from Kenyon Review, July / August 2015
It was a dog that introduced me to the work of Ronald Johnson. Or rather it was the dog's owner, a friend and poet, who—having named his dog Ronald Johnson—ensured that I'd never forget that rather forgettable name, or that one could yell "Ronald Johnson" into a field. Years later I'd meet a Milton scholar who had never heard of Johnson, a fact which, though it still surprises me today, was downright heartbreaking at the time. I tried to describe Radi os (a sustained erasure of Paradise Lost) to him in earnest, but kept leaping into my different theories for how best to understand the book. More so than with any other poem I admired, I didn't know where to start.
This essay then is a series of starting points for a reading (or rereading) of Radi os. Its thesis, which these numbered musings snowball toward, is a simple one, though largely unexplored by Johnson scholars: Radi os is an inherently American poem. For that argument I turn to car radios, San Francisco's "paradise," speed-reading, and the West. That these musings roam elsewhere is perhaps inevitable with this sort of long poem. Its abundant white space begs us to fill its silence with our thoughts. I know I've done so, over and over again, until I'd talk about this poem with a dog, given the proper introductions. I'd talk about it with Ronald Johnson himself.
10—As a Cookbook
Ronald Johnson—who died in 1998—is perhaps the only poet to receive more Amazon reviews for his cookbooks than for his best-known poem. One such collection, The American Table: More Than 400 Recipes That Make Accessible for the First Time the Full Richness of American Regional Cooking, compelled an impassioned reader to jettison her shelf of cookbooks in favor of Johnson's tome. Why? Because The American Table collects, revises, and edits the best recipes from other cookbooks. It is, like Radi os, an amalgamation of other works.
The great Ed Folsom has described Johnson as a "master at finding poems by opening up silences within other poems," and Radi os is the banner example, scrubbing Bible and blank verse alike from our language's most fully realized epic—or at least its first four books. (A fifth, titled "The Book of Adam," appeared in the Chicago Review in 2010; the others remain in drafts and fragments only.) Johnson's tool of choice was a black marker, which he applied liberally to an 1892 edition of Paradise Lost "picked off a Seattle bookshop shelf the day after hearing Lucas Foss's Baroque variation." Foss's composition, in Johnson's description of it, "simply cut holes" in "a piece of Handel."
So Johnson cuts holes in Milton. This renders Milton's twisted, faux Latinate invocation ("Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste ... ") like so:
into the World,
Rose out of Chaos:
Reading these first lines, the only ones that Johnson prints with the Milton preserved (in half tones) in the background, it's clear that Johnson is pursuing his recipe writing by other means. His process appears both rudimentary ("why didn't I think of that?" one muses) and weirdly alchemical ("because it's harder than it looks"). Like a recipe in The American Table, an erasure seems to ensure success if you procure only the right ingredients and follow the directions. Radi os seems endlessly imitable, endlessly reproducible.
And yet "seems" is the keyword here, as so few good erasures have appeared in the thirty-eight years since Radi os. Janet Holmes has erased Dickinson's 1861-62 poetry in THE MS OF M Y KIN (2009), redistilling the most distilled lyrics in the language. With no narrative subtext to rely on, and few of the memorable poems recognizable post-scrubbing, Holmes's is an interesting, if not great book. Shakespeare's sonnets and a Charles Lamb biography have received similar treatment, their erasing readers lured in by the ease of the recipe Johnson provides. But as any good chef can tell you, a recipe is just an idea, a blueprint for an experience that is visual and olfactory, tactile and—at its best—unique.
Take the lines quoted above. There's beauty in their Imagist simplicity, sure, but also in the semantic message Johnson smuggles into his syntax. Whereas Paradise Lost begins, rather lamely, with a prepositional phrase—English's uninflected nature hampers Milton in his pursuit of a periodic sentence—Johnson leaps into the vocative. Milton's "Of" is Johnson's "O." Prepositions are contingent, vocatives announce. This is fitting, as Milton is all about contingencies. Salvation is contingent upon repentance, repentance is contingent upon original sin, and original sin is contingent upon (what else?) appetite. It's right there, still warning us away, in Milton's opening lines: "the fruit / Of that forbidden tree."
And so Radi os begins in delightful irony: the famous Milton hinges his most famous lines on gustatory guilt, while the minor Johnson appropriates them as he—in his side career—cultivates the culinary arts.
