The Essential George Johnston, selected by Robyn Sarah.
The Porcupine’s Quill. $10.95.
Crabwise to the Hounds, by Jeramy Dodds.
Coach House Books. $14.95.
The poems of George Johnston and Jeramy Dodds are so apparently dissimilar one could print the poets’ names at the top of the foolscap to delineate dueling, impermeable columns. Johnston, who passed away in 2004, wrote poems about children at play, domestic goings-on, and marriage announcements; Dodds, who is still young, has poems about a pin-up, a theremin quartet, a tractor beam, and other exotica. Johnston’s poems often scan, defer to a rhyme scheme; Dodds’s favor free verse, dense paragraphs of the stuff. Johnston’s poems are restrained, which means they work their magic quietly, like magicians in straitjackets; Dodds’s are pyrotechnic, which means they make great displays of lions, rabbits, and other props plucked from hats, from out of nowhere. In Johnston’s poems, the pronoun “I” is relatively transparent, a clear phone booth in which a coherent someone seems to be standing; in Dodds’s poems, the pronoun seems both transparent and empty, the sort of sci-fi booth into which anyone could be beamed.
Caroming from column to column is fun work for a time, until, that is, one makes the mistake of taking a tally and drawing a conclusion—and you can imagine (maybe already have imagined) the conclusion: Johnston’s poems are old-fashioned, rickety; Dodds’s poems are new-fangled, radical. But as Robyn Sarah has it, in her brief preface to The Essential George Johnston, Johnston is “a radical poet—radical in the truest sense of one who made the language new by going to its roots.” So even though Johnston would seem to present a placid lyric poetry about domestic goings-on, the poetry is more “daring,” Sarah proposes, than what she calls “the linguistic antics of the avant-gardists”—and there is plenty of proof to pull and quote. In an example of Sarah’s, Johnston can rearrange a sentence’s words to bracing effect, giving the reader a deep hit of pre-storm air:
Airs through windows yet
and through the downstairs let
that over pastures come
—From “Firefly Evening”
He can also strip away the commas and sound as breathlessly ecstatic as E.E. Cummings:
I do not like anything the way I
like you in your underwear I like you
and in your party clothes o my in your
party clothes and with nothing on at all
you do not need to wear a thing at all
for me to like you.
—From “Us Together”
He can strand a pronoun on a stanza’s periphery, painting a picture of a marginal life with little more than the type itself:
His eyes are warm with love and death,
Time makes a measure of his breath;
The world is now profound and he
Fearful, on its periphery.
—From “The Pool”
And he can sample colloquial talk, and loop dull words like “did,” and splice the spools together smoothly:
Them hunters, it aint safe. Bang
bang bang go end of summer flies
in the lampshades, bang around the room
dying lazy. Eva dies at last.
End of summer chime
in the aftergrass, did did, did did,
almost done. Overhead
looms the redtail
for the little ones.
But when Johnston writes in more traditional forms—which is much of the time, at least in his early work—the results can be just as unsettling as his later, more formally mischievous achievements. Here are four quatrains called “War on the Periphery”:
Around the battlements go by
Soldier men against the sky,
Violent lovers, husbands, sons,
Guarding my peaceful life with guns.
My pleasures, how discreet they are!
A little booze, a little car,
Two little children and a wife
Living a small suburban life.
My little children eat my heart;
At seven o’clock we kiss and part,
At seven o’clock we meet again;
They eat my heart and grow to men.
I watch their tenderness with fear
While on the battlements I hear
The violent, obedient ones
Guarding my family with guns.
