Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Paul Foster Johnson, _Refrains/Unworkings_

I HAD heard of neither Apostrophe Books nor Paul Foster Johnson (who has, however, published in some cool places -- Octopus, Fence, canwehaveourballback) when I came into possession of this volume, but on this evidence, both deserve attention.

The shorter poems identified in their titles as "R1," R2," et cetera, up to "R22," are, I assume, the "refrains" of the book's titles, so the other five considerably longer poems must be the "unworkings," and it is these that most intrigued me.

In the first, "Rhythmicon," which opens the book, a speaker dwells on a proposed memorial, which, in the spirit of Goethe's remark on architecture as frozen music, seems to sometimes be a building metaphorically imagined in musical terms or a piece of music metaphorically imagined in architectural terms. It turns out, when we get to the endnotes, that the Rhythmicon was an early (or the first) electronic instrument, designed and built by Henry Cowell and Leon Theremin, capable of translating harmonic input into rhythmic output -- and what with the translation of one element of art into another, or one art into another, or the non-aesthetic into the aesthetic, we glimpse art and aesthetics as the book's predominant concerns.

Sometimes we seem to be eavesdropping on a hammer-and-tongs disagreement over the is/oughts of art, as in "R8: Measure for Measure." A certain class of artist -- or of aspirants to that status -- gets a good going-over in "R5: Marcelled Men of War." The longer and more ambitious "Sonatina for Piano, One Hand" contemplates an art constructed around an unnameable trauma -- like that of Paul Wittgenstein, a concert pianist who lost an arm in the First World War, but that is simply a starting point for Johnson.

Just about all the contemporary poetry I like reminds me in some way of Ashbery, and Johnson is no exception, with lateral leaps aplenty, and the Ashberyean penchant for constructing sentences of perfectly ordinary syntactical relations and perfectly ordinary lexical items that nonetheless hover tantalizingly beyond the outstretched fingers of reference.

I also hear Eliot, though, especially in the 11-page "Clone Memoir," which in its first-person-plural pronouns and the speakers' mood of having fatally missed a vanished opportunity by sloth. cowardice, and inattention, reminds me much of "The Hollow Men." The following (from pp 38-39) almost sounds like a "Hollow Men" outtake (or parody):

From a mess of grass
there was speech
in the roof garden
a complaint of the throat
affirming the roof garden
under little stars that lumbered

There's even an apparent pendant to the poem (as "Eyes that last I saw in tears" is a pendant to "The Hollow Men") in "R10: Lyric." And I couldn't let this topic go without noting that "Clone Memoir" even veers toward Eliot's "Marina" on p. 34: pine, fog, Shakespearean allusion....

The final poem, "Art of the Cities," begins as if were a revision -- or a precursor? -- to "Rhythmicon," much the same words as the volume's first poem but differently lineated, somehow sounding a bit closer to blank verse, but then taking off in pursuit of its own vector. A palinode? A kaledioscopic rearrangement, à la Stevens's "Sea Surface with Clouds"? A forking path? Damned if I know. Paul Foster Johnson is one clever guy and I hope to see more of his work.

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