Johnson's "O" then moves open-mouthed toward the tree, its fruit, and Milton's poem. His "O" stands in for his appetites, and this appetite is emblematic of Man's hunger as well. Hear that "oh" sound repeated in the subsequent description of our species as "the chosen / / Rose out of chaos"? From our appetites, the author of an American cookbook tells us, we make song. We reappropriate that soft, contingent "of" to declaim the rightness of our taste buds and tongues. It is a sound that Johnson returns us to again and again in Radi os. There's the "O / / Of / / wonder, / / circumference / Hung on shoulders like the moon." There's Paradise Lost's Book I and Book II, erased down to "O I," "O II," and on and on. He forces us time and again to open our mouths.
Thus Johnson's first (and arguably easiest) erasure isn't just his most programmatic but indicative of his culinary designs. All cookbooks, as Folsom notes, recycle their predecessors. The new is really the old, repackaged and revised (1). Likewise Radi os itself, which, when read, gives way—as a strong smell will, as a good meal must—to that host of memories associated with its Miltonic ingredients. That sense memory, as applied to the reading experience, is key here. Johnson relies on it as we notice, midreading, the whiff of Eden in our nose.
9—In the Car with Cocteau's Orphée
The actor Jean Marais would make any would-be poet jealous. As Orpheus in Cocteau's great film Orphée (1949), he's tall, handsome, undeniably French, and well-coupled with his Eurydice (Marie Dea). That he needs to crib his poetic inspiration from a car radio—it broadcasts from the underworld—comes as both a surprise and relief. Thank God, I remember thinking, as I watched Marais ignore his bombshell wife for time alone in a dimly lit garage. At least there is some cost to his success. The scene had all the pleasure of catching Johnny Quarterback giving himself a pep talk in the bathroom before the high school prom.
Cocteau's movie and Radi os do not, at first glance, seem related, though, as with much in Radi os, a first glance necessitates a second. We know, for instance, that Johnson saw Orphée. And we know that he liked it enough to make a handprint—his reimagining, I'm told, of the scene where Marais passes into the underworld by pressing his hand against a mirror—into a poem. You can see that handprint in "BEAM 18" of Johnson's ARK, recently reedited (by Peter O'Leary) and reissued (by Flood Editions) in 2013.(2) Just before it you'll find "BEAM 17, The Book of Orpheus," and, shortly thereafter, "BEAMS 21,22,23, The Song of Orpheus," which opens with the first lines of Radi os, minimally relined. So this myth mattered to Johnson, and—I'd argue—this radio scene matters to Radi os, linking (as it does) poesy, radios, and the muse. I'm thinking of the poem's title, obviously, an erasure of
Paradi se Los t, though that fortuitous distillation also points toward a metaphor for Johnson's method and one familiar to anyone who has ever cruised an American country road: layered sound.
So: how does the radio operate, as a trope, in Radi os? Dan Beachy-Quick argues that Johnson pulls Radi os from the "syntactic static" of Paradise Lost, that he "attunes" himself to what's useful in Milton. The image here is right, though I'd tweak it slightly. Johnson, to my mind, doesn't tune into so much as turn the dial away from Milton. The difference might seem partly semantic, till you think about an old-fashioned radio dial, where tuning was always a measure of careful gradation. Johnson wants a little static, sonic overlap, and frictional music from station Milton lingering in the air. Radi os finds its song in that static.
This aural entendre, and the very figure of the radio, imagines high-culture Milton as channeled (excuse the pun) through low-culture, FM transmission. Cocteau no doubt considered the same provocation with Orphée: classical figures, the muse and underworld, communicating through radio and cast upon the big screen. In Radi os, Milton becomes just one of many frequencies—backed with excessive bandwidth no doubt—but mixed into a host of choices as we rev our way across the American plains. We can take from him, and tune into him, as we please, treating the great English epic as just one possible muse.
As Johnson writes in the poem: "Through / the Orphean / descent, and up / To find / the more / Clear / song." I can't read these lines without picturing Johnson in his car, headed from Kansas to San Francisco, twisting the dial this way and that. For years the only company an American might have, driving alone, was his or her radio. This poem lights out westward, searching with its car radio for a more clear song.
8—As Bones, As a Mouth
Peter O'Leary once asked Ronald Johnson an eminently practical question about Radi os, to which Johnson provided this quizzical answer:
O'Leary: Do you pronounce it "radios" or "radius" or "radioes"?
Johnson: When I wrote that title I knew it had all of those possibilities in it. The only other title you could have gotten out of Paradise Lost is "Parades."
Setting aside the erased titles Johnson misses (3), I'm struck by how he confuses a pronunciation question for a semantic one. However strange English may be, a word ending in "os" (radios, pianos) rarely rhymes with one ending "us" (radius, Stradivarius). And neither quite matches the way I've often heard it pronounced: Radi os rhymes, smirkingly enough, with "grandiose."
