Review by Brad Haas

The Shrubberies

Ronald Johnson
Edited by Peter O’Leary
Flood Editions, 2001

Peter O’Leary was responsible for the Talisman House edition of To Do As Adam Did: The Selected Poems of Ronald Johnson,1 an admirable sampling of this important poet’s work.  In a response to my review of To Do As Adam Did, O’Leary explained that he would have loved to have had more space, but was limited to the 150 pages allotted the project.  The purpose of that volume was to act as an introduction to those who had not been exposed to Johnson’s rather hard to find books, and as such, To Do As Adam Did works quite well, and fills, even momentarily, a space that should be filled by more complete volumes, hopefully in the near future.
    The final section of To Do As Adam Did is titled ‘The Shrubberies’, and is touted as some of the final poems Johnson wrote before his death.  That section turns out to be a teaser for a much larger collection, which has been edited once again by O’Leary in this volume from Flood Editions.  The approximately 125 poems here represent the final project Johnson was working on when he died in 1998.  As O’Leary says in his afterward, ‘When RJ asked me to be his literary executor, one of his instructions was to “prune the shrubs,” which he described as a “great shaggy manuscript.”’  The endeavor left to O’Leary was much the same - albeit on a much smaller scale - as the one George Butterick faced when dealing with the third volume of The Maximus Poems: how to shape it.  O’Leary takes much the same approach as Butterick did, which was to study the manuscripts, look for duplications of poems, discern Johnson’s working methods to decide which versions were either further along or absolutely finished, leave out those obviously unfinished, and publish the chosen poems in a chronological order.  It may be possible that Johnson would have ordered them differently, if he had had the chance - we simply don’t know.  The result for the reader is a fascinating look at a work in progress, made up of individual poems - finished in their own right - yet hinting at a greater schemata at once close and ultimately out of reach.
    The Shrubberies might remind one of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, which was edited by Ted Hughes in much the same manner.  As we read the poems in Ariel (which she wrote in spurts, as many as three in a day) we can see the last months of Plath’s life unfold, and themes develop from one poem to the next (as in the ‘Bee’ poems, which seem to flow from one to the next in a startling fashion). The Shrubberies allow similar insights.  While the poems are not divided, there is a clear sense of working ‘phases’, poems with similar themes, strategies, and moods.  In his Afterward, O’Leary suggests that Johnson, ‘appears to have considered at least two schemes for the book: one as a tour through a garden; the other as a record of the changing seasons.  Neither of these schemes organizes the manuscript thoroughly.  By the last poems, his attention turns from the particularities of the natural world to the cosmos at large.’ (128) 2 I would say further that the poems tend to be of three  types.  First are those that record, as O’Leary says, the ‘particularities of the natural world’ with an objectivist clarity, as shown in the two following examples:

squirrels chase butterflies
in branched perpendiculars
the bird-baths are full
reflecting piled-up cumulus

a slither of scarlet & black
goldfish snap for crumbs
the sound of the Mower himself
all afternoons surround (7)


a homing of hummingbirds
to a singular blossom (10)

In these two poems there is a strong sense of focus on the details of the objects in nature, along with an ordering of these perceptions in a clear and musical tone, full of rhythm and alliteration, which are hallmarks of Johnson’s style.  The second type of poem is more overtly sensual, not merely allowing the objects to speak, but showing human response to the surroundings, often with an underlying eroticism:

rude spring on air
sperm in the offing

to suckle anew,
sweat answer pulse

intimate portcullis
we sweet animals

then long hiatus (39)


a grove of lemons, vanilla
sure catalyst of ecstasy

host bicyclist, picnicker
assured dappling shade

so dazzlingly yellow
pure plunder of senses (42)

The third type concerns process, not only showing the ordering of nature through words, but how this is achieved - in other words, these poems provide short insights into the poetic mind.  O’Leary has taken the liberty of choosing a poem from the middle of the manuscript to start the book, as the poem seems an appropriate description of what lies within:

mostly circadian rhythms
“and words to jointly knit”
a series of circumlocutions
eye in the eye-of-things
mirror cascade of asphodel
yet delight in spectacle (1)

In this short poem, we have an apt description of what Johnson’s poems entail.  An ‘eye in the eye-of-things,’ a fine sense of the objects in the world about him, ‘delight in spectacle,’ wondering after the mysteries of nature, a tendency that runs through all of Johnson’s work, from his first book, A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees (1963), through his seasonal poem, The Book of the Green Man (1967), and in his masterwork, Ark (1996).  These he records in ‘mostly circadian rhythms’ with ‘words to jointly knit.’  His poems are woven into small tapestries of sound and intellection.  The poem seems quite humble, and considering the small stature of the poems ironic to say they are ‘a series of circumlocutions,’ as each word is exact and well placed as works in a watch.
    The fact that the topic of nature has fascinated Johnson again and again, and that he has re-written and assimilated old work into new on several occasions, it should not surprise us that he tackles this same material anew:

the always revisiting
mind all-revising
yet another vision (32)

The concretion is here, but the super-structure that allows us to see the minutiae in Ark in light of a greater architecture is not.  This leaves very clear moments of perception, yet a sense of mystery and abstraction overall.  As we approach the end of the book, and as the poems grow more ‘cosmic’ and darker in tone, we, too, feel darkness, and realize that the ‘meaning’ of these poems will never come to light, just as the mysteries of the natural world continue to exist, despite our attempts to define them away through formulation.  The poem Johnson intended to end the book seems to bear this out, the poet alone with nature:

only sun, moon for company
and those quizzing great
a-prism every heartbeat
ruins in which poet lives
under the monkeypuzzle tree (122)

    In addition to the poems from the manuscript of The Shrubberies, O’Leary includes the last three poems Johnson completed, including one designated ‘Last Poem’:

shambles this way
antipodean being
come full circle
sparks in darkness
lightning’s eternal return
flipped the ecliptic (126)

At the end there is not a vision of serene nature, but of the full power in the clash of contraries: in the ‘antipodean being’, the opposite forces ‘come full circle’.  Whatever poles are represented, it is evident the meeting is violent, as the force of ‘lightning’s eternal return’ has ‘flipped the ecliptic’.  Johnson, always looking to Blake, might be hinting at the supreme synthesis; but what that is, exactly, is left for us to fathom as the residual thunder echoes after the fact.
    Before, I suggested The Shrubberies remind one of Plath’s Ariel; one is also tempted to compare these poems with Zukofsky's 80 Flowers, which is perhaps a closer aesthetic match.  Zukofsky, like Johnson, needed to find a way forward after completing his long poem “A”.  He created a sequence of tightly knit poems, as dense as thickets.  But Johnson’s last work is different from Zukofsky’s in this: The Shrubberies is difficult because it is not finished; 80 Flowers is simply difficult.
    Finishing this book would have been a sadder experience if there were not the knowledge that The Outworks, a work related to Ark, is in preparation by Flood Editions.   The well is not dry yet, and for that we should be thankful.  For now, the elegant poems of The Shrubberies will suffice.

1.  Reviewed in FlashPoint 4.
2.  All page number citations in the text refer to The Shrubberies.