Devin Johnston
Turtle Point Press ($15.95)

by Joseph Bradshaw

In his essay “On Robert Duncan,” Michael Palmer posits that Duncan’s modeling of himself as a “derivative” poet—“a poet of near infinite derivations”—is “grounded in his conviction regarding poetry’s responsibility toward and derivation from the immediate world, that is, a world of multiple immediacies, socio-political, sexual, psychic, and imaginal.” This intermingling of textual and experiential derivations conflates the “read” with the “lived,” and it is just this conflation—a paradox, if you want to call it that—that forms the core of Duncan’s expansive, difficult poetic.

Duncan scholar and poet Devin Johnston explores this same conflation of the read and the lived in his aptly titled Sources. As with his previous collection, 2004’s excellent Aversions, there is the presence of ancient voices such as Propertius and Sulla, and layered allusions to a rich lyric history. In Sources, however, these voices seem more intermingled with invasive memory, door-stoop observations, travelogues, reflections on bird flight and relationships gone awry—voices more intermingled, in short, with “the immediate world.”

Take, for instance, the second stanza of “After Sappho”:

Everybody knows—every day
some Helen leaves her husband, home,
and daughter, to board a train that’s bound
for Shreveport or Cheyenne

Where George Oppen in “Of Being Numerous” takes pains to inform us that the Phyllis he’s referring to is “not neo-classic”—“the girl’s name is Phyllis,” he insists—the name Helen (a name readily associated with the horrors of war) here assumes its mythological weight while implying a generic category of contemporary experience—the wife abandoning home. Curiously, while the mythological name is in part made generic and deflated, the place names here are elevated to the level of myth: What’s in Shreveport or Cheyenne anyway? Refuge from violence? Wounded soldiers of the War?

Wallace Stevens once famously said that a poet can write about war by describing the movements of ice skaters. With “After Sappho” Johnston demonstrates that a poet can write about war by conflating the present with the mythological past. The poem continues:

—led astray, I almost said

but that she steps
so lightly down.
Which brings to mind Elena—
she’s not here.

I’d rather catch her eye
across the shop
counter than watch
a full squadron rise
by vectored thrust
above the dunes.

Elena, a derivation of Helen, is invoked after Helen “steps / so lightly down,” as from a train platform—an immediate place and experience. But Elena is invoked against her absence—“she’s not here”—she’s only alluded to by Helen’s bodily movements. In other words, Elena would be our non-neoclassical Helen if she were present. And she would most certainly be more lovely to regard than “a full squadron rise / by vectored thrust.” But alas, “across the shop / counter” we have only American television screens delivering far-off wars, as we sit with the myths we choose to live among—the sources that inform our experience, which in turn inform and alter our other, perhaps deeper, sources.

While “After Sappho” cannot be called a translation, it does carry Sappho across the expanse of history into the present moment. This poem, like many in Sources, is rather a re-version, or, to use the etymological heft of that word, a re-turning—a slow grinding and enriching of the same soil that Master Duncan ground into our common poetic culture. It is our job as readers, if we too are to be enriched by the common work, to take the handle of the plow (or, if you prefer, the rototiller) and give ourselves over to the “infinite derivations” of attention that Johnston’s poems ask of us.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009