the end of this long poem ARK, Ronald Johnson has appended
a two-page explanatory note, the first lines of which inform us that
Johnson spent over twenty years composing the work we've just read.
The note is dated 1991. A quick glance at the copyright page will confirm
that it then took Johnson another five years to get his masterwork
into print. Thankfully, he persevered and the complete ARK is
available “At last!”—as its author inscribed every time he autographed
Johnson's difficulty in finding a publisher for ARK is no
mystery: there simply isn't a very large audience for his work, no
market for any publisher
to target. When the first third of ARK was published by North Point Press
in 1980, a reviewer estimated that Johnson's readership totaled about 50. There
is no reason to believe that number has grown appreciably since then, posing
any number of difficulties for your friendly reviewer, foremost among them: how
to introduce an author to a wider public via his masterpiece? A masterpiece,
at the very least, presumes the knowledge of other of an author's pieces to be
used for comparison, and in Johnson's case, very few have this context, thus
making any declarations of ARK's status as a masterpiece empty encomiums.
Hoping to convince others of ARK's value, and yet unable to determine
what might convince the uninitiated to take a chance, I've asked the editor of
the Authors Review of Books to stand in as a representative of the type
of audience who should be reading ARK and asked him to pose the potential
queries members of this audience might ask about this poem.
Scott: This is a huge poem. Why is it so big?
All night the golden fruit fell softly to the air,
Dirk: Long Poem Syndrome seems to strike most poets
at some point in their career. The accomplishment of Homer keeps everyone in
the shadows and itching to break out with an epic of their own. Johnson's immediate
precursors, however, are Ezra Pound (The Cantos), Louis Zukofsky ("A"),
and Charles Olson (The Maximus Poems), all of whom used various historical
materials to help shape their long poems. Johnson, on the other hand, seeking
to write a poem "without history" attempts to write what Edgar Allan Poe declared
was impossible: a long poem that maintains--throughout--the intensity of a
short lyric poem.
Scott: What is the meaning of ARK?
Dirk: 1. Noah's Ark, which becomes by the final lines of the poem a
spaceship to Alpha Centauri.
2. The Ark of the Covenant, with all the grim orthodoxy scraped off.
3. Ark = arc(s), whether of rainbow or electricity or . . . .
4. A monument to be built in Kansas; the poem is the blueprint.
Scott: What is a language poet, and why?
Dirk: If Johnson were a language poet, this question would be relevant.
Fortunately, he isn't, though he knows some.
Scott: What's with the architectonics?
Dirk: Writing a long poem "without history" means, in practice, that Johnson
avoids narrative of all kinds. Johnson sets out to celebrate, with touches of
mysticism and gobs of transcendentalism, the vibrant, creative beauty of the
universe, and he does this by constructing his own intricate and wondrous construction.
Instead of story arcs, Johnson gives us architecture. From his explanatory note: "Literally
an architecture, ARK is fitted together with shards of language, in
a kind of cement of music. Based on trinities, its cornerstones the eye, the
the mind, its three books consist of The Foundations, of which there are 33
beams, then The Spires of which there are 33 built on top, with 33 arcades
of The Ramparts
rounding the periphery. The first book goes from sunrise to noon, the second
ends at sunset. . . . The third is the night of the soul." Johnson, then, is
concerned with documenting THE Day, not particular days and individual events,
and thus relies on his formal structures to suggest such an "ideal" day. (The
resemblance of Johnson's three book format to Dante's Commedia has been
noted by some commentators, though Johnson denies the influence.)
Scott: Doesn't this guy write cookbooks?
Dirk: Yes. For a time, Johnson was even able to make a modest living
by writing cookbooks. Sadly, that time has passed. However, the University
Mexico Press still carries his Southwest Cooking, and distributes reprints
of his other cookbooks which are published by Living Batch Press.
Scott: Why are there no page numbers, man, there are no page numbers.
That's crazy, isn't it?
Dirk: No crazier than Ed Dorn's Gunslinger which also had no page
numbers (the first edition, that is). Page numbers would only reinforce time's
linearity. In ARK it doesn't matter where or when you are because ARK is
about when timelessness meets everywhere.
Scott: What's with the handprint on Beam 18?
Dirk: For many years, Johnson identified himself as a Concrete poet;
the handprint derives from Concrete poetic practice. Later in ARK Johnson "writes
through" the Psalms of the Bible and calls the results "Palms."
Scott: What other writers would you compare this guy with?
Dirk: No one really; Johnson is pretty much sui generis. He claims
to be a disciple of Louis Zukofsky (via Mallarme) and Charles Olson. However,
he has a much better eye than Zukofsky and a far better ear (way, way better)
than Olson. Robert Duncan seems closer to me, but still I find the comparison
less than useful. And while Johnson's collage techniques sometimes produce
work that resembles the "meaning-free" zones developed by the Language poets, Johnson
always has a point and is never as unreadable.
Scott: What's the structure on the front of the cover, and how is it all
related to Don DeLillo, and why?
Dirk:: The cover photo shows a detail of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles.
Johnson says he built ARK using the same principles Sam Rodia used to
construct the towers, which are immense collages of found objects. While Rodia
collected bottles and other discarded items, Johnson collects words and phrases,
and then artfully arranges them. No direct connection with Don DeLillo has
been identified. Yet.
Scott: Except that the Watts Towers also figure prominently in Underworld, and
serve a metaphorical function in a similar way. I suspect a conspiracy. So
anyway, what does this poem got to say about love?
Dirk:: Not much.
Scott: So why should I read it?
Dirk:: For lines like these:
pips ablaze, our eyes skinned back.
Clouds loom below. Pocked moon fills half the sky. Stars
comb out its lumen
in gone-to-seed dandelion
as of snowflakes hitting black water, time, and again