Q & A: Devin Johnston
The contours of the poem turn it into a “thin place” of its own; what other characteristics of the form, shape, and sound of the poem are aligned with its subject matter?
The poem’s language is clipped and emphatic, in keeping with its compressed emotion and elemental subject (“What but skin / feels the wind”). It’s full of halting rhythms and partial, irregular rhymes that almost but don’t quite resolve. Those echoes seem suited to a “thin place,” where the living feel in contact with the dead, and where someone gone is still “you” for a little while.
Tell us more about the white ash: is it a particular one in your everyday life, or imaginary, like Stevens’s “palm at the end of the mind”?
The white ash is real, but I think it best to leave it without a name or other identity. It feels right that the address be at once intimate and anonymous, as in an old song. In fact, my opening loosely echoes an anonymous epigram, a funerary inscription from the Greek Anthology. More generally, I don’t intend these poems to refer back to my life, my personality, or my voice. The poems speak from within a condition or experience, but it need not be mine.
The “horse scaffolds” put us in mind of Louis Zukofsky’s saw horses: “Horses: who will do it? out of manes? Words / Will do it, out of manes, out of airs, but / They have no manes.” Are they kindred?
In a literal sense, yes, as a horse scaffold consists of wooden platforms supported by saw horses. I recently passed some in use on the south side of St. Louis: a small, dusty crew was perched on them, taking down a wall and salvaging the bricks (their truck blazoned with that great phrase, “demolition salvage”). Like Zukofsky, I was probably drawn to the animate possibilities of horse scaffolding (we even have “brick rustlers” in St. Louis). As I recall, Zukofsky’s horses are a bit friskier than my own. But the echo of “house” in “horse” fits with the instabilities of the poem, its feeling of impermanence.
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This poem originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Poetry magazine