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Jacket 16 — March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |    

Mark Scroggins reviews

The Shrubberies by Ronald Johnson

Edited by Peter O’Leary. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2001. 136 pp. US$14.00

This piece is 2,000 words or about five printed pages long.

And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. (Genesis 2.8)

And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28.10-12)

THE HEBREW BIBLE begins with the Lord speaking into existence the world and all its creatures — the whole labyrinthine system of plant and animal life dependent, as the scientists tell us, on that first-created element, light — and placing the crown of his creation, the human being, into a garden containing the Tree of Life. At the end of the Christian Bible, St. John the Divine stands in awe at the vision of the New Jerusalem, where the Tree of Life — once again available to mankind — spreads its branches over the crystal purity of the river of the water of life.
    In between these two astonishing moments, of course, a great deal of bad stuff takes place. Humanity is wiped out in a flood; cities are destroyed by fire and brimstone; kingdoms and empires are overthrown; good kings and bad kings alike come to untimely ends; martyrs are beaten and stoned. But there are also moments (too few, too far between) of transcendent vision, flashback to Eden or flashforward to the New Jerusalem.
    The American poet Ronald Johnson, who died of a brain tumor in 1998, was one of the rare contemporaries who sought to preserve this visionary impulse in his poetry, to remain continually on one rung or another of Jacob’s ladder. Johnson’s early work, collected in A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees (1964) and Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses (1969), used his midwestern background as a launching pad for energetic, Olsonian speculations on cultural origins, nature, and sexuality. The Book of the Green Man (1967), based on a two-years’ walking tour of England and Wales, wove a Zukofskyan variety of source texts into a dazzling, brooding meditation on the interpenetration of natural processes and human culture.

Photo of Ronald Johnson
Ronald Johnson

    All this, however — as well as the various little volumes of “concrete” poetry Johnson published through the Sixties and Seventies — was merely the wind-up for Johnson’s big project, a epic-length cosmological poem that would occupy him for a quarter of a century. ARK, which Johnson began in 1975 and completed in 1990, is a 99-section poem in the tradition of Pound’s Cantos and Zukofsky’s “A”. Its notable difference from these modernist doorstops, however — in spite of all the similarities, from its mosaic, collagistic texture to its very ambition — is that ARK is, in Johnson’s words, a poem (contra Pound) “without history.” ARK is many things: a hymn to process, a paean to light, a series of interconnected visionary exfoliations of the “fiat lux.” Above all else, it is an extended, high-spirited, ludic exploration of human language-making.
    ARK is a beautiful book, and a grand achievement — for unlike Pound, Olson, and Williams, Johnson actually managed to bring his big project to completion. But where to go then? “Blocks to Be Arranged in a Pyramid,” a poem of sixty-six dark, dense, but still visionary quatrains, was Johnson’s memorial to the victims of AIDS, the plague that ravaged San Francisco through the Eighties. Johnson had lived most of his adult life in the Bay area. For a young gay man brought up in flat, repressive Kansas, San Francisco was indeed Oz, the Emerald City — a place of limitless beauty and color, of utter freedom both sexual and intellectual. (Imagery from Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is woven throughout ARK, and constitutes, along with Noah’s Ark and Orpheus and Eurydice, one of the poem’s central myths.) But for the last few years of his life — the period during which Johnson wrote the poems of The Shrubberies — he was back in Kansas:  grey, monochrome Kansas, with the eye-popping technicolor of Oz left far behind.
    In increasingly ill health, Johnson lived with his father in Topeka and worked (in the words of Peter O’Leary, Johnson’s literary executor and editor of The Shrubberies) “as a handyman, gardener, and occasional cook at Ward-Meade, an historic park in town.” Cooking, of course, was Johnson’s metier ; he had managed and cooked for restaurants in the Bay area, and had written cookbooks among the very best in the genre. (The American Table, his masterpiece, has recently been reprinted by the Silver Spring Press.)
    And gardening was one of the central metaphors of his poetry. BEAM 30 of ARK, subtitled “The Garden ,” begins with the line “‘To do as Adam did,’” and this epitomizes much of Johnson’s project in ARK: both to tend the garden and to give names to the creatures therein — in the context of the poem, to uncover the maze-like homologies of life, light, and physics, and to celebrate the human gift of word-making and word-play. Throughout ARK, Johnson sounds and re-sounds the theme of the poet as gardener, and the related theme of the garden — the hortus inclusus — as analogue to the human body, and microcosmic reflection of the whole interlinked system of the universe.
    Where ARK is a massive, if home-made, monument, The Shrubberies are gardening on a far smaller scale. In these 120 short poems — none longer than a page and half, one a single line — Johnson’s powers of verbal euphony, precise lineation, wistful wordplay, and visionary semantic leaping are brought to bear on isolated moments of thought and perception, isolated instances of perception. The chiming of words, for instance, evokes the shimmer of a dawn:

