Brian Johnson

Train & Pool

The train standing in the rain: sad, but I know something worse.
The pool of rain-darkened leaves. It is real sadness—

I mean the empirical scenery of it, the ripening
In a season of mist. With the generalissimo. With the silent-film actress.

Their faces are so strangely impassive, remote, blazed-out
Over the pool and its crepuscular leaf-mass.

Meanwhile the pool house, with its French doors open, standing in the rain—
Its fan whirring—the robes still on the white-strapped chairs—

Sequestered no more than an hour ago, perhaps two—
The pool house we frequented, in our savage youth.

The Colonel Takes a Position

“The horizon is a clamshell that never shuts.
I fall into myself, but the horizon—no.

Let it be absolute zero
And dead still, yet it has a promise,

A story. I’m lost. The horizon is, was, never lost—
It’s warmly honorable, and so freely distant—

Should I run for it? Should I make myself
A truer image, a more innocent wish?

I shall go to a new country,
A country with no people to speak of.”

Summer Almanac

The colonization of duckweed, the coloring
Of a perch, the indifference of skin

To fly-bites. The age of a towhead, the radius
Of a swing, the volume of frogs at midday.

The weed-arrested truck, the milk-bottle dawn, the sizes
Of barns pitched and standing at a distance

With children barefoot in the sun,
With children that cannot get wet, the children

Every time they break the pond
Or their spines leave spines in the grass.

Cloud Study

Clouds need a horse to go along the river.
The rider needs rest, to get off the horse,

Smell desert flowers, eat, drink a little,
Stare at the paling distances.  

Clouds leave with the sunset,   
The horse—in the river, still

The rider turning a felt hat
In his lap, counterclockwise, slowly,

Considering the beauty of things
He will do, in cinematic time.

Light, a Reagent

When light touches on the immaculate things,
They seem doubly immaculate, pluperfect—

The way a window vase is, and the terrazzo
In airports, and one aluminum chair

In an English garden. This is the world
As designers want it—the right material

In the right light, so when people enter
With imperfect bodies and their own business,

They might be overtaken by something else.
They might find the world graceful.

Author’s Statement

Writing, For and To

Unless I believe in redemption, I cannot write; unless I write, I cannot be redeemed. Every poet is lost. Night and morning, the same grief. And for whom do I write? For some special population, a camp? Other writers are a camp. Laypeople are a camp. Posterity, a shadow camp. I shrink from all of them. I dropped out of Boy Scouts and I also failed at team sports. I was in school, but never of the school. I’ve ruled out stickers on my rear window.

And I don’t know whether I know my audience. I don’t know whether my finger alone or the combined fingers of all the serious poets in the United States will protect the dike of modern lit against the flood of modern junk. I don’t know whether I love my country, and whether I want to write for someone in the country or someone way outside the country. 

I don’t know whether the tags—poet’s poet, for instance—have entirely lost their appeal. If I become a poet’s poet, it means I have craft, which is a nice sort of cachet. Everyone wants some cachet. But, to be honest, I don’t write for other poets; very few of them read me, even fewer care what I’m doing, and only one or two like my poetry. As for posterity, I don’t believe in the idea. It is like concentrating one’s entire being in a tea leaf, like buying stock in the lost & found pile.         

Then for whom do I write? I write for the average reader, because the average reader is fictional, a great concoction, like the average heart is a great concoction. For this average reader, I am a newfound species. There are difficulties peculiar to our encounter. If she understands me, she is not my reader. Our relationship cannot be like that of journalist to subscriber; it is more like that of bottle-message writer to imaginary friend.

This is not to say I write only for readers who dream about coming to my house, the readers who want to see me in person. I am kinder and more tender in some poems than I will ever be in the flesh, because the flesh is easily wounded and it recoils and inflicts pain without meaning to. I would prefer not to meet my imaginary friend. I don’t want to discover how she reads—interprets—me. I am not seeking a normalization of relations. I write, instead, to preserve a scrupulous detachment from all meetings and personal treaties. I write to get rid of disappointment and to fix it, brilliantly. Parents are disappointed in their kids. Scientists are disappointed in their findings. City planners are disappointed in their cities, and farmers disappointed in their crops. The poem is a counterproposal that seeks to do away with all the typical outcomes.

I anticipate that the news will improve. The country will get better, I will find peace. Salvation is always somewhere in the works, I’m convinced, and yet who can wait twenty years, even twenty minutes, without feeling ashamed? Who could bear to be stood up every morning? The problem is both simple and unchanging: unless I believe in redemption, I cannot write; unless I write, I cannot be redeemed. Every poet is lost. My desk came from a disenchanted forest, and my thoughts from a library sale. It is our deepest nature to be lost, and to somehow rid ourselves of loss: the child wails and finds comfort; the believer prays and finds consolation; the poet writes and finds company. In an age without muses, I have too much responsibility and too little help. I write by myself. I arrange my own lights. It is hard work. And I would love to stop writing, stop talking about writing, stop the need that gives rise to writing. But what I need is a visitor, someone kind enough to interrupt me, and old enough to take me home. What I need is a steadfast ghost.

Brian Johnson is the author of Self-Portrait, a chapbook; Torch Lake and Other Poems, a finalist for the Norma Farber First Book Award; and Site Visits, a collaborative work with the German painter Burghard Müller-Dannhausen. He has received two Connecticut Commission on the Arts Fellowships and an Academy of American Poets Prize, and is the former editor of Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics. He has taught creative writing at many schools, including Providence College, Yale University, and Southern Connecticut State University, where he is a professor of English and directs the freshman composition program.