Saturday, November 01, 2008

From Mist to Shadow and Flowering Weeds by Robert K. Johnson

(Robert K. Johnson)

Unfathomable Life

Robert K. Johnson's From Mist to Shadow (Ibbetson Street Press, 2006) & Flowering Weeds (Cervena Barva Press, 2008).

Review by Fred Marchant

In West of Your City (1961), William Stafford's first book, there is a poem to keep in mind when reading Robert K. Johnson's two most recent books of poetry. The Stafford poem is “The Well Rising.” In three short-lined quatrains it offers the reader a mini-catalogue of quotidian miracles occurring all around us: a well rising without sound, a spring bubbling on a hillside, the swerving swallows, their decision-making as they bank. These are “thunderous examples,” writes Stafford, and he ends the poem by saying “I place my feet / with care in such a world.” Robert K. Johnson's new poems also step with care in his world, and by implication and experience they teach us the kind of attention such care requires.

Let us begin with Johnson's poetic line. It is invariably short, often enjambed, and always ceremonial. The line breaks never seem to hurry us along. Instead each line functions almost like an act of perception unto itself. Of course there are lines to follow, and as we move through them the poem grows by accretion and lamination. Here, as an example, is “Older,” from Flowering Weeds:

You listen to a concert's

swirl of melody

or to the silent hum

of sunlight on your face

and what rises deep inside you

like surge of June-warm surf

climbing a sand-dune's slope

is a new nameless feeling

that, somehow, includes

the press of love,

the dogged grip of regret,

catapulting joy

and even merciless pain

and leads you to accept,

as calmly as willow leaves

accept a stir of wind,

everything past and present

in your unfathomable life.

The deliberative pacing of this poem is one significant source of its beauty. The deliberation going on here, however, is filled with an almost subliminal tension. Something there is that moves this poem along, even as each line tries to slow it down, tries to isolate and name each stage of feeling, thought, or perception. It is that mini-drama at the end of each line that keeps us in the poem, wondering, and yet ready, open to the surprise of the places the poem takes us.

Johnson is also devoted to the sentence. In the curve and forward motion of his syntax is another significant source of beauty. A number of poems, for instance, consist of a single highly wrought sentence stretched out over the tenterhooks of lineation and stanza. “Four Hours After The Stroke,” for instance, startles us each step of the way:

For a moment it is as if

by standing on tiptoe

I'm able to gain a peek

above a windowsill

see someone who must be

a nurse her dress is so white

walking toward a bed

I'm lying propped up in

and she starts to speak to me

but my tired toes give way

my body sags below

the sill and I'm once again

staring at thick fog

grey as a prison cell.

This sentence verges on the edge of collapse, just as the speaker himself struggles not to fall. Almost falling into a run-on more than once, the sentence somehow holds itself together syntactically as we move along with it slowly, carefully, and at the end, sadly.

But if Johnson's verse is ceremonial, what ceremony is being enacted? If his poems consist of steady, step-by-careful steps, what is the nature of the journey? Sometimes it is a journey toward discovery, but his poems tend not to culminate or rest easy in sheer epiphany. From Mist to Shadow, the very title itself, hints that a life, like a day, is a journey from one darkness to the next, not an arriving at or dwelling long in a place where we see the light. His world and ours is utterly ephemeral. Our day can be studded with menace or near-madness, and there may be secret, eruptive threats moving underneath the surface. But in these poems there also is an overall affirmation. For all their stern realism, the central event in Johnson's poetry is his attention to tenderness, to our capacity to touch and be touched, to be moved by the marvelous, and to have our existence affirmed by what passes for ordinary life, which in these poems is never simply ordinary.

As Simone Weil said, prayer consists of attention. There is no theology hiding behind Johnson's poems, but his rhythms and images, and his careful attention to both, add up to prayer in a secular key. “Inside A Church in Rome,” from Flowering Weeds presents us, for example, with the poet watching an elderly woman at prayer. Ordinarily he says he accepts “the sky as empty,” but for that instant, as he watched, the poet is “wrapped inside the swirl // of a measureless longing / to share the faith that feeds / this woman's life.” It is longing of this almost vertiginous sort that Robert K. Johnson's work embodies, enacts, and records. Yes, by the end of the poem, the feeling has passed, and that ephemerality too is real and felt. But for that moment, the poet has been touched by what he has seen. We encounter such moments throughout Johnson's poetry: especially in the natural world, where ducks might paddle smoothly across a moonlit pond, and above all in the world of our close relations, when one might be touched by a beloved's lips. In childhood memory and adult perplexity, in beauty and loss, in pleasure and pain, in mist and shadow, these poems chart one person's way as he moves through, is touched and touches his “unfathomable life.”

*Fred Marchant is the author of Tipping Point, which won the Washington Prize in poetry. He is a professor of English and the director of creative writing at Suffolk University in Boston, and he is a teaching affiliate of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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