A World in a Grain of Sand

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Mosses and Lichens
by Devin Johnston
(FSG, 2019, 96pp., $23)

Attentive to the physical world and intricately wrought, Devin Johnston’s Mosses and Lichens shows a poet of fine-grained discrimination. If intentionally less lush, the play of assonance and consonance (often in iambs) is as striking yet subtle as that of Keats or Heaney. Around a colloquial core, the diction adds flourishes to make Stevens or Moore proud, Bishopian onomatopoeia (“cack cack,” “chu-weet!”), and the most individual verbs (“a lone beetle / churns across the concrete” or “A black cat … flowed along the path”). Thematically, poems may stick with the quotidian, reach into history, develop a conceit, or indulge a gag. Their common denominator is descriptive precision. Yet Johnston is no miniaturist. The book’s first poem, “Slow Spring,” is loaded with detail (“days of foam in gutters, / blossoms and snow / mingling where they fall”) routed into a network of affect: “irritation,” “connection, “confusion,” “indirection.” With space for the rhymes of the Latinate nouns not to clang, the second stanza reads:

Not days of anger
but days of slow connection,
days of snow geese passing
north above the river,
days of eros
endlessly drawn out
through error and confusion

A feeling is suggested—it resembles anger but is a lower temperature—that the lines then grope toward by blending detailed impressions (the “snow geese passing / north above the river”) and abstractions (“eros” leads to “error”). In this, Johnston’s sixth book, every small observation seems both gathered in by and suggestive of some larger force, whether personal (strained or dissolving relationships, fatherhood, middle age), impersonal (geology, time) or intellectual (poetry and classical mythology especially).

As Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head” and Keats’s “Sonnet to Ailsa Rock” attest, geology provides an intuitive if enigmatic link between physical details and the forces that created them. Fossils, the layers and striations of rock, and volcanic remains are perceptible records of natural history. In Johnston’s own “Prehistoric,” a rocky bluff registers the effects of great waters long receded:

The kids pause beside a bluff
to touch its bands of sediment—
soft silt of an inland sea
or vast lagoon, now thin and rough
as deckle edges of a book,
epochs compressed to signatures
cockled with faults and folds—
and wonder which pertain to us.
Were any people here back then?

The comparison of the natural record to a book isn’t new, but Johnston renews it. The particular comparison to “deckle edges” lets the reader feel the bands. The frequent use of deckle edges for young-adult books injects play into the comparison, as if the kids wrote the simile. And the diction (“cockled”) keeps the reader off-kilter. Johnston describes the natural world in its smallest expression, but the description serves to render big questions less pat. What is man’s place in the vast expanse of natural history? “Wonder” is an idiomatic enough substitution for “ask” that it doesn’t sound sentimental even as it lets awe sneak in. Yet in another minute the kids don’t care. They turn and race “through a ravine of moss and lichen,” back to the games that belong to their “age”—on a human scale. Johnston’s light touch shows how traces of geological sublimity can paradoxically expand awareness beyond immediate concern through their physical immediacy—though not always and not long. After all, the entire description of the bands of sediment has been suspended between the sentence’s two main verbs.

Where geological traces ask to be deciphered, other forms of nature—such as undergrowth—do not seem to signify. But in the volume’s eponymous poem, “Mosses and Lichens,” the flora that the kids ignore in “Prehistoric” becomes the poet’s subject, and Johnston finds it speaks to literary history as much as bands of sediment speak to natural history. In fact, where the kids might see undifferentiated “moss,” Johnston’s attention discovers a wealth of plural “mosses.” The first stanza catalogs several types:

a buoyant clump of cushion moss,
the nap of sheet moss, fit for sleep,
a bog of sphagnum, shirred and soft,
along the bed of Pickle Creek.

It is typical of Johnston that he’s ready with a naturalist’s knowledge of proper names. And the undergrowth can reward still more attention than sketches. In the second stanza, a single lichen is metaphorically elaborated with a catalog of appositives:

More subtle still, an areole
of lichen lives on rock and air,
the crust of paint on a coping stone,
an orange blaze that marks no trail;
a flake of ancient bronze, an ash
that powders the fingertips like sage;
the reindeer lichen’s tangled mass
of antler branches, brow and bay.

Whether extended or quick, Johnston’s observations of nature are high-definition (“a flake of ancient bronze”), playful (“the nap of sheet moss”), and physical as much as visual (“an ash / that powders the fingertips like sage”). But at the same time as the observations are perceptive and imaginative on their own, they rework a larger literary history. The poem opens with Alexander Pope’s comment that we must “Grant but as many sorts of mind as moss.” It ends with an anecdote about John Ruskin picking up a moss-coated brick, observing how the “remains” of the “leaves that die invisibly” (a traditional metaphor for human mortality) “steadily accrete / beneath the bright ascending crest.” Pope argues that if nature bestows such uniqueness on its lowest forms, human minds must be even more splendid and diverse. Johnston finds that moss is as splendid and diverse as could be. We may even wonder what mind lives up to the beauty of moss, until the anecdote from Ruskin reminds us that minds turn to moss. We are not higher than moss but fuel for it. The beauty of undergrowth is in some sense our telos. Johnston wears his learning lightly, yet it can connect his observations even of nature’s most overlooked formations into a larger tradition of humanistic inquiry.