Still, Johnson's non-answer is telling. He mishears O'Leary for the same reason he mishears Milton: it opens up possibilities, both creative and interpretive, that would otherwise be closed. Consider, for instance, the connotative mileage he gets from a title of six letters. Consider the pun inherent in just the os. The Latinists in the room see where this is going, though Johnson scholarship rarely makes this point: os in Latin can be both bone (os, issis [n]) and mouth (os, oris [n]). That is—as double entendres go—rather spectacularly fitting.
I've already spoken of Radi os's mouth, but the poem is just as much a chest of bones—and bones boiled down from the excess of Paradise Lost. Samuel Johnson's famous quip about Milton's epic comes to mind ("No one ever wished it longer"), as does William Blake's increase on that excess. A devotee of Milton, Blake wrote his own, two-book homage, Milton: A Poem (1810). This "epic," already overburdened with Blake's elaborate, personal mythology and ludicrous plot, extends Milton's blank verse into a chewy heptameter. Perhaps the extra feet are appropriate; in the only known moment of podiatric inspiration, a spectral Milton shoots down into the ground and then up into Blake's left foot.
Johnson's poem, however, is incredibly sparse, a product—one imagines—of a desiccated, sun-bleached landscape. Guy Davenport called it "Milton imagiste," and the comparison to H. D. is apt. (Pound, you'll remember, wrote "H. D., imagiste" when submitting her poems to Harriet Monroe). Both poets move in the direction of the lyrical, minimalist extreme. Both take cues from bigger, modernist predecessors. But whereas H. D. evacuates her poems of all but landscape and the retread classics, Johnson lifts flowers, fruit, and gold from a background that continues to glow. We admire his pretty pictures, but we still feel, however distantly, the heat of Milton's poem in the background. It burns behind every word, white hot in the white space that is not silence but an epic eclipsed. H. D., to my mind, doesn't have that sort of depth.
7—As the Sun
My brother once tried to smuggle a steer's skull out of Montana—this is not, I'm told, entirely legal—only to be pulled over near the state line and asked to explain why he had a backseat full of bones. "Because they're beautiful," he replied. The reason did not, as you might imagine, persuade the state trooper, though it rings true in the context of this poem. Bones speak to mortality and time, yes, but also the sun's impossible power. The sun is beautiful, in part, because it threatens to destroy us, which is the very definition of the Rilkean sublime. The sun's radii constitute the first half of this poem's title (they stretch toward that mouth/bones), while the sun's direction (westward) gives the poem the semblance of an arc. Radi os finds a new god in the sun.
Take the following lines from "O II," the sparsest "plate" in the project:
in the shape
the radiant sun
These eight, brief lines—I count eighteen syllables and fourteen words—come close to being "vispo" while still holding themselves together with the scantest of semantic glue. It is, in fact, those final three words ("the radiant sun') that keep the lyric intact. Why? Perhaps because those three words constitute, as I read them, the subject of this stuttering, periodic sentence. We might iron out the enjambments and fix the syntax like so: the radiant sun rose through—in the shape [of, and] as of [and] above the—rising rose.
This gloss makes the plate's two puns apparent. Pun #1: rose. The word here refers to both the flower and the sun's rising, thus marrying the sunrise with its effect: blooming flowers. Pun #2: the falling syntax. Though Johnson's "radiant sun" semantically rises, it visually sets, appearing only at the bottom of the page, leaving a trail of definite articles (the) and prepositions (in, above, through, of) in its wake. So many flimsy, sputtering words, so much weight they're asked to bear: why?
The simplest answer, as I read it, is this: by emphasizing our language's most forgettable words (prepositions, articles) Johnson illustrates how language, like all else, derives from the sun. I'm thinking here of Stevens who concludes "The Man on the Dump" with "Where was it one first heard the truth? The the." The truth, as Stevens enigmatically puts it, is in our language itself and its capacity for imagination, in the the. Like Stevens, Johnson here allows articles and prepositions to become—being signifiers that lack any real signified—metonyms for language itself. They speak not of things but of the joy in speaking things.
Just as the words "the radiant sun' hold this sentence together, the sun itself holds life and its many languages together, the syntax replicating an order Johnson sees in the natural world. And yet to speak of the sun is to stutter—hence the enjambed prepositions—paralyzed with awe. As in the Duino Elegies, there is a beauty that is "nothing / but the beginning of terror" (Mitchell translation), that would leave us desiccated as a steer's skull on a Montana back road.
