NICKY TISO Reviews
ARK by Ronald Johnson
(Flood Editions, 2013)
I had not heard of Ronald Johnson until a professor lent me this book on a whim. The white cover with black endpaper looks sleek. The title, ARK, is imposingly engraved in bold lettering with just enough kerning to be read as a word (with all its biblical resonance) or a cluster of letters, a phoneme, almost meaningless. Reading the bio, it turns out Johnson was an outsider of the mid-century New American Poetry scene including Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, and Louis Zukofsky.
In the modernist vein, Johnson wrote ARK from 1970-1990 as a serial long poem, until he was beset by health difficulties. It bears the influence of mid-century concrete poetics as well as the angelic mysticism of William Blake, whose illuminated manuscripts were also visually experimental. With an epigram by Stein, “anything shut in with you can sing,” ARK starts at the intergalactic eye, as one suspended in awe of the infinite universe. Here the poet’s gaze shares root with the astronomer (7):
Over the rim
body of earth rays exit the sun
rest to full velocity to eastward pinwheeled in a sparrow’s
--Jupiter compressed west to the other---
wake waves on wave in wave striped White Throat song
along the reversal of one
water to touch, all knowledge
as if a several silver
backlit in gust.
All night the golden fruit fell softly to the air,
pips ablaze, our eyes skinned back.
The centrifugal alignment of the text organizes the poem from a hole, or center, like a galaxy in space or “a veritable shell of the chambered nautilus” (312). To be “contra-/centrifugal” (centripetal?) is a reversal of motion, the entropic flux of a biological form. The end of the poem returns the reader to their subjective organs (“our eyes skinned back”) in a visceral contrast to the planetary scale we’d just become accustomed to (“Jupiter compressed west to the other”). The White Throat is a sparrow that makes short trills.
ARK’s cosmic vision connects the human spirit to the fabric of the universe with marvelous exactitude. The beauty of ARK is how it weaves assiduous scientific facts into a lyric jetstream of antiphonal harmonies. Case in point (7):
in balanced dissent:
enlightenment—on abysm bent.
in what I see,
externity in gauged
A lineaged clarity.
The iambic rhyming couplet of dissent/bent and the inverted syntax of “on abysm bent” feels romantic in its formality; the interesting thing is how Johnson throws traditionally closed poetic forms like iambic meter into an open field to yield new patterns of reading. This is elegiac poetry at the quantum level, where action is defined by changes in light (re: all Cinnabar, no Cinnabon). As such the tone can feel cold and impersonal, or at the worst fanciful (part of me cringed at how early he brought up dandelions). But ARK is so sonically rigged to explode with tension in every line that it can stand alone in its genius.
ARK envisions itself as architecture. “Based on trinities, its [ARK’s] cornerstones the eye, the ear, the mind, its three books consist of The Foundations, of which there are thirty-three beams, The Spires, of which there are thirty-three built on top, with thirty-three arcades of The Ramparts round the periphery” (312). Individual poems are labeled arches or beams and are composed as blank verse tercets quoting from Protestant hymns, Ansel Adams, Thoreau’s journals, and a letter from Van Gogh: all transcendental naturalists of the turn of the century. The grandeur of Adams’ photographs, such as “The Tetons and the Snake River,” function as the perfect backdrop to Johnson’s rocklike words. In one case he is almost mocking the landscape genre by reducing it to formula (290):
blue cliff waterfall,
thrushcall encompass vastness
Rose x Skyline
Or perhaps it is that he understands how the eye acts as a camera, framing the object to achieve a desired image. If one imagines each poem as contributing to the totalized structure of the ARK, then the exposed structural cues of this verse could be intentionally done to give the feeling of a text/vessel in construction.
The fun of reading ARK is for its aspects of language poetry in coordination with the humanistic journey of the soul. An overabundance of slant rhyme, pararhyme, homophones, and malapropism give the language physicality as a medium of sound (227):
Oar sea supposabilities
each spark intersect fled permanence
take Death in stride
the stars arrayed each soul in stead,
The musicality of the phrasing creates divergences in sight and tone where meaning is destabilized, but the writing never loses touch with its narrative arc, figured on one hand by the passage of the sun. One might ask of ARK, is its architecture too catholic, too vaulted, too austere, too manly? Do we need another Louis Zukofsky (only without the Marxist politics)? I am not enough of a scholar to say. For fans of sound poetry and concrete poetry this is a worthwhile investment. ARK is an important legacy by an overlooked writer who would have been proud to see it collected with such devotion for the first time.
Nicky Tiso is an MFA candidate at The University of Minnesota. He received his BA in English from The Evergreen State College in 2010 and interned with Siglio Press in between. His work has been published online in: SCUD, Poets for Living Waters, Tarpaulin Sky, HTML Giant, Ditch, Thieves Jargon, No Record Press, and Wheelhouse Magazine. Nicky was a recipient of the 2012 Academy of American Poets James Wright Prize for Poetry, judged by Garrison Keillor, for his poem 'Cattle Feed.' He was also a panelist at the 2013 Conference on Ecopoetics at UC Berkeley, where he presented on poetry in the streets. He blogs infrequently at nickytiso.blogspot.com, and tweets.