The title of Devin Johnston’s fourth book of poems, Traveler, might suggest that the work will offer some series of narratives about moving from place to place. To be sure, the poems are generated by specific sites, from the Scottish Highlands to the American midlands. Yet, what characterizes these poems is an imagistic intensity and precision that evokes the process of engaged concentration, particularly in regard to the natural world. It is all the more striking that Johnston accomplishes this in poems that are often quite brief. His lyric space compresses linguistically while expanding perceptually, which indicates how much he views sound and image, sense and music as inextricably linked.
This aesthetic position, of course, has a centuries-long tradition, but reading Traveler alongside some of the dominant strains of current American poetry, which often feature high-flying wit and aggressive fragmentation, we grasp the meditative, reflective possibilities of a lyric that courts stillness. Johnston illustrates how poetry activates an attention to words as well as to the natural world, and in doing so, he shows himself to be one of the most meticulous poets of his generation.
Deploying a contemporary idiom within the structure of traditional cadences, Johnston brings together two diverse strains of poetics. His tight, clear prosody and even occasional use of complex, interlocking rhymes draws upon the cadences of British Romanticism, with its sense of structural tension and release that generates anticipation and offer satisfaction. Yet, Johnston avoids letting the lines slip into becoming mere finger exercises by marrying this lush elegance with the terse, compact style favored by the American Objectivists. This debt is announced by the epigraph from Louis Zukofsky’s “Anew #20” that opens the collection: “the lines of this new song are nothing/ but a tune making the nothing full.” Drawing from these two traditions, Johnston crafts poems that often hover around three syllables in length and then, with the next poem, expand to pentameter. The collection presents a range that runs from the compression of the four-line poem “Relatives,”
no one left
the same to say
what it is
—to the sonic and narrative expansiveness of “Iona,” which begins
Arriving damp with sea spray, fingers cold,
I disembark a day already old
as billows scatter seeds or smithy sparks
across the west, against the growing dark
of Dalriada, Pictland, Gododdin,
and Strathclyde, shadows flooding every glen.
In bringing avant-garde strategies to classical ideas of form, Johnston’s poems show language to be a means of ordering experience so we can consciously recognize it as an experience. With all “hinges of habit undone,” to borrow a trope from “Thin Place,” we become conscious of how we perpetually negotiate thoughts and sense perception.
Johnston’s innovations and reclamations remind readers that poetry can draw upon everyday speech as well as elevate language. In their reworking of rhetoric and syntax, these poems reveal the artifice of langauge so the experience of the meaningfulness of words steps forward at every moment. In essence, the concision of these poems crystallizes acts of perception. This effect is, of course, the very foundation of a Wordsworthian poetics. The question is, then, how Johnston manages to pull off this Romantic position without seeming antiquated.
The opening couplets of “Expecting” give some indication. About the impending birth of a daughter, the poem complicates that sense of parental anticipation by raising a question about what the daughter, in utero (“an embryo in amnion”) might be expecting based on the sounds heard in the womb from the world outside:
what will she
now a she
yet hearing our
all the while
from this dark
world and wide
what will she
mew or bray
The poem moves appositively and parenthetically, deferring the construction of the question (“what shall she … what?” we ask) and thereby generating anticipation through the torqued rhetoric and syntax, even as the images and metaphors become more elaborately articulated. The opening couplet may resist immediate meaning, but upon rereading, the syntactical pattern becomes evident. We come to see the way it means. These poems require (and reward) patience; like the embryo, readers experience sound before they divine meaning.
If poetry is the act of the mind finding itself, Johnston shows again and again that we find ourselves at the point where language, daily life, and the natural world intersect. Indeed, the measured sense of Johnston’s work, its stillness and care, provides relief from some of the high irony that, in some quarters, has begun to seem like a period style. It would be contrary to the meditative nature of Johnston’s poems to put them in opposition to, for instance, recent inheritors of the New York School’s dynamism, or its pervasive and persuasive sociality.
The 17th-century philosopher Nicolas Malebranche once wrote (in a line quoted by Paul Celan as well as Walter Benjamin), “attention is the prayer of the soul.” In Traveler, attention is the means of locating ourselves within the binding together (call it a revelation) of world and language — it is the means of finding where we stand. In Johnston’s hands, poetry is a devotional act and his use then of a classical sound — beyond any polemics or doctrine — enacts a political, ethical, and even spiritual commitment to the care that allows our attention to sustain itself.
Devin Johnston’s Traveler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.