Thursday, May 19, 2011

Jim Johnstone's Patternicity

A cavil to start, and a strong one: the title. Patternicity (2010), Jim Johnstone's second book of poetry, is pegged, according to Michael Shermer, as "meaningful patterns in meaningless noise". As themes go, this is an immediately arresting one. The problem is that serendipity, joyful chance and union, and creative diagramming are often, in the book, given the lyrical equivalent of plot-spoilers by the constant trumpeting of the title in the remembered background of the reader. Noise is a funny thing: the aural sense is our oldest one, the most primitive but also the most honest. Johnstone exploits this tragicomedy very well in places, violence vying with in-your-face beauty in a number of fine poems (more details in a bit). But the inherent thematic subversion of many images means pattern wins over wonder, which is a shame since I was on the edge of my seat for much of the book, but didn't need the metal safety bar after all. It's as if the author took a grant application outline to heart, and decided he needed to foreground the entire enterprise, as one often does in an essay with a strong stance.

Also, a contrarian could even say, by way of an ars poetica, that poems delight in making beautiful chaos out of humdrum order.

"Tithonus" is a good mythical critter in which to explore a desperation for meaning. All that time to figure out an incomprehensible fate. The rhetoric here is fine, controlled yet passionate ("I've watched/clouds tear" .... "I've steered/the unexpected"); a casual yet blunt, difficult statement comes unexpectedly though believably ("Love lasts a decade if you're lucky"); and the phrasing is tragically successful ("grind of roots").

One could do worse than seeing the two shortish prose poems, back-to-back mid-book, as polar responses to the problem of physical inertia and/or danger: action and escape ("Cliff Diving") and retirement ("Passing Through"). The former is the better poem since the anecdotal tension is matched by some excellent clauses ("the logic of our path is forsaken for clean speed" and "Depths reserved for leaded weights and worms"), whereas the latter reaches for a disquieting mood and ends up with preciosity ("The afternoon spreads out in fractals", and "the heat is a wasp's kiss, stitched octaves of venom").

"Rat Fink" is a terrific poem, and breaks out of its thematic box with some interesting shifts as well as some gorgeous and purposeful imagery ("an alterpiece of splintered milk bottles"). The relationship here, the "we" and "you", isn't delineated, and it works in adding to the menace. In other poems, though, the second-person and first-person plural voice creates an aura of vagueness when what is wanted is anchored and strengthened intimacy. Again, the poems could have achieved this, because Johnstone has the requisite talent to bring it off, but technical issues frustrate the vision. A few examples will have to suffice: ("where your finger's hints/line each pocket" from "Provenance"; "when you hold feathers in your teeth,/when you find the breath to laugh.//We were doing well before Saint/Thomas Aquinas named five new ways//to sin" from "Disgraceland".)

A few words about typos. Usually, I don't comment on them, but Nightwood Editions often takes great care in editing and presentation, so it may make the Romantic composer try to find a more pleasing pattern in the perverse "Where Schubart glimpsed madness", unless the line is taken as a literal posthumous reaction. Likewise, "stagger back into it's former prints" must have made the author understandably irritated, even if the formulation originally issued from his pen or computer. Writers sometimes spend a day or more on a choice between leaving out or including one punctuation mark; a few extra minutes of edits should've made this a non-issue.

An uneven book, but a recommended one. I hope Johnstone's next collection is "spread out in fractals" or various unified but wildly unpatterned singularities.

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