“War on the Periphery” is neither pro- nor anti-war, and the tension between the sing-song form and the grim, matter-of-fact subject matter stays nice and taut to the very end, like a hangman’s rope. Johnston’s speaker lives, as many Westerners do, in a peaceful-enough place, insulated by walls, their soldiers, “[a] little booze.” But it’s a hard-won haven and maybe not even that. “They eat my heart and grow to men,” the patriarch says of his hungry children (barely concealed cannibals) with whom he’s walled in. “War on the Periphery” was published in the New Yorker in 1951 and thought pretty riveting by its first readers; today, one can imagine the poem’s study of a world in which wars cannot be separated out from the suburbs they purport to protect—a world in which rough men are said to stand ready to do violence on behalf of the drowsy—being cited by the devotees of a Dick Cheney as much as those of a George Orwell. But the study of a world in which even “ordinary” relationships between parent and offspring are exercises of power would resonate with readers who are up on their Foucault, too.
Many of the poems in The Essential George Johnston are similarly ambiguous and ever so slightly unsettled. Sarah is a dab hand; she has avoided Johnston’s longer verse and his translations. Only a couple of poems starring his troupe of everymen—homier takes on Eliot’s Prufrock and Kees’s Robinson, which appeared in Johnston’s early collections—have been included. What’s left are some forty-eight pages of the poet’s better poems: the slightly darker, richer stuff. Not that Johnston’s body of work was in dire need of pruning. He took poetry seriously enough not to publish very much of it, and put out a collection something like every six years. Plus, each installment in the Porcupine Quill’s “Essential Poets” series tops out at a humane forty-eight or so pages, which one can not only get through but imagine rereading. Sarah’s sharp editing simply brings a series of unsentimental and utterly essential set pieces into vivid relief: a suicide’s hat makes its way out to sea; a cat toys with a baby bird; a man, considering straw smoke, imagines his cremation.
Perhaps, then, Johnston is less a “radical poet” and more the author of a clutch of poems that come to no easy conclusions and display a wide enough range of forms that we can save the fellow the indignity of classifying him. And anyway, the adjective “radical,” when applied to the noun “poet,” is redundant. Any person worth calling a poet (and there are far fewer of these than we might prefer) writes poetry because more basic modes of communication (like the emoticon-caulked prose of texting, say) just won’t do—because basic communication isn’t the point. “All poetry is experimental poetry,” wrote Stevens. In other words, all poets are always already “radical” or “experimental” or “innovative.” This isn’t to suggest that good poets haven’t occasionally huddled around some hub, mimeographed or e-mailed a manifesto, and declared themselves an avant-garde; this is only to suggest that all poets are mavericks, whether they, or their circle, choose to brand themselves as such or not. Johnston, for his part, didn’t much think of himself as a poet, let alone a maverick. He had other interests, for one thing, from bell ringing to beekeeping, and other titles, as esteemed translator of the Icelandic sagas and beloved teacher (though he avoided, what he called with almost Poundian comedy, “creyative workshops”). But also, his seems to have been a vintage strain of modesty, which, if it resisted the title ‘“poet,” did so out of a healthy respect for the word.
* * *
One of the presses apparently preferred by those who self-brand or are branded as “mavericks” is Toronto’s Coach House Books, which, its website boasts, “has been publishing and printing high-quality innovative fiction and poetry since 1965” (italics mine, but just barely). To fancy one’s maverickness too much is to risk seeming as dated as Dada or as self-mythologizing as Sarah Palin. But there’s nothing dated or self-mythologizing about Dodds’s debut collection, Crabwise to the Hounds, which has got to be the best book of poems its publisher has typeset in years, though not because Dodds is some “radical poet” but rather because he is, like Johnston, simply (though not merely) a poet. (If anything, he seems to have an interest, as Johnston most definitely did, in tracing roots; Dodds has been translating the Poetic Edda, that cache of poems in Old Norse.)
Still, some will want to claim Dodds for the revolution, and not necessarily those professional avant-gardists looking to fill their ranks. A recent review of Crabwise to the Hounds, by an otherwise sensible reviewer, insists, “if this book can be characterized it must be considered part of the avant-garde.” But must it? And which avant-garde? (There seem to be so many of the things, tramping bravely forward.) Perhaps the assertion ought to be: if this book must be characterized it can be considered part of an avant-garde. And yet Dodds, for his part, doesn’t appear to have imposed upon his poems the duty of prodding the reader out of passivity by scrambling the order of words for the sheer sake of scrambling it; nor does he wheelbarrow in and dump at the reader’s feet all of the clauses it was his responsibility to organize. Boring as this may sound, a genuine jolt requires careful planning, and in the first two lines of the book’s first piece—a ruthlessly scant six words—Dodds’s planning pays off:
robbed of its river.