I love Johnson's odd little lyric here, seemingly slight until you bend down, read closely, and let your nose bump the page. I love it more when I dig back into the Milton and pull the scene from which it's spun. This is Satan's Hell counsel (Book II, 448-92). That counsel is a rich exercise in windbaggery and cant. It is a political theater really, orchestrated by Satan to "decide," with a veneer of democracy, what he and Belial have already decided: that Satan is gonna sneak into Earth and spoil Man's fun. The contrast is perfect: from empty rhetoric, cynical and self-assured, Johnson spins his sunset, so gaspingly beautiful that he can barely conjugate a verb.
6—As Paradise or Oz
It was during Milton's lifetime that we came to understand the sun's cosmic centrality. We can thank Galileo, whom Milton met in Florence in 1638, for this little revelation. Radi os extends that realization further: the sun is the source for our trees, paper, air, ink, language, and life. In the better regions of our fragile blue marble—a term coined by the Apollo 17 astronauts, who took the famous "blue marble" photo four years before Johnson wrote Radi os—that sun appears more often, the air is clearer, the trees taller, and the life, as they say, is good. For many easterly situated Americans that chosen region is California. The sun lures them toward it, as it did Ronald Johnson and Radi os.
Johnson, a gay man from the American plains, was once asked, "Why do you think so many writers and artists of your generation were born in Kansas?" (Alpert interview). His answer? "Everybody wanted to get to Oz and San Francisco is." As with O'Leary's question about pronunciation, Johnson answers obliquely. Alpert wants to know about Johnson's Dorothy origins. Johnson, however, elides Kansas and the plains to talk about direction instead. He has always already been on the move. Here's why:
... as a child you lived in such a bleak atmosphere, it was so dry and hot, in Kansas, and it was hard to grow things. And I'd always imagined a garden, just a little garden, and I did manage to pave the back with bricks and things like that, but it never looked like anything. It always looked like you were in the middle of the prairies. (O'Leary interview)
And so Johnson, who is quite literally in search of greener pasture, finds his way to San Francisco. There are then a series of gardens and exiles, of paradises lost and new ones found, that constitute Radi os. Adam and Eve have (and lose) their prelapsarian paradise. European settlers "discover" (and despoil) their American Eden. They spread out, Johnson's ancestors among them. They build bleak, Kansan gardens. They don't stop till they find a new garden on "their" farthest western shore.
Such is the history of colonial expansion, driven—one might argue—by the need to resettle a fabled land we still feel considerable guilt over losing.(4) Lost Eden leads to the Trail of Tears. And yet it also leads to an American city that, in 1976, welcomes sexual exiles instead of creating them. I'm thinking of course of San Francisco, how it is conceived as a latter-day Eden, and how Johnson's poem, at least in part, gives a subtle nod to SF's history of gay liberation. Johnson reverses Milton's Fall. We can see this as Radi os draws to a close:
: to know
All seasons and their change;
Here Johnson not only compels his neighbors, in their Californian paradise, to taste the fruit "[o]f that forbidden tree," but to taste all fruit, "all time, / All seasons and their change." It is an invitation fitting for San Francisco, where the city's farmers' markets stay open all year, and one can more easily identify the season by the produce on offer than the weather above. Moreover, Johnson extends the offer to men and women alike. The plate above begins with Adam warning Eve away from the tree and ends with Eve's famous (and acquiescent) response, excerpted below:
Unargued I obey; so God ordains,
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman's happiest knowledge and her praise.
With thee conversing I forget all time.
All seasons and their change, all please alike. (IV. 636-40)
These lines, so frequently (and justifiably) cited by feminist critics, provide the sharpest of contrasts—Johnson replaces the truly patriarchal with the sensuously pagan. Let us "know / all" of it, Johnson says, tempting ourselves to indulge just as Adam and Eve were tempted to know knowledge itself. The only difference, of course, is that we'll not be asked to leave when we're done.
Such is the Edenic promise of San Francisco (which Radi os alludes to), though the city retains (as Johnson notes in his interview) an illusory, Oz-like quality too. The two tropes are not entirely synonymous, and for my money Johnson gets it more right, years later, when he calls the city Oz from afar. My preference for Oz here is purely personal. Though I began this essay while living in San Francisco, I finished it in Oregon. The motivations behind my flight are various, but principal among them was how inconvenient, overpriced, and unwelcoming the Bay City has become to those of us with children. Children, of course, are the one demographic that still believes in red slippers, tin men, and yellow brick roads. Check the statistics: SF's under-eighteen population is the lowest of any big city in the nation. Its Technicolor dream can seduce you, living in Ohio or Kansas, but will also force a reassessment on your way out. The rainbow painted over the Waldo Tunnel, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is there for precisely that purpose. More than once I remember thinking, as I sped (or crawled) through it: "There's no place like home ... and thank God this is not it."
