To say that Devin Johnston is a master of the sound of poems is to narrow the conversation too much too soon, but it’s useful nonetheless as a starting point for understanding the distinguished power of this poetry. Here’s the beginning of “Tempers,” from Far-Fetched (2015):
Hot days, violent storms,
high clouds, cold rain.
Sheets and curtains cast
a white-diamond gloom.
Are you asleep?
against the glass
and slow breathing
fills the room.
Soft pillows, soft
Blankets, soft sheets:
Her kiss? Sweet,
and hard enough
to crack your teeth.
There’s a tightness and tautness that never weighs the line down. It’s measured, but it moves like a bird. In the (almost) decade since this poem appeared, Johnston has published two more books, and the latest, Dragons, is another marvel in an oeuvre of marvels. Johnston’s line has lengthened, but the poems keep—and in some ways deepen—their smooth but never lulling cadences. There’s more air in these poems, as if the speaker can breathe a little better in his skin these days, at least on good days, and the ominous—the foreboding and the doubt—mingle with a buoyancy, even, on good days, an optimism. You can hear notes of this in the title poem’s account of gathering with others to watch the heavens—a meteor shower? an eclipse?—which makes for a poem at once pointing to the edge of the rational and also beautifully earthy, or maybe unearthly, in its sense of possibility. It ends like this:
Before our company dispersed,
dust whirling in the wind,
we planned to meet again in seven years
for the next known migration.
Sunlight flashed on windshields
and caught along the riverbank
a cloudy, keeled scale
about the size of a dinner plate,
cool as blanc de Chine
in the heat of the afternoon.
“A cloudy, keeled scale” is characteristic of a poet unafraid to warp the plainspoken with the grace of strangeness. “White-diamond gloom” is another example: something that sounds so good you for a moment don’t register its gorgeous mysteriousness. “Gloom” is one of the moods of this work, it should be said, along with disappointment and pessimism. And there’s a quarrel between the sensuous rightness of Johnston’s music and the rational—or is it irrational?—coldness of the world he sometimes renders. The poet lives and works in St. Louis, and one poem ends with “a muted television” in a group home on rural riverbend in Missouri where
One resident attempts to feed
her nightgown through a jammed shredder.
Another, mostly blind, rocks
back and forth in agitation
before a muted television
across which shadows flit
haphazardly through river mist,
renouncing any path.
The instrument—the television—is a technology of yesteryear, but the figure Johnston makes in the poem is a brilliant figure, it seems to me, for our fallen and mediated age. A music at the dancing edge of nightmare.
JESSE NATHAN: Could you say a little bit more about what the troubadours mean to you? Their context is rather different than ours, and their subjects seem mostly very different than yours, but something about their work endures. What draws you to their poetry—in this book maybe in particular—and to their music, specifically? I’m curious how any of this relates (if it does) to your own ways of composing, or of thinking about what you’re after in a poem… What does it mean to you to “write” a poem?
DEVIN JOHNSTON: Decades ago, when I was first curious about the troubadours, a friend gave me a cassette tape of various readings and performances of troubadour songs. I don’t know Occitan, so I rely on such soundings. I would occasionally listen to the tape, sometimes while following along in a book. It’s mostly the supple, elaborate stanza forms that draw me, the complex patterns of syllable counts and rhymes. It seems to me, within those forms, there are musical possibilities that have never been brought fully into English. The composition feels phrasal, with the phrasing of rhythmic figures and syllables forming melodies. Of course, troubadour songs only came to be called poetry when they were read and spoken, rather than sung.
When poetry gets too far from the idea of melody, it loses something. I try to keep my poems in some relationship to melody. When a phrase occurs to me, I don’t usually write it down, but I keep it in my head, repeating and revolving it, until I find the sonic elements that bear repeating. A poem unfurls slowly, in this way, through rememberings and misrememberings. Only when I have a draft composed do I write it down in my notebook. Among other things, this approach means that most of my poems are fairly short! But it allows me to keep focused on the sonic experience of a poem, without fussing over how it looks on the page. It also allows me to travel light. Troubadours aside, I don’t much write out of books, except scraps that catch in my porous brain.
I have written a few poems “after” the troubadours—loose versions, but also chasing after them, as you suggested to me when we talked on the phone. They might be ahead of me, rather than behind me. I had “Nothing Song” in Traveler and “New Song” in Far-Fetched, both from William IX, Duke of Aquitaine; and now “Last Song” in Dragons, from Guiraut Riquier, sometimes called the Last Troubadour. I try to follow the sound patterns as closely as I can, letting the content go a little looser. It seems to me that the songs mostly concern commonplaces: seasons, birds, sex, love, loneliness, and song itself. These themes do become esoteric and coded in some strains (called “trobar clus”). But the elements feel adaptable to different times and places. I feel I can rummage around in them and make myself at home. A “version” only works if I can inhabit the feeling of it, and then bring it into my own idiom and life circumstances. But doing so through a dramatic monologue has a liberating effect. The troubadours give me access to tones and attitudes I might not manage on my own. It’s sort of a collaboration between my “sole self” and these old singers.
Such mergers, whether of voices or landscapes, feel to me true to life. We speak ancient words every day, and we live in the ruins of time. In St. Louis, we misheard French words, and over centuries those mishearings became our place names. The streets are paved with asphalt, but the alleys are usually brick, with garages that were once stables. I live within the empire of Cahokia, at the edge of New France, in the strata of several geological epochs. The poems in Dragons extend those layers, to include medieval Provence and the Roman Empire. Troubadours mingle on the street corners with coureurs de bois and twenty-first-century children. Each has its own character and orientation to the world. In that sense, the world of Dragons is partly mine (or faithful to my lived experience), partly shared, and partly imagined.