johnston's emerging subjective is the immediately winning in medias res of "So my little notebook is gone, / and with it a thousand things I'd written!" ("A Lost Notebook"); "No split calfskin made it precious: / we're talking college-ruled and spiral-bound." Johnston's sense of immediacy and sometimes austere control of imagery is bountifully offset by an exclamation-pointed interjection, by a confession of commonness. I am glad (beyond glad) that Johnston is so comfortable with form and formal poetic tone. I am disgusted by how beautifully he positions words in lines, lines in stanzas. But I am equally relieved to see not only a person but a sweetness of spirit emerge here—not reluctantly comical, not reluctant at all. These lines feel like joy, and joy is different from art.
The key to this joy—and to the subtle transformation of Johnston's poetry—might be found in the poem "Kid," in which "familiar roles reverse" and his own daughter hails him, "Kid! We're late! / Like surf, she batters around my knees, / aggressive joy, insistent need." Then "at dusk, while her authority / gives way to sleep, I watch TV." Where there's smoke there's fire, and where Johnston admits to watching television after his daughter's gone to sleep, there's something very new going on.
This isn't Ashbery at all; it obviously isn't me. It isn't even Stevens or Zukofsky. This is Devin Johnston, St. Louis poet, my friend. Having finished reading the slim volume, I flip to its inside cover where the poet's bio is in its usual place: "DEVIN JOHSTON was born in 1790 and spent his childhood . . . " Can't be right, I think, uncross my eyes and reread "1970." But it actually did seem sort of right the first time, too.