5—Between the 2005 Flood Editions Covers
When Flood Editions rereleased Radi os—it first appeared with Sand Dollar Books (Berkeley, California) in 1977—they had the good sense to conceal more than reveal. Google that edition, or pull your copy from the bookshelf. Now take a long look at the cover.
On the front you'll find indiscriminate vegetation, detailed from a watercolor. Here's a clump of globular berries; there's a snaking, faded frond. The back is more amorphous, all peach tones and tans, downnright shapeless till we pull back for a second glance. It's a woman, actually, nude and three-quarters turned. She leans into a companion, almost certainly a man. The source for both images is William Blake's Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve. Google that image now and ask yourself: what's missing from the frame? It is a question we constantly ask of Radi os itself.
The answer is simple: gone is Satan, piloting his little serpent Cessna over Eden. Gone, too, are the lovers' faces, their future shame, and any Fall. The cover then is like Johnson's approach to Paradise Lost, which is itself rather like the corrosive etching Blake used to create his famous illuminated books. Joseph Viscomi describes Blake as tracing his design "with a needle through an acid-resistant [surface]," then covering that surface with acid that burned down to the copper plate below. The line left over was his design. Johnson's erasure updates and simplifies the process: in lieu of acid he wields a black marker; in lieu of copper he has an 1892 edition of Paradise Lost.
Thus the cleverness of the Flood Editions design. Not only does the front cover reproduce Johnson's line of influence but layers—through title, author, and illustration—the palimpsest project as a whole. Johnson's name covers Blake's watercolor, which itself glosses Milton's Paradise Lost. Jeff Clark, the designer, has—like Blake and Johnson—learned how to make new meaning through quotation and excerption. The front cover (fronds and berries) speaks to our gustatory hungers, the back cover (nudes) to our sexual lust. Together they testify to the belief, as repeatedly enacted in Radi os, that, if we only look closely enough, we can make a text say almost anything we want.
I suppose it's passé to be enamored with a book's cover. A certain aphorism comes glaringly to mind. And yet writers today obsess over how their books look, and scholars long ago acknowledged a text is its peritext as well. With that in mind, the Flood Editions cover does more than introduce its poem: it participates in its method while forrwarding one of its chief themes. It is a theme that Eric Selinger—the best reader of the poem to date—punningly paraphrases: in Radi os "the Miltonic sentence" is abandoned and "the divine sentence that stands behind it" too.
4—Like a Speed Reader, à la Jimmy Carter
Radi os reminds us of a lot of readerly acts. Think, for instance, about that novel on your nightstand and the moment—it happens every night—when the characters blur, the scene wobbles, and a dreamy asphasia settles over the page. If you're lucky, you click the light off and close the book before you're fully out. Radi os's white spaces, its disjunctive syntax, replicate that middle distance between reading and sleep. Or think instead, as Beachy-Quick has, about the sense of incompletion that follows any literary encounter: "[a]n honest reader sees only what she sees, hears only what she hears and does not claim an attention that encompasses all. No such attention exists." In his characterization, Radi os represents the after-image of reading, and the retention—spotty, subjective, slippery—that we carry from the last page. Radi os is one man's selective retention from one reading of Paradise Lost.
Or we might turn toward an odder, uniquely American style of reading as a Radi os touchstone: speed-reading, that homegrown hucksterism offering its proponents a get-smart-quick path to success. The year Radi os was published Jimmy Carter held speed-reading classes in the White House. More than a decade earlier JFK claimed he read 1,200 words per minute. And when Evelyn Wood, the American schoolteacher who coined the term "speed-reading," started marketing her Reading Dynamics in 1958, she boasted of a 2,500-words-per-minute reader—he had "outstanding recall and comprehension"—whose success stemmed directly from her methods. The whole scheme's seemingly as familiar to an eighteenth-century Ben Franklin as a twentieth-century entrepreneur.
One question, though, persists: does any of it work? Apparently not, as Ronald Carver, the author of Reading Rate: A Review of Research and Theory, would prove. Speed-reading is just a form of skimming, and skimming—with its loss of retention and comprehension—isn't reading at all. The Kennedy claim is equally bogus. It can be traced to an off-the-cuff comment made to a Time magazine reporter; it's PR puffery, a boast. Carver guesses that Kennedy, like the best of us, could read no more than five- to six-hundred words a minute.