sunrise like a radish
pulled up beneath us

this is the god Ra
the orisons of Osiris

lustrations of iris
living white samite

— shine upon shine
sheen through sheen

Johnson’s poems again and again plant miniature gardens, miniature labyrinths, in which the echoes of words evoke moments of visionary intensity such as T. S. Eliot experienced in the garden of Burnt Norton. “always my core dream,” Johnson writes, “winding a garden / secret in every sense.”  Every sense , as in every meaning, but also all of the five human senses, and in addition the senses of myth, of history, tradition, and memory. ARK may have begun as a long poem “without history,” but the AIDS epidemic left its black fingerprints all over the second half of that poem, infusing the buildup to the visionary takeoff of “ARK 99, Arches XXXIII ” with an unmistakeable residuum of loss.
    That same loss is everywhere evident in The Shrubberies. While the garden may be a microcosm cultivated by the poet — in one poem, Johnson’s desk is “cleared for planting” — it also cannot help but evoke that garden out of which humanity, and the poet himself, has been expelled, Eden:

a frieze of dogwood
fence of forsythia
of rose-purple iris
an enchanted hedge
outthrust of swords
green as they be
forbid flesh entry.

(But of course, a Johnson poem is rarely unequivocal: the garden of Eden is here fused with the magically briar-encrusted castle in which the sleeping Snow White — in Disney’s version, no less — is imprisoned.)
    The grounds and grasses of The Shrubberies evoke again and again the lost sexual freedoms of 1970s San Francisco: “foliate atriums / green allow pubis / cleft spine’s base...splash into life / ultimate root.”  The picnic — the archetypal American pastime, when one comes upon a shaped landscape — brings to mind the liberatory play of an earlier era:

at Satyr’s campground
Rainbow’s saturnalia
offering scapegoat
capering round firepit

Johnson here recalls his membership in the “Rainbow Motorcycle Club.” Picnics and campouts were frequently held; much leather was worn, cigars were smoked, beer was drunk; nobody in the club actually owned a motorcycle. The poem’s “scapegoat” might be the chosen figure in some game, but the inhuman logic of the virus would make that figure all too literal: “accelerated commune with beyond / scattered many buddies’ ashes / all swept in waltz of death.”
    In the mid-90s, Johnson finds himself still alive, still striving to pull moments of vision out of everday experience, but always waiting for the chill of finality, Dickinson’s “Zero at the core”:

across dark stream
of shooting stars

supplicant cast fly
another year alive

belief, belief brief
zero at white core

What is astonishing is the beauty of the wee verbal performances Johnson produces out of these diminished circumstances, the light dances of sound and image that flash across these mostly white pages:

plum-branch galaxy
hoarfrost dark grasses

breath, sounding web
thistle listen cloud

moth quicken afire
seed silver, mirage

a wind mirror pond
shine white hyacinth

Or —

sun in the honeyhives
combing order from time,

light on light suffuse
like liquid copper

climbing in the dark
ore heights Byzantine

Flood Editions, a new imprint out of Chicago, has produced a physically beautiful volume out of Johnson’s minute densities; and the poet Peter O’Leary has done a lovely job of editing The Shrubberies, sticking conscientiously to Johnson’s final request to “prune the shrubs,” even as he wanted to include a wider selection of the “shaggy,” overgrown manuscript that Johnson left behind.
    This volume includes, in addition to the Shrubberies proper, three further short pieces, including the last poem Johnson wrote before his death. It is a compact, moving performance, hanging desperately on to the visionary even in the face of descending darkness:

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

I can’t help seeing a parallel between the curve of Johnson’s career and that of his most idiosyncratic mentor, Louis Zukofsky. When Zukofsky completed “A”, among the longest of the great modernist poems, he immediately turned to 80 Flowers, a sequence of eighty-one stringently formal, densely referential poems about — yes — flowers. Zukofsky was taking in sail, narrowing the compass of his work, and turning his eyes from the broad expanse of history to the minute greeneries that surrounded him (in this case, the potted plants his wife Celia nurtured all around the house).
    80 Flowers is a beautiful but daunting read, yielding far more to the ear than to the intellect on first (and twentieth) reading. Johnson’s final horticultural vision in The Shrubberies is far more pellucid and immediately accessible than Zukofsky’s, if no less aurally pleasurable. In conversation, Johnson once compared Swinburne’s sonic texture to eating Turkish Delight — “but that’s chewing on a marrowbone.”  There is much “ear candy” to be found in The Shrubberies, but the aural lushness is continually countered by flashes of visionary incandescence, and by the touching melancholy of Johnson’s ruminative vision.
    More Johnson is on the way. Last year Talisman House published To Do As Adam Did, a comprehensive selection of Johnson’s poetry (edited by O’Leary). A number of Johnson’s early texts, including the entire Book of the Green Man, are online at the Light & Dust Anthology website ( And in the near future, Flood Editions will publish The Outworks, a set of poems “surrounding” ARK, including the long out-of-print Radi Os, Johnson’s rewriting by excision of the first four books of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
    It is all cause for rejoicing. In an age of dreary establishment verse, sneeringly cynical, broad-band ripostes against that establishment, and hyper-theoretical (and deathly serious) explorations of the workings of society and language, Johnson’s work stands as an exemplary and wholly idiosyncratic demonstration of the joy that can still be found in poem-making and poem-reading. Even — as in the case of The Shrubberies — when that joy beckons from death’s door.

You can link to the Internet site of Flood Editions here — it's at

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