Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Shrubberies

Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Shrubberies

Article excerpt


Ronald Johnson. The Shrubberies. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2001.

When we say a poem is true to experience, we mean something else, at least when the poem is successful. We may, for example, mean that it transforms the world, or names it anew, or places it at a remove. In this sense, a visionary poetics can be understood as exemplary practice, the extreme case that sharpens our sense of the normal, or into which the norm turns out to be folded. Conversely, the visionary or mystical poem impinges on the day-to-- day more powerfully than our categories might suggest. Blake provides the crucial example here: a mystical poet but a political one, too, a poet of seeing and of history and of the body.

Ronald Johnson (1935-1998) is an heir to Blake, nowhere more clearly than in RADI OS (1977), a poem he composed by crossing out, page by page, nearly all the words in Paradise Lost I-IV, and thereby discovering a different poem and a different myth. Here, for example, is Johnson's version of Milton's opening 16 lines: "O / tree into the World, / Man / / / the chosen / Rose out of Chaos: / / / song / / /." The book-length architectural poem ARK (1996) shares the same lineage. As Johnson notes in a postscript, it is a work of "the eye, the ear, the mind," written by attending to Blake's advice "to pay attention every moment: the very lightning, then thunder: a voice out of a cloud." In ARK, Johnson perfected a visionary syntax that is all his own and yet fully embedded in traditions of Romantic and Modern and contemporary poetic practice. ARK is, for example, marked by the imperative ("Line eye us / Web stir us"; "let up the blinds / as sap mount into tree") and the indicative ("I looked on the land of the living"; "I saw sun shining into like depths, / both planet and the stubble"). Somehow, both moods instantly tell us we are not quite where we think we are. At its most dense, then, Johnson's imperative becomes Parmenidean in its simplicity: "BE / the man that walks in the way of day and night"; similarly with his indicative: "I s / i S." If "is" is Isis, it is also Oz (Johnson hailed from Kansas), just as Oz itself becomes, for Johnson, both an example and the symbol of the imaginary: "That day / / was Kansas / / Ozymandias." In such a syntax as this, there is little room for the conditional or subjunctive mood; even the copula is always just about to disappear into the single "web" or "knot," the rumor," "maze," "blizzard" or "dazzle" that for Johnson constitutes the real.

The Shrubberies is Johnson's last book, written as Peter O'Leary tells us in his fine afterword, between 1994 and 1998, when Johnson died from a brain tumor. In these tiny poems, from which I have just now cited some of Johnson's words for the intricate totality that is his theme, nouns resolve more concretely than in any of his earlier work into visionary equivalence. Partly, this is a question of the particular's place in Johnson's aesthetic, its way of differentiating and uniting the perceived world: born-for-snails daisy an eye for an eye white petal stripped to golden center inedible, incandescent The center of the daisy is incandescent, a mirror of the eye's own incandescence, because it resists consumption. "All art is quite useless," Wilde wrote, his eye on the same peculiarly tuned ethics as Johnson's. The title of Johnson's poem (one of the very few in the book that is named) is "Item," a word for "unit" or "entry" but also for "intimation;' here the intimation of a superb connection.

Johnson writes in pursuit of the particular, but a particular known only at the moment the eye or mind weds it to a whole made up of all particulars. So understood, the world is ambivalence and oscillation, a text or note becoming all versions of itself. Here is a short poem about the fragility of knowing in this way, of sensing the priority of a particular that is just on the verge of disappearing: "Mozart's knots / of forget-me-nots / / against white cloud / / & darkling sky / / multiplied naughts. …

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