To read Radi os within this context is not, of course, to believe Johnson earnestly embraced this fad's possibilities. He is not known to have been a speed-reader, and as a poet—writing in the genre that most frequently asks you to slow down—accelerating your work's reception seems innately counterproductive. But Johnson does have a sense of humor, and Radi os pursues irreverence in both senses of the word: comic, irreligious. Milton is the poet we most associate with reverence, and Johnson admits to beginning the project "because I thought it would be funny." Milton, however, is not the only butt of the joke. Radi os, on one level, mockingly enacts a speed-read of Paradise Lost, but instead of yielding a CliffsNotes version of the epic, Johnson presents his reader a harder, more esoteric poem. Johnson thus skewers Jimmy Carter, Evelyn Wood, and the average American speed-reader too.
But as Johnson continued to work on Radi os he realized there was more than the comic at play: "I decided you don't tamper with Milton to be funny. You have to be serious." His initial gimmick revealed actual poetic matter, and he turned—I would argue—to the unique residue left when one begins to smartly skim Paradise Lost. So what exactly does this serious speed-read yield?
3—As a Metaphor Machine
The answer: a host of breathtaking images. Or as Johnson puts it, procuring Adam's voice for an ars poetica: "I will bring thee / image / Under watery image." These lines, and the erasure method to which they refer, remind me of something I once heard Anne Carson say: "Words are funny things. You can't use them without saying something." Carson's comment speaks to the potential randomness of meaning-making and the way in which—when rubbing words together, any words—you'll inevitably create more than the sum of their parts.
Johnson's erasure is, of course, anything but random. And yet he teases us with the possibilities of chance. As he writes in "O II": "Eternal / embryon atoms / as the sands / warring winds, and poise / adhere / a moment: / Chance governs all" (emphasis mine). This is part of a managed allure, a hint at the possibilities of what skimming (i.e. speed-reading) might yield. Or, to put it another way: skimming a book doesn't just save you time but lets you rub unlikely words and phrases together, in the process. You gamble on the hope that what you want—a phrase, a plot twist, a name—will reveal itself in a flash, though you frequently uncover something else altogether.
This is how Johnson fashions such wonderful images in Radi os, though it is also, I would argue, very like the mental act of completing a metaphor. Such compositional moments ask you to stop with half a trope on the page (usually the tenor), then skim your brain for whatever vehicle comes along. Will you find an image sufficiently unlike the tenor to make the comparison startle? Will the process take a moment or a year? This is, even for the most formal of poets who would never leave a line to chance, an inherently aleatory act. All poets are like hitchhikers; they're forever at the mercy of what imagination sends hurtling down the road.
Johnson's method—teasingly aleatory yet entirely planned—simply narrows the field of possibilities from which his images can spring. The best parts of the poem are often snaking, appositional metaphors. The reason for this is simple: the act of skimming Paradise Lost very closely mimics all our acts, as poets, of hunting for the perfect metaphor. Here's an example from the end of "O III":
are all his works,
turned to star
I read what follows "works" as a series of new names for "works," creating—much like Pound's "In a Station of the Metro"—glimpses of fleeting likeness. It is metaphor upon metaphor, or—in Johnson's words—"image / Under watery image." And like Pound, punctuation or enjambment stands in for the verb or comparative word (as or like) that would otherwise make the figure move: "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough." Pound's poem aims to halt time, or (more precisely) to present two moments in simultaneous apposition. Ergo: no verb. Johnson's own lyric, equally verbless, manages to pulse like a star. Look at the trajectory of the images: it moves from mind to "infinitude confined" to star. The first fits inside the skull, the second holds all, and the star, strangely enough, falls somewhere between.
2—As a Theory of Literary Relativity
In "Nonbiological Clock: Literary History against Newtonian Mechanics" (2003), Wai Chee Dimock argues that literature has "until quite recently been experienced as a universe only loosely quantified by dates" (emphasis mine). Regularized time didn't just change the world but changed how we read the ways we wrote the world. We lost something, he goes on to say, when we enforced synchronicity and seriality on our books. Dimock finds support for his theory that is worth perusing, in Blake's Milton. Citing Blake's imprecise dating of Milton's death (Milton the poem, finished in 1810, puts big John in heaven for 100 years; it had actually been 136) and Blake's general belief that all eternity can be glimpsed in an instant, Dimock heralds Blake as a deserializer of time, a poet working against so-called "Newtonian literary studies." Blake's conception of literary history is not, in a noteworthy line, "governed by the unidirectional passage of a single lifespan." As such, Blake anticipates, in his nudist enlightenment at Felpham cottage, Einstein's theory of relativity.