With those first two words, “A bed,” Dodds sets up the reader, gets her picturing something to sleep on. With the next four words, “robbed of its river,” Dodds startles the reader, pulls the bed out from under her. Also, by robbing a familiar word, “riverbed,” of its river, Dodds enables the reader to see the metaphor anew—perhaps to recognize, for the first time, that the word “riverbed” is a metaphor, that a river is like any other body stretched out on bedding, that its tossing and turning is not unlike a dreamer’s. And “robbed” is a smart choice (perhaps the only choice) not just because it alliterates with “river” but because it conceals that stolen “bed.”
A poem—whether fixed or free, lyric or language, traditional or experimental, name the deadlock—assures the reader that there’s a sound reason for most, if not all, of its words. Even if it has been channelled via meditation or hallucinogens or randomizing computer program, the poem will somehow account for the quality of the meditation or give some assurance that the hallucinogens have been well spent or the lines of code well programmed. Assurance is not reassurance, and Dodds, like Johnston, doesn’t comfort (a verb that’s far too maligned anyway). His talent is for using a minimum of well-chosen words to plant expectations which can then be teased, toyed with:
You can’t shoot
your mouth off if you’re out of earshot.
Let bylaws be bygones, don’t mind
your own business into the ground,
all that glitters is not cold to the touch.
You’re only human once. If you’ve taken
the American way down a one-way street,
you’ve got to wipe your nose with the heart
on your sleeve.
—From “The Epileptic Acupuncturist”
This is stimulating matter, and always one step ahead of the paying customer: constantly estranging but never, finally, frustrating or alienating. Dodds is too much the courteous showman (to nick an adjective from Adam Kirsch), and the reader, though much entertained, is no less critical for enjoying herself. “I’m not a huge fan of the non sequitur style of some surrealism,” Dodds says, in a recent interview:
I do want to make leaps, but I’d like the stunts to be well-planned, the landings as smooth as I can get them. More like a short-sighted and washed-up Evel Knieval [sic] than a Dadaist monk shot from a rabbit.
Dodds is having a moment in Canada. One news site recently named him one of the top ten best poets in the country. He’s not, but he’s a good poet, and Crabwise to the Hounds deserves a good fraction of the attention it has gotten even if one senses that it’s too much a young man’s book, that some of its pieces seem to do little more than stockpile startling images, that some seem to end where they end because the poet ran out of startling images to stockpile. Still, “short-sighted” as this young man’s well-planned stunts may be, how many of us can manage even one image as startling as any of these:
your eyes as you pilot your lighter-than-air
craft, making pylons of the factory stacks.
Balletic birds will crumple the quiet
with a conniption of trills over your lofting
bladder of boiled draft. By the seashore,
you’ll see an octopus catcher plug his trident
into the beach as an abandoned bathysphere
pitches and bobs like last night’s last pub dancer.
Downwind, two lovers will breathe in the cave
of a capsized dory, beneath the squall that will soon
toss your hand-blown bulb and basket off course,
touching it down on a crop-circled bull’s eye,
a hork’s distance from the rehearsal hall.
—From “Modulated Timbre and Cadence for Baby Grand”
“New-fangled, old-fangled, / in, either way,” writes George Johnston in a poem for another poet. Johnston, it’s safe to say, has never really been “in.” Dodds, however, is very much “in,” though this shouldn’t be counted against him (if anything, it ought to worry him; as television’s Abraham Simpson half-laments, half-warns, “I used to be with it. Then they changed what ‘it’ was.”). Johnston and Dodds are both new-fangled and old-fangled, which is only to say: each is a good poet, which itself is a redundancy and only to say: each is a poet, carrying out his respective offices, and needs no more boosterism than that.