Reviewed By Patrick James Dunagan
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015)
- 96 pages
A Classical poet in Modernist garb, Devin Johnston’s work displays a restraint rarely to be found in poetry written today, especially by poets of the generation born in 1970s. The language in his poems is spare, elegant even. There’s no emotional gushing, no rampant cataloging of current events or otherwise showy display full of masculine bravado and sexual innuendo. He is instead a poet of commonplaces, of hearth and home. In addition, Johnston has honed his craft down to where the barest of exerted effort and/or intention on his part is noticeable. Above all, setting his poetry apart is the unmistakable trace of magical sparkle woven throughout its abundant everydayness. Something much larger, and well beyond the parameters of the ordinary day-to-day, is occurring beneath the literal meaning of his lines; it is embedded within the twists of his rhythms and the concise sleights of skill in his metrical variations.
Johnston’s work doesn’t go looking for an audience. There’s no catering to readers in any simplistic or humble manner. The poems are left to stand on their own integral strength or not at all. The range of his poetic vision welcomes a readily grandiose layering of symbolic heft even when set amongst the most apparently mundane and humdrum surroundings. Johnston quests after the esoteric within daily ritual, as seen in “Night and Day”: “I lean against the kitchen sink / and struggle to recall / a riddle of the sphinx”. The transmogrification of the typical American suburban doldrums is underway right from the first poem in the book, “Ameraucana”, starring a chicken, “Sally Hen”, with her “parched and reptilian cry” celebrating the cycle of life, “a perfect form of incompletion: first egg of the year.” The same image gets reworked later on in another poem, “Orpingtons” (a particular breed of chicken): “the days grow long enough / to kindle in each a yolk, / the smallest flame of spring.” Such momentary glimpses provide illimitable sparks of recognition for the poet’s ongoing fascination with the powers of creation. Worth noting is that in alchemical practice every creation begins with what’s often referred to as “the philosopher’s egg.”
Johnston’s poems definitively feel as though they’ve “traveled with you awhile / in ghostly fashion” eerily reminiscent of familiar zones of memory, many a poem providing a near déjà vu experience. This is not so much comforting as discomforting. In “Far Fetched” he writes:
Vibrations carry the faintest ring
of metal struck on metal, a cattle bell,
a corrugated pipe
through which a breath
might oscillate and sing,
a rough staccato
bark or yell,
faint as the chip chip chip
from a yellow warbler’s throat.
An engine flutters, remote,
and the crunch of gravel softens in retreat.
Where we are, of course, is in a poem: the created world Johnston fashions, playing sound off sense in his vivid imagining of that rich interior realm wherein fantasy mingles with memory amid the workings of daily reality. The results enchant with a rich mixture of imagery, at once symbolically futuristic and archaic, embracing our digital age while also reaching back towards archaic lore, as you can hear in “Means of Escape:
They meet online for Realms of Ra
as siblings, catlike humanoids,
survivors from the Hybrid Age;
or Foxen riding flightless birds
across the plain, a scrolling page
above which two moons light their way.
Alternately, Johnston frequently relates a personal anecdote in universal manner. Describing an impulsive late-night stroll in “The Sudden Walk,” he draws notice to the particularities of the street, the rising heavenly bodies above, and employs an apt metaphor of his over-eager desire sending out his “attention[...] like a dog”:
[...] bang the door shut more or less
emphatically, according to
the pique you fancy having stirred,
and when you find yourself once more
at unexpected liberty,
absorbed in rhythms of breath and limb,
attention racing on ahead
and then returning like a dog
through hawthorn blooming in the dark,
that rich potentiality,
when Mars and Jupiter ascend
above the cloudbank, bright and crisp,
then you become a clean stroke
of ink-and-brush calligraphy,
a lone figure strolling west
on Shenandoah Avenue.
This is certainly an experience anybody might have, yet the lyrical lightness of Johnston’s lines immediately invites a reader’s close self-identification with the speaker of the poem. Once again, in “Come and See”, it is as though we as readers have passed through the events the poems relate.
from busy lives,
something on the stove,
a bath drawn,
the phone covered
like an astonished mouth.
It is nonetheless with an easy sense of comfort we discover ourselves in Johnston’s poetry. His revelations focus upon hopeful promise rather than darker despair and regret. The possibilities he envisions for our contemporary times are far more than we deserve. Johnson’s doubt is often buried under the positivity that limns the surface descriptions of these ordinary events at a depth requiring no little amount of work to peel back; prying into these reservoirs, however, yields richer complexities of a perpetual state of quandary, which is by far the worthwhile nature of his poetry.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His books include GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo, 2011), Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duckling, 2013), and from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books, 2015). He edited and wrote the introduction for poet Owen Hill's A Walk Among the Bogus (Lavender Ink, 2014).