Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses

Ronald Johnson
The Song Cave ($18.95)

by Ross Hair

First published in 1969, Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses, Ronald Johnson’s third book of poetry, consolidates the strengths of his earlier work while foreshadowing his epic poem ARK, which he began writing in 1970. The book is comprised of two parts; the first, “A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees,” consists of a selection of poems from Johnson’s 1964 debut volume of the same title, and the second, “The Different Musics,” collects poems Johnson wrote between 1966 and 1967. The title of Johnson’s book is taken from the Valley conjured in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Eleanora”—an idyllic place where, amidst its “thousands of forest trees” and “many millions of fragrant flowers,” the story’s narrator dwells with his cousin Eleanor and her mother.

Existing somewhere between scrupulously observed fact and visionary transmutation, the worlds evoked in “A Line of Poetry” are not only as luxuriant as Poe’s Valley, but also as utopic. “This is the Garden,” Johnson writes in “Shake, Quoth the Dove House,” “where all is a poet’s / topiary. Where even the trees / shall have tongues, green aviaries, / to rustle at his will”:


both lines of poetry, rows
of trees,
shall spring all

out ‘of the lust of

the earth,
a formal seed’.

In “Four Orphic Poems” we find the poet evoking Thoreau—one of several Transcendentalists that inform the poems in Johnson’s Valley—as they attempt to read the Book of Nature:

& I (like
Thoreau) sit here engrossed,

‘between a microscopic & a telescopic
attempting to read

the twigged, branchy writing

of frost, spider & galactic cluster.

As well as reading nature’s “green / script,” Johnson also reads what others before him (poets, botanists, painters, composers, scientists) have written about it. Thus, throughout the book he liberally quotes the words of others, plotting his transplanted material on the page with the care of a gardener who seeks “clear space // to cultivate // the Wild, Espaliered, Tangled, / Clipped // estate.” However, compared to the open field collage poetics of the Black Mountain poets, Johnson foregoes extemporization for a more proportioned, more serene approach to composition that circumvents the bluster his older peers could be prone to.

As much as the poems comprising “The Different Musics” continue Johnson’s fascination for the “sweet proportion / & order” of both micro- and macrocosm, they also more explicitly acknowledge the sensual, erotic forces—the “rude / & stammering / organs”—by which “NATURE CONSPIRES.” Whereas in “A Line of Poetry” we find sowers, including Johnny Appleseed, casting their seeds in dark fields, and sunflowers “heavy in the head, with / seed,” in “The Different Musics” propagation assumes more phallic proportions. This is evident in Johnson’s series of ekphrastic poems on the dream-like jungle scenes created by French painter Henri Rousseau. “The Snake Charmer,” for example, depicts Rousseau’s eponymous subject, a “flautist of the sinuous phallus,” amidst a lush amatory landscape wherein “two pale fox-gloves secretly erect themselves, // deeper within the thicket” and “soft, foliaceous / labials” suggest fellatio.

The erotic charge of “The Different Musics,” and the new perspective it brings to Johnson’s cosmopoiesis, recalls the transfiguration that the Valley in Poe’s “Eleanora” undergoes following the sexual awakening of the story’s young protagonists. “A change fell upon all things,” Poe’s narrator writes: “And life arose in our paths; for the tall flamingo, hitherto unseen, with all gay glowing birds, flaunted his scarlet plumage before us.” As the young lovers’ sexual awareness burgeons and grows, new strange flowers blossom on the trees in the Valley and “ruby-red asphodel” (an omen of morality) grows where before were only daisies.

In “The Different Musics” this correspondence between sexual agency and a heightened perception of “the great grassy world” is evident in “Letters to Walt Whitman,” a suite of ten poems that answer the poet’s Leaves of Grass. “But I have come O Walt,” Johnson writes in Letter III, “for the interchange, promised, of calamus, / masculine, sweet-smelling root, / between us”:

Calamus, ‘sweet flag’,
that still thrusts itself up,

that seasonally thrusts itself up for lovers.

This “interchange” often occurs via homonyms and double-entendres. In Letter II, for example, “the vast organic slough / of the earth, / the exquisite eye / —as myriad upon myriad of dandelions— // seeding itself on the air,” adumbrates the ejaculatory act implicit in the foregoing exhortation: “I have come O Whitman.” At the same time, such dissemination also speaks to “the intimate kernel,” the germinal life force, of the “ample prairie” that is Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “The intimate kernel putting forth final leaf // from The Valley Of The Many-Colored Grasses.” Here, “leaf” suggests both a “stalk of grass” and the page of a book: Whitman’s, Johnson’s, and Nature’s.

Johnson writes in “Letters to Walt Whitman” of having “lain in the open night // till my shoulders felt twin roots, & the tree of my sight / swayed, / among the stars.” A similar fusion is evoked in Johnson’s earlier poem, which quotes Henry David Thoreau’s elegiac essay “Autumnal Tints”:

            ‘When Men Will Lie Down
                        as Gracefully & as Ripe—

            with such an Indian-summer serenity
            will shed their bodies
            as they do their hair & nails’.

Fall leaves, Thoreau (dying of tuberculosis at the time) writes, “teach us how to die.” For, Johnson, however, who omits a portion of Thoreau’s original text—“One wonders if the time will ever come when men, with their boasted faith in immortality, will lie down as gracefully”—this image of recumbent men shuns the hubris of immortality for the more modest grace and fecundity of seasonal time and change; the “subtler harmonies, coming of growth /  & of death.”

The reclining figures in both of Johnson’s poems are repeated on the cover of this beautiful new edition of Valley, which uses a photograph by Johnson’s friend Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Meatyard’s multiple-exposure technique makes his male subject appear to fuse with (or dissolve into) the rocky terrain about him. If this recalls the way in which the poet in “The Different Musics,” searching the dictionary, humbly finds “among DUST / vapor, storm, breath, smoke: // ‘the earthly remains of bodies once alive— / a confusion— / a single particle, as of earth,’” it also reiterates the affirmation that Johnson expresses throughout his book for the largesse of life itself. To have this book finally back in print, and reminding us of such verities, is simply a splendid thing.

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