The freedom of restraint

A review of Devin Johnston's "Traveler"



Devin Johnston

Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2011, 80 pages, $23, ISBN 0374279330

The title of Devin Johnston’s newest book of poems, Traveler, operates in several ways: The title poem, for example, is about a bird, specifically a “Blackburnian warbler,” that travels from “the foot of Cotopaxi / and across the Gulf” to the speaker’s yard, where he (the bird) “glances toward / [the speaker’s] lamplit stationary world / of smooth planes.” Such global mobility, of course, doesn’t belong strictly to migrating birds. It’s a restless race Johnston belongs to.

That restlessness is most clearly expressed in a second, more salient meaning of the title word. These poems travel: the “lamplit stationary world / of smooth planes” contains a pun. It’s from his desk that the speaker takes off and jets through the world: “The hours spent on transpacific flights / pass like a sandstorm through the Mongol steppes,” Johnston writes in “Foreign Object.” The poem “Marco Polo” describes the speaker’s daughter who, “in her high chair” at dusk, “echoes the names of things / in early Mandarin or Cantonese,” while “the neighbors’ children shout Marco! Polo! / in antiphony across the swimming pool.” So much distance covered in so few words. That’s one way the poems travel, through geography. But they also travel through time, as in the first two strophes of “Set Apart”:

Set apart
from the compound
friction of forest
a rough-barked
bur oak,
mostly trunk,
its understory.

A sapling in 1700,
it rose like smoke
from leaf litter,
a totem for those
who told tales
every episode
the offspring
of earth and sky.

Or take the entirety of “Static”:

Zipping your skirt, you rustle past,
sand hissing through a glass,
with the Bedouin snap and flash
of static-electric
sparks disturbing fabric.
This morning’s charge could rouse
The Desert Fathers of Sinai

over which I drowse.

Here, Johnston connects the now (the skirt being zipped up in present tense) with the then (the metaphor of the outmoded timekeeper, the hourglass), even as his attention travels from the book in his hands to the woman getting dressed (though in the poem, the woman’s action happens first — as in aging, we often see we’ve traveled after the fact). He also travels among thoughts and modes of consciousness: from the austere contemplations of the ancients to the hint of sexual arousal implicit in “[T]his morning’s charge.” Johnston repeatedly reminds us how language, from its figures of speech to the etymologies of its words, ramifies surprisingly, resonantly. He does this without using a heavy hand.

The lightness of touch is in league with the form of these poems. Something else the book’s title evokes is the traveler in a sailboat, a device allowing the boom to swing without swinging too far to port or starboard. The traveler gives the sail liberty to catch the changing currents of air while also reining it in, so that it doesn’t, in a lovely turn of phrase I once heard from a sailing instructor, “spill the wind” and thus stall forward progress. The traveler provides both freedom and restraint, a combination of qualities that abounds in Johnston’s well-trimmed sentences:

Beneath an icy
     column thick as phlegm,
this cold coyote
     of our river system
peers through a scrim
     of silt and leaf debris
as lightning skims
     the shoals of Harmonie. (“Storm and Sturgeon”)

Another example:

My daughter, three, lies awake
talking in confidential tones
with one she calls
my friend who eats me.

Its very name raises the question
of where to draw a line
in affinities and affections. (“Appetites”)

One more:

Like cordage from a lost rig,
a loose braid of bullwhips
breaches a wave, holdfast
anchors adrift, canopy ripped.
Bladder wrack or black tang
wraps a hollow bulb,
and from each terminal, a stipe
curls in Arabic script. (“At Sea Ranch”)

That last passage shows another of Johnston’s proclivities: traveling through the lexicon to find the obscure word apt both in meaning and ripeness of sound. (One poem is called “Thesaurus.”) His sentences and lines are limber and concise. The end-rhymes in “Storm and Sturgeon” unfold naturally; the pivot from story to its contemplation in “Appetites” occurs cleanly and without friction. The poems go down deceptively easy, and that might be the only criticism one can level at this book. Traveler brings to mind a number of other poets: H.D., Wallace Stevens, George Oppen, Kay Ryan. But the comparison that most readily springs to my mind is to the indie band Spoon. Like Johnston, Spoon’s songs are stringently disciplined yet tuneful. If you’re like me, you sometimes wish the music would break open and risk the embarrassment of the grand gesture or the indefensible sentiment. At the same time, you’re glad it doesn’t. Part of me suspects that Devin Johnston is a great poet. All of me can’t be sure.

That uncertainty is a theme of the book. Traveling through experiences real and imagined and then recounting them is a way to bring order, to quote Wallace Stevens, to “the nothing that is.” The book’s epigraph, taken from Louis Zukofsky, seems to make this explicit: “The lines of this new song are nothing / But a tune making the nothing full.” Yet Johnston appears to admit that this is not enough. The young lovers in the carport in the last section of “Appetites,” “[r]avenous for each other,” get to have each other yet remain “unslaked.” At some point they’ll have to leave the car and return to their homes. Traveler serves as metaphor for the fleetingness of such experiences. Its poems are so well made you forget, even as your ear is enjoying the beauty of their surfaces and the ideas they contain, that they soon will end.