Poems that focus not on natural description but on human narratives such as history or personal anecdotes still access their larger investigations through immediate detail. But characteristically, the detail in these poems is provided by notice of faint sensory phenomena: pops, clicks, hisses, tingles, and pricks. In various poems, “Mexican jumping beans / click in their plastic case,” “Tires hiss through wet clay,” and “raindrops / flick the river’s surface.” The poem “Contact” begins with one such sensation. The poem is about Father Chabanel, a seventeenth-century missionary in Canada who lived among the Hurons. He so detested them, however, that he confined himself to the mission. The first two stanzas describe a mosquito bite:

Felt before seen:
not the numb blooming of an itch
but needle prick, the spritzing sting
of anesthetic in her spit,
an effervescent prickle.

If seen, a mere sketch,
a whisker of brush at dusk
against the standing night
of old growth from the Age of Pine.

The mosquito might not even be seen, yet the minimal sensation of the bite has been rendered exactingly: contemplated by contrast (as in “Slow Spring”: “not … but…”) and elaborated (as was the lichen) by appositives. As is the case in many of Johnston’s poems, no first-person pronoun appears. The lingering confusion over whether a Huron or Chabanel is experiencing the bite illustrates the way it binds them together. That is, though Chabanel avoids the natives, they have one form of intimate interaction: the insects that “spread his blood upon the waters.” A minimal sensation retells the history of “contact” between native peoples and Europeans.

Slight sensations can even bring in close the lofty figures of Greek mythology and literature, favorite sources of inspiration. In “The Sinkhole,” Johnston works up to a brief adaptation of Odysseus’ confrontation with the ghost of his mother. But the epic journey to the underworld has been reimagined as a half-asleep mental meandering of a contemporary speaker through the limestone under St. Louis. It opens with the attention both empty and focused. The speaker feels the melatonin creep through his body as if it were the mosquito’s anesthetic, and he hears the time marked quietly by the sounds of a mouse:

Unclenched and half asleep—
Bloodstream tinged with melatonin,
the hormonal expression of darkness—
I lie still, listening to a soft
persistent tapping at the baseboard.

Attentiveness allows the smallest sensation to open up to geological causes: “The house settles a hair’s breadth, / ground giving way far below / in a bed of porous limestone.” Dream-logic then transforms the underground into the underworld, and a single, italicized stanza suspends the haunting climax of the poem:

I see my mother’s ghost among the dead,
Sitting in silence near the blood.
Not once has she glanced this way or spoken:
Does she not recognize her son?

Is her son now dreaming rather than just half-asleep? Perhaps, because another slight sensation snaps him back to reality: “Thick drops beat against the glass. / The ceiling plaster ticks, a sound as soft / as a struck match or shutter click.” Faint signals can transmit distant meaning, or just register white noise. Other writers may try to humanize figures of myth by making them sound like a confessional poet or a slangy teen, and Johnston, too, updates the figures’ contexts (another poem recasts Ovid’s flood as Hurricane Katrina). But what renders Johnston’s heroes human is their embodied sensorium.

Johnston came to the attention of many readers when he was cited by Stephanie Burt in 2009 as a prime example of “The New Thing” in poetry: a style that, following William Carlos Williams, viewed poems as “attentive, unornamented things” that faithfully represented, well, things. Burt noted that reviews of these poets often mentioned their “minimalism,” meaning their tendency to write in short stanzas composed of short lines, largely free of overt emotion or interpretation. One night in the sequence of poems “Four Nights” from Johnston’s 2008 Sources, “Wollongong” reads as follows:

A wave, a welter
Of clouds cross-
hatched with rain:

excess happiness.

Suspended but complete, these four lines are the poet’s entire comment on the night. Only the title, the name of a city in Australia, provides a context. Admittedly, Johnston was never consistently so minimalist. Nor is his current work without brief poems of fugitive impressions. But overall, as Johnston’s career has progressed, he has grown more discursive, narrative, and human, whether he is writing about nature, family, an ancient hero, himself, or the latter two blended. “Above the Hawkesbury,” from Mosses and Lichens, responds to another Australian seascape, but the verb completes the sentence, casting it not as gestalt but as a moment in life:

The sky dims over Ku-ring-gai,
dysrhythmia of dusk at noon;
the quick hiss of rain.

Unlike “Wollongong,” the poem also shows this moment to be meaningful to those living it. The “turbulence” that the vacation overcomes is certainly a pun, referring both to the turbulence of a plane and a relationship:

Having come through turbulence,
through days and nights in disarray,
we find ourselves
unmoored from habits,
adrift among strange constellations,
Crux and Coalsack Nebula
sunk in a shallow bay.

What has stayed consistent in Johnston’s work is his attention to the minimum phenomena of sensation, the minimum data of the physical world, and the minimum unit of verse (the syllable). But his power is the way he uses minimal quanta to comprehend ever larger horizons.