Review by Brad Haas


Ronald Johnson
Talisman House, 2000
paperback $16.95

   It is interesting to trace the history of books that do not exist. In 1996 Boise State University as part of its 'Western Writers Series' issued a small monograph on Ronald Johnson, timed, no doubt, to coincide with the publication of Johnson's completed masterwork, ARK. The bibliography in this monograph provided a list of 'primary sources' that included two books - Collected Early and Short Poems and The Outworks of ARK - both to be published during 1997 by Living Batch Books, the publisher of ARK itself (tho in a note to Peter O'Leary's article 'ARK as Spiritual Phenomenon' (Sagetrieb Vol. 14, No. 3; Winter 1995) the publisher of The Outworks is given as Sun and Moon Press, 1997). These two books would have been welcome. To start, much of Johnson's early work was published by small presses in limited editions or in journals (the two notable exceptions are The Book of the Green Man (1967) and The Valley of the Many Colored Grasses (1969), both published by Norton). By 1997 someone wanting to trace Johnson's development would either have had to spend a good deal of time and money acquiring all the separate publications (many of which had become collectable), or spend a great deal of time in research libraries. A collection that would have gathered the poems from their diverse sources would have been useful to say the least. The Outworks is a different story. ARK was conceived in three sections of 33, and Johnson envisioned making an ARK 100 called The Outworks. What exactly was to have been included in The Outworks was (and still is) unclear. In all cases it would have included Johnson's unique volume RADIOS (poems made by excising words from a 1892 printing of Paradise Lost, the first four books of which were completed and published by the Sandollar Press, 1977) as well as other short poems to create 'a sort of garden surrounding ARK' (Stratton, Dirk. Ronald Johnson. Idaho, 1996). As of mid way through the year 2000 neither the Early and Short Poems or The Outworks has appeared...

   To sum up, ARK was published in 1996 and increased interest in Johnson's work. The Early and Short Poems and The Outworks were intended, it would seem, to be issued during Johnson's lifetime, with his input and supervision, and they would have been during his lifetime if they had been issued in 1997, as the above sources indicate. But they weren't, and Johnson died in 1998. It is not all horrible news, however. The year 2000 has seen a conference devoted to Johnson at Buffalo, and the publication of To Do As Adam Did.

   The first duty is to thank Talisman House for issuing a selection of Johnson's poetry accessible to the general reading public. It is clear that this book is intended as an introduction to a poet who has been in the background for a long time, a poet known among poets, but not known to readers. The selection by O'Leary covers the gamut of Johnson's output, from the early Olsonian poems of A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees to the concrete elegance of Songs of the Earth, to the culmination of his experiments in sections of ARK. As such To Do As Adam Did is a respectable sampler. There are, however, some concerns for those more familiar with Johnson's work.

   One third of the book is devoted to selections from ARK. O'Leary defends this by saying, rightly, that ARK is Johnson's masterpiece, and as such is given as much space as possible. Fair enough. But this is not a very long book (151pp.) and ARK is still in print and obtainable. While it is pleasant to think that To Do As Adam Did will be picked up by uninitiated readers or used by enlightened professors as a text for a poetry course, it will most likely be sought out by those already enthralled by ARK, in which case they will be disappointed that a large portion of To Do As Adam Did contains material they have already read. There are only 100 pages of non-ARK poems, and a fair amount of this is given to selections from The Book of the Green Man - again a wonderful poem, and out of print, but one of the more easily obtained titles in Johnson's bibliography. The most absurd decision was to include three pages from RADIOS - it is far too tantalizing and tortuous. RADIOS is still out of print, and for some reason very difficult to find. Since it is so obviously linked with the overall scheme of ARK, one would have thought it would have been given more space in To Do As Adam Did. Who knows, perhaps O'Leary is aware of a complete reprint coming in the near future. Still as I sit looking at copies at ARK and To Do As Adam Did I wish there was less of ARK in O'Leary's selection, and more from the lovely early poems from A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees, or that he had reprinted the pamphlet 'The Spirit Walks, The Rocks Will Talk', a seminal poetic statement related to the formation of ARK that is only available in an out of print signed, limited edition. It would not have taken more than a couple of pages, so why wasn't it included?

   Now, despite the reservations, here is praise for what is included: the poems from A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees and The Valley of the Many Colored Grasses- especially the wonderful 'Lilacs, Portals, Evocations' - see Johnson grappling with his masters and his sense of geography:

Kansas, of 
sand plums & muddy rivers 
from where I come 

         once all roads led out, east, west, 
         into high 
         ways & winding sea roads, 
                                                     where Zukofsky 

up from Willow, Brooklyn Heights, 
the streets of Gloucester out to Olson, Fort Point, 
Ruggles at the Cut-Leaf Maples 
Motel, Vermont, 

& Ives under Danbury's 

         are now ways homeward. 

These early poems are absolutely essential to see how Johnson came to write something like ARK. They are the beginnings, derivative in some ways, but nonetheless beautiful. Then there is the reprint of SONGS OF THE EARTH in its entirety. Some might argue that this cannot replace the first edition, since that scarce book was created as an object with a tactile element (i.e. type faces, hand-made papers, etc.) that cannot be reproduced in a trade format. Still, this is the closest many readers will come to this stunning visual poetry, which includes what is arguabley Johnson's most recognizable poem, that appears here as well as in a section of ARK:
There are two types of concrete poetry, one that focuses on the visual shape of the poem, the other that focuses on the meanings of the words. Johnson creates the second kind of poem, and is able, in a poem as seemingly simple as this, to create profound resonances: the arrangement of the word 'earth', repeating without spaces, reveals 'ear', 'art', 'heart', 'hearth', 'he', and even Zukofsky's 'little words': 'a' and 'the'. All these elements are necessary to the poets craft; to record a version of the earth, 'he' must be grounded in his place, locally by his 'hearth', must be 'sincere', as Zukofsky would say, in the practice of this 'art', which involves loving what is seen with the 'heart', as well as encorperating the music that is made with the 'ear'. These things emerge from the 'earth', and are seen to be elements of it. Along with these re-printed poems is the final section of previously unpublished material under the title 'The Shrubberies', poems Johnson was working on up to his death. These are slight poems, momentary lyric meditations, terse and searching, seeming fragmentary like journal entries:
create, destroy, to be 
through noxious fumes 
lava scarlet flow 
sunder, sunder, sunder 
To Do As Adam Did contains some wonderful poetry, and shows very well the development of Johnson's use of collage and concretion, but it could have gone much further. This is echoed physically in the slender form of the book, and the rather stiff price tag that goes with it ($16.95 for the softcover) - the price one needs to pay, it seems, for a few Johnson rarities.