Traveler by Devin Johnston

Reviewed By

“One can no more locate the unconscious impulse to a poem among the synapses of the brain,” Devin Johnston writes in the preface to Precipitations, his study of the relationship between contemporary poetry and the occult, “than one could uncover the source of Helicon’s springs. We might as well declare that poems drop from the sky.” The poems in Traveler, Johnston’s latest collection, amount to a weird affirmation of this statement. In the title poem, a Blackburnian warbler “drops” from the sky after a long journey, not to become a familiar poetic object, but to remain a being apart from the poet’s smooth-planed lamplit world. Listen:

From the foot of Cotopaxi
and across the Gulf

a Blackburnian warbler
follows a pulse,

follows Polaris
and the Pole’s magnetic field

through travail
and travel’s long ordeal,

until he drops
to a black walnut’s
pinnate leaves

tossing like waves
in the North Sea

and glances toward
my lamplit, stationary world
of smooth planes:

against a cloud,
his throat’s flame.

This perception of the bird, not as humanlike, or meaningful in human terms, is sympathetic, aware of the limitations that condition the attempt to make meaning of this encounter. The warbler glances toward the poet’s world—or the other way around— then flickers away in a sea of tossing leaves. We do not hear him warble; nor do we hear the poet warble back. There’s no exchange, yet in this imagining we still may feel, as Eliot said, something being communicated before it’s understood.

Johnston’s poems often feel like impingements on what might be understood. The single sentence of “Traveler” unfolds against the restraint of its lines, creating a wide-ranging sense of movement over and against scale: the bird in the Gulf; the bird in the tree; the sea in the tree; the poet in his world, staring; a yellow flash against a cloud. Johnston deftly moves between poetry’s usual work of attending to the much in the little to apprehending the little in the much.

Consider how far we travel: not only in space, from Ecuador to America, and time, but also, and most feelingly, in sound: through the voiceless plosives of all those p words—pulse, Polaris, pinnate, lamplit, planes—and through the efs that begin the poem to the flame that ends it, from magnetic fields to fire lodged in the throat, we follow a sonic pulse, the rhythmic life of the poem, across a gulf of sounds. Each line, each move, of the warbler’s fraught journey, of our fraught journey, feels pleasurably threatened and almost consummated as it shifts to the next. Almost, because here, as in many of the best poems in Traveler, we can hear every word in its particularity: the Blackburnian warbler is in the black walnut, but not of it. So much is not smooth about these worlds and words we inhabit and travel through.

Language, in Traveler, is both migrant and migration. Here is “Tangled Yarn”:

Darner, sewing needle,
exclamation damsel,

pennant, flying adder,
tang- or sanging eater,

fleeing eather, bluet,
steelyard, spindle, booklet,

skimmer, scarce or common,
sand or shadow dragon,

cruiser, shadow damsel,
devil’s horse or saddle,

darning needle, dancer,
meadow hawk or glider,

water naiad, threadtail,
sylph or sprite or penny nail.

There’s much to delight in here, as we float back and forth between the names for the “darner”—another stand-in for the poet, the weaver, but also the name of a dragonfly—and the names for what a dragonfly looks like—a sewing needle, a Naiad, a sprite, a penny nail. Johnston is a formalist: if you read this poem aloud, you can feel how the closed trimeter couplets end and do not end, how the rhymes almost feel like completion, then move on after another or, another comma. Yet in a pond of so many similar sounds, no two syllables rhyme straight except the last (tail-nail). Even the nouns that repeat—damsel, needle, or the more proximate shadow— sound different from one another because they enliven different positions in the poem’s ordering. And there’s something lovely in arriving at the extra syllable in the final line: the thinness and hardness and humanness of the carpenter’s penny nail, after so many viewless wings of poesy, after so much dancing lightness on a watery sonic surface of liquid el sounds, feels delicate and rough, fragile and rugged and powerful, all at the same time: it threatens to sink, but rises in pitch. It’s possible to take pleasure in this subtle disorder because we can hear and feel it after such fine-tuning.

“Tangled Yarn” entangles meanings and sounds. It also tells a kind of hidden story, a yarn, of human seeing and naming, of how the dragonfly got its name, appearing as it does, to sew along the water—a story of origins, one of the oldest kinds of stories we have. It’s also a list poem in a single, verbless sentence. The organized flirtation—between meaning and sound; coarseness and delicacy; between manmade and natural (saddle and horse, steelyard and meadow); fairytale and fairy (dragon and damsel, naiad and sprite); between pennant and penny; flight and flightlessness—lures us onward, revealing, then concealing, as the restless body of the poem shifts under the names of things.

Unlike Tangled Yarn,” which seduces while resisting narrative almost altogether, “Roget’s Thesaurus” offers us a story by which to read the nothing songs and list poems in Traveler. “At the first surge of psychotic trance,” Johnston writes,

to ward it off or ride it out,
Peter Roget took up a list:
breeds of dogs, human bones, anatomies
of cloud, or forms of transport.
It steadied his mind to study the spokes
of wheels glimpsed through vertical slats:
van, wagon, whisky, tumbrel, truck;
the blur of whips and hooves,
ornate signage stripped of syntax.

Here is a key to the collection, a way to hear the tune of these poems, as the epigraph by Louis Zukofsky has it, “making the nothing full.” After inviting us to consider Roget’s use of the resources of language, the poem moves to a prisoner leafing through the possible synonyms for trough. One feels, reading Devin Johnston’s poems, that it is true what Valery said: for a poet there is no such thing as a synonym.

Roget’s reaching for language in moments of crisis makes the anatomy of cloud that appears in final stanza of the opening poem of Traveler feel all the more painfully and clearly alive:

A twist of hair
threads the ring
of a dried-up sink
as stackenclouds and fibrous
sonderclouds draw silver
from common sagebrush,
or waneclouds streak
the afternoon with grains
of polished wood—

only to kindle flame
as everything shuts down
but cloudworks, unfinished
parts of a world.

The sense of reserve in Johnston’s poems often serves them well: they are momentary stays against confusion, sensitive to their and our momentariness. The surprising cloud names that end “From Medicine Lodge,” resurrected from the 19th century, conjure a kind of talismanic power. Whether to ward off a psychotic trance or ride it out, they are worth following, if only to see where they may take us. Here, they lead to the new the fresh neologism “cloudworks”—and to the “unfinished / parts of a world.” This is the destination toward which many of the poems impel us, even as the twist of hair that began the stanza moves, at the same time, toward a world in which we are finished and everything shuts down. These contrary impulses take us from the cloud in “Traveler,” against which the warbler’s throat is clearly seen, to the panic-made cloud of hoof raised dust in “High and Low,” to the reflections of cloud formations in which the bottom dwellers of the Wabash River hide in “Storm and Sturgeon.” Then, looking up, we may find we ourselves are cloudworks, unfinished parts of a world. It is good to travel with these poems.

Scott Challener teaches a course on Dante in the Writing Program at Boston University, as well as creative writing courses at Northeastern and Grub Street. More from this author →