This all may be a little far-fetched for some readers, but it's worth asking: what about Ronald Johnson? His tinkering with time outpaces Blake's, and his relation to relativity is, well, more direct. By 1977 Einstein had lived and died. Regarding his first pass through Paradise Lost, Johnson had this to say to Alpert:
Oh I did just cute things, like at one point I rather liked the new Einstein stamp—it was an eight -cent stamp, which of course was a symbol of infinity. I thought that belonged [in the poem] and I put it in and a whole Einstein section followed. Then I realized that I really wanted something else—that the book was getting more interesting than little tricks like that.
You can see the stamp in Ronald Johnson: Life and Works (2008) and note how, in placing it over Milton's poem, Johnson rather crudely interrupts the narrative flow. Johnson thus had one of the generative ideas for Radi os—to decenter time, to render narrative moments relative, if not coexistent—early in his process, before he'd perfected his method. That would come in his erasure's approach to extended quotation and his presentation of the poem as a collection of plates.
Let's take quotation first. In its most common use, quotation brings another writer's voice momentarily into our poem. We hear Milton's Satan (see PL IV.75) in Lowell's "Skunk Hour" admission that "I myself am hell." We hear newspapermen and pamphlet writers in Marianne Moore. This has the effect of bringing anachronistic voices into simultaneous song. Literary quotation then lets us call forth (like Odysseus with the dead) and experience (as per Dimock) a literary chorus more "loosely quantified by dates." Thus our need, in quoting literature through prose, to use the present tense. To say "Milton writes" in lieu of "Milton wrote" acknowledges the "now-ness" of his poem and its simultaneity with our own work.
Radi os, then, in taking quotation to its extremity—it is both all Milton, and all Johnson—heightens that sense of literary simultaneity, and does so with far more moxy than Blake. Radi os is the quintessential experiment in literary relativity, a conspicuous worm hole between 1674 and 1977. It argues that time and literary studies are relative and does so in the very way it presents its text. In his preface Johnson calls each page an individual (and autonomous) plate. Elsewhere he refers to them as ideograms, and—it should be noted—deliberately published the poem without page numbers when it first appeared. Seriality is notably muted.
This isn't, of course, to say that Johnson completely eschews narrative, or the whiff of narrative that lifts up from an erased Paradise Lost. As he tells Barry Alpert, "I needed each page to stand as a kind of stanza but lead into the next one in a narrative sense." He does, of course, sequence his unnumbered "plates" into four sections. But whereas Milton and Blake write epics in "Books," Johnson serializes in "O"s—circular and self-contained. Movement toward a center, whether it's the sun or Milton's poem, trumps progression toward an end. Or as Johnson writes, "Each on his rock transfixed, / all things at one view? / then, live / at the spear / in time." Those last two words are key: we live in time, and not through it. We can see the world—and how we write it—at one view.
1—As an American Poem
Throughout this essay I've proposed a variety of contexts that lead me to read Radi os as an essentially American poem: its instinct toward Western expansion, its flight from high culture and sexual repression, its belief in paradise (or Oz) beside the Bay. Johnson speed-reads in jest, entranced by the sunset, his FM radio on. Guy Davenport calls him "a true American forager," a fine label if incomplete. Johnson doesn't just excavate and recondition but flings off the trappings of history as he moves.
Nicholas Lawrence has written that "Johnson frequently made explicit his contrarian ambition to write an epic 'without history' but suffused with science and myth." The science we can see in the Einstein; the myth is present in his pagan sun. But it's this "lack of history"—flying in the face of a major Johnson influence—Ezra Pound—that needs exploring. It goes a long way toward explaining how Radi os is an American poem.
Pound famously defined an epic as a poem that includes history, then set about, in the Cantos, to write that poem. Such an epic would, he believed, succeed only when it changed history in real time. If it failed, it failed at the feet of world leaders, not in book reviews or seminars or literati chit-chat. The Cantos then sought an impossible paradise, a world where poets didn't just know history but actively shaped it. In the end Pound would concede defeat: "I have tried to write Paradise / / Do not move / Let the wind speak / that is paradise. / / Let the Gods forgive what I / have made" (Canto CXVII et seq).
Johnson rejects such a paradise, serialized time, and history to boot, assembling a quasi-narrative epic from lyrics scraps. In the process he embraces an earlier, less-tainted Pound. Remember these lines from "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste" (1913)? An image is "the presentation of such a 'complex' instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits" (emphasis mine). This Pound comes with an ahistorical component, seemingly free from time.
