Book Review

A few years ago, thanks to the magic of the internet, I bought a copy of the 1969 Norton Edition of Ronald Johnson’s Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses. I probably paid too much for the state it’s in; it’s an ex-library edition, with browning pages, staples in it, stamps, etc., but the design exudes Johnson. The cover is a medieval engraving paired with an ink drawing by Philip Van Aver, poems are titled with an elaborate script-style font, and the edges are deckled.

I read it with vigor and love, and I continue to do so. Having fallen in love with Johnson’s poetry through The Book of the Green Man and ARK, I eventually found my way through much of his work that’s available in print or in pdf.

So, I keep Valley close; it’s always on my desk, near at hand. But in its current state, I’m afraid to bring it anywhere. It’s nearly losing pages, and its edges are dented. By republishing Valley, The Song Cave has given me the option to again parade a beloved book around—to have it constantly in my backpack and in my hands until it too begins to fade a bit and I bring to it a more gingerly touch. The joy of carrying around a new edition of Valley is more than enough reason for me to laud The Song Cave.

But, more than that, they’ve brought Johnson to me with new eyes—and thus, in Johnson’s own thinking, a new mind. These poems constantly reshape the mind already, bringing vibrating rhythms that reset and revive the perpetual intricacies of sympathy that the mind can hold:

Here, stargazers

          browse on glowing

stubbles among

 the snail, the thistle-seed


Johnson’s poems in Valley have an inviting, regular syntax and music—we aren’t yet to the Johnson who would write, in ARK, lines that challenge the very temporality of English syntax. Yet, there’s difficulty still—a difficulty that lies in Johnson’s vision, in treating him with the seriousness his poems demand. To see clearly through Johnson is not to see “realistically” but with eyes that participate in the real, eyes that see intervals just as much as objects—as Samuel Palmer saw, as Arthur Dove saw:

to see the world focused back at us

like a wide flower:

river, vascular lightning

& leaf vein.

And to hear Johnson’s music is to hear a live music in all being—as Ives heard, as Satie heard: “I hear it always, in a huge & earthly fugue, / from inner ear, to farthest owls: // the circulatory music of all things, omnipresent & in flux.”

To be rife with references feels right for Johnson—for the patterns he sees are not only visual and aural, but linguistic and literary. His poems are written within literature’s patterned vocality—the tapestry of which the poet is granted a glance at the back side. These frayed edges, in Johnson’s hands, are tied into new knots, new visions, as in the serial poem: “Letters to Walt Whitman,” in which Johnson reweaves poetry, using Whitman as a warp beam:

Earth, my likeness

. . .

I, too, have plucked a stalk of grass

from your ample prairie, Walt,

& have savored whole fields of a summer’s hay in it—

In Valley, to listen to Whitman (and to many named and unnamed sources) is to take part in the constitution of poetry—the writing and reading of poems. The ear and the eye build themselves with every available material.

The presses working to print and reprint Johnson over the past years—from Flood Editions’s ARK, RADI OS, and Shrubberies to, now, The Song Cave’s Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses—lend me hope that Johnson will be accessible for a long while and that new, unfamiliar eyes will continue to find his poetry. His work ought to be ever-ready, near at hand—pinned as it is in the hinges of ancient, necessary thinking that links worlds and finds in all things a prosperous community:


are temporary boundaries’, the moving countries

where nothing

is seen in isolation

About the Reviewer

Adam Ray Wagner is a poet and translator from rural Nebraska. He is grateful to have studied under and worked with many wonderful people at Colorado State University, University of Maine, and, currently, Boise State University.