Monday, December 31, 2007

GHOSTS, SEX, AND PHYSICS: Devin Johnston & Pattiann Rogers.

Two recent poetry collections offer a range of pleasures.

by Peter Campion and D. H. Tracy

Aversions, by Devin Johnston. Omnidawn. $14.95.

by Peter Campion

Devin Johnston's second book takes the title of his new collection from the rite that ancient Romans performed to placate their dead. His is a book of hauntings: deceased loved ones, childhood bullies, ancient poets, and ideal selves all ghost these pages at one time or another. But ghosting's not so much the subject matter as the formal method. In poem after poem Johnston turns away from the world at hand and moves into a kind of hushed borderland, even as he redirects our attention to the here and now. Like the filmmaker Stan Brakhage, to whom he pays homage, this poet can't get enough of those seemingly mundane spots in time when some subtle presence arrives, thrumming in over the wires. The image of an audible silence traversing telephone lines appears, in fact, as a central motif in the book.

This is also a book about language itself. Yet there's none of the fashionable reflexiveness you might expect from "a book about language itself," none of the knowing distortions of idiom so many poets employ to disguise the lack of genuine thought. Johnston's linguistic introspection is the real thing. His attention to his medium is part and parcel of his feelingful engagement with those spectral presences. Take the first two stanzas of "Early Spring," his adaptation of Horace's Soracte ode:

The hardest of winters will crack
at the tap of spring and milder systems:
performance yachts
are winched from dry-dock storage;
chafed by confinement,
the amateur botanist hates his apartment,
and city parks no longer shine with frost.

Venus ascends through the elms
as the moon swings closer
and teens entwine
their fingers as they ramble,
sandals abandoned; a night-
shift employee waves her scanner,
restocking surge suppressors
of summer lightning.

These lines have a fine acoustic, maintained by a precision and condensation which Basil Bunting or Lorine Niedecker would have admired. These are not "mere" formal talents but vital aspects of Johnston's vision. He sees language as one way that the dead live through us: we receive it from them as we receive our dna. His poems are dignified by deftness and quietude, but they're also great feats of enlargement: they act as conduits, allowing the past and the present to replenish each other. Large also are the pleasures they give their readers.

Peter Campion is the author of a book of poems, Other People, and a monograph on the painter Mitchell Johnson.

© 2007 by Peter Campion. All rights reserved.

Firekeeper: Selected Poems, by Pattiann Rogers. Milkweed Editions. $16.00.

by D.H. Tracy

I picked up the first version of Firekeeper (1994) after coming across Rogers's terrific "Abundance and Satisfaction," a poem cast as a sort of genteel internal debate. Abundance wants a map of the world so detailed it becomes the world; Satisfaction can already see the world in a grain of sand. Satisfaction is monotheistic and content with one explanation; Abundance is polytheistic and wants many. Each makes a good case, and the compromise reached in the poem's rollicking finale has in it the catch-as-catch-can spirit with which we tend in practice to conclude these kinds of arguments with ourselves:
I want one god to be both scatter
and pillar, one to explain simultaneously
mercy and derision, yet a legion of gods
for the spools of confusion and design,
but one god alone to hold me by the waist,
to rumble and quake in my ear, to dance me
round and round, one couple with forty
gods in the heavenly background
with forty violins with one
immortal baton keeping time.

The balance of Rogers's poems (this includes the new selections here from her five books since 1994) come down for Abundance, and busy themselves with praise of the body and nature. These are not narratives of the form, "Yesterday I found a nest in the meadow with three eggs in it, but I returned this morning and there were only two." Rogers offers instead catalogs of phenomena, of animals and animal parts, her interest lying not in their context but in the natural laws that may be apprehended through them, in their implications for their Creator. A single stanza may collect samples of clover, tulips, peabush, steeplebrush, Sweet William, mushrooms, oaks, birches, voles, snails, slugs, crickets, toads, sparrows, larks, and bobolinks. In five lines she might move from pipe fish to musk ox to fungi. In their compulsive taxidermy the poems do not acquaint you with the natural world so much as with the study of it; reading them is like roller-skating through a natural history museum.

Behind Rogers's method, or at least succinctly capturing it, is what she calls "the imperfection of the unfinished," that is, her sense that a being is in its highest and most praiseworthy state when beyond, or considered outside of, change. Discrete events frustrate the writing's aspirations to universality and prayer, and she often uses imperfect tenses to avoid letting in events at all. If moment-to-moment consciousness appears, it is in instances of acute bodily need; as in the work of some other science-oriented nature poets, like Diane Ackerman, the poems extrude an inadvertently terrifying world in which nothing exists but sex and physics.

D.H. Tracy's poetry and criticism appear widely. He lives in Illinois.

© 2007 by D. H. Tracy. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

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