And it is this ahistorical urge, I would argue, that is uniquely American, for we as a nation substitute geography for history. We take our cues from the land and not the past. It's a point I came to learn one summer while talking to a winery tour guide, a man who—bored with his industry's pomp and prattle—simplified the difference between European and American wines like so: French vintners, because they own small, similar plots of land, obsess over tradition. They differentiate their product through compulsive processes, every pigeage recorded and passed down. Californians, however, just find new valleys. They differentiate their wine by where it's grown. Our westward travels then, in which Radi os engages, replace a history that is merely two hundred years old. Our life is in our land. Our song is on the radio speeding west.
Johnson knew this, writing as he did during the American Bicentennial. All around him the country cheered (or tried to) a national image so recently marred by Vietnam. We were finally making the mistakes of an empire and able to see ourselves—perhaps for the first time, perhaps because of our blunder—against that succession of fallible empires that came before. Self-reflection, on a national scale, is an innately historical act, and it wasn't kicking in. Parades, of course, do a lousy job of putting us in a reflective or historical frame of mind. In 1976 we should have set down our flags and asked the gods to forgive what we had made.
Perhaps this is the reason Johnson rejects "parades" as an early title for Radi os. Or perhaps he just remembers Hearts and Minds, that scathing, Vietnam War expose that won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1975. It is a film I inevitably couple with this poem, closing as it does with a dysfunctional Fourth of July parade. There are fights, rhetorical grandstanding, and more than a few middle fingers. Antiwar protesters line the route, offering recrimination at every turn. A clown-like Uncle Sam pleads with the dissenters to "Come on, be happy! Everything isn't bad! Smile!" We are facing history and are unhappy with what we find.
The clown's assertion—baldly made and, moreover, discredited by the mayhem all around—calls to mind the close of Radi os: "For proof look up, / And read / Where thou art." Johnson, unlike the marching clown, assumes we need a reason for our happiness. It ought to be conditioned on something more than cheer. At this juncture in American history, Johnson tells us, we must turn back to our landscape—sunny, we hope, with little chance of rain—to discover where "thou art." Before we can grasp our new, problematic history we must remember our land. It's for this reason that he does not, in this poem, confront Vietnam or our original sin: slavery. He does not touch history at all. He does, however, import an archaism that forms a telling pun. We pull our "art" from our land, hoping that such art will help us live alongside our neighbors. It is a hopeful line that, unlike a parade's heedless forward motion, believes in turning things around.
1 It's fitting that Johnson did not "invent" the erasure, per se. Johnson knew Tom Phillips, whose The Humument (1967) erases W. H. Mallock's forgotten Victorian novel, A Human Document (1892). Each individual page of prose becomes, in Phillips's hands, a full-color illustration. The publication dates, as Peter O'Leary notes, seem to put "Phillips' work before Johnson's," but they "belong to the same moment, emerging from a similar impulse" (e-mail correspondence).
2 I'm thankful (again) to Peter O'Leary for informing me that "BEAM 17" was inspired by Orphée. For the importance of the Orphean myth to Johnson, see the poet's "Note" to ARK: "My central myth is that of Orpheus and Eurydice, the blessed argument between poet and muse, man and his anima."
3 Nicholas Lawrence has tried two abbreviated "B-sides" of Radi os: PARSE LOT and Adi os. Other titles might include Pad Lot or P ost. The latter seems silly until we remember that Johnson began Radi os by blocking out text with an eight-cent Einstein stamp.
4 Two points: Frost wincingly describes American colonialism in "The Gift Outright"—"The land was ours before we were the land's"—a poem he would later read at Kennedy's inauguration. Derek Walcott has said that a Navajo hymn would have been more appropriate. He's right. The truest line in the poem is the only one couched in a parenthetical: "The deed of gift was many deeds of war." For San Francisco as an earthly paradise, replete with its Fall, see Richard Rodriguez's essay on the AIDS crisis: "Late Victorians."
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--- The American Table: More Than 400 Recipes That Make Accessible for the First Time the Full Richness of American Regional Cooking. Silver Spring, Maryland: Silver Spring Books, 2000.
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Rodriguez, Richard. Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. New York: Penguin, 1993.
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About the Author
Derek Mong is the author of Other Romes (Saturnalia Books, 2011); the poetry editor at Mantis: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, & Translation; and a doctoral candidate at Stanford where he’s finishing his dissertation on Whitman and Dickinson. A former Axton Poetry Fellow at the University of Louisville and Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, he is the recipient of the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize from the Missouri Review and two Hopwood Awards. His poetry, translations, and criticism have appeared in Poetry Northwest, The Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, The Southern Review, Pleiades, The Cincinnati Review, and Asymptote. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and son. www.derekmong.com.
Editor: David H. Lynn
Managing Editor: Abigail Wadsworth Serfass