Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1899
An “ark” is a boat that carries the survivors; the chest containing the Ten Commandments written on stone tablets, carried by the Hebrews during their desert wanderings, also called “ark of the covenant” and thus the Holy Ark; the boat built by Noah for survival during the Flood; or a place of shelter or refuge. Ronald Johnson’s Ark calls to mind all of these definitions. Johnson tells readers in “A Note” at the end of Ark that the work is “Literally an architecture . . . fitted together with shards of language, in a kind of cement of music.” A poetic edifice “based on trinities, its cornerstones the eye, the ear, the mind,” it is “artifact rather than argument,” Johnson’s poetic Watts Towers, owing as much to Simon Rodia as to Louis Zukofsky and Charles Olson, “braving new schemes of language.” Johnson reveals these elements to his readers in “A Note,” but if one has worked his way through the “shards of language” that compose the three books of this intriguingly original and challenging poem, one sees again how “new” a vision a great poet weaves from the stuff he gathers from the physical, mythic, and psychological “places” of his being. While Ark is a “difficult” poem, it is also a rewarding one, a celebration of the extraordinarily complex composition of “America,” the place, the idea, the dream. It is structured in three sections: “The Foundations 1-33 for Donald and Patricia Anderson”; “The Spires 34-66 for Jonathan Williams a solid, six-sided music’”; and “The Ramparts 67-99 for Guy Davenport Mover & Shaker.” The structural components of the Foundations section comprise sections he names “Beams,” usually verse arrayed in various patterns on the page suggesting a very free adaptation of what poets have traditionally called the ode, but sometimes the language is arrayed as sentences and paragraphs so that it looks like ordinary prose. Yet there is nothing “ordinary” in either the “prose” passages or the verse sections where the emphasis here is on “free” in that the tortured syntax and grammatical complexity of Johnson’s use of the form often make Ezra Pound’s verse seem accessible by comparison.
The “Foundations 1-33” section then is an examination of the various “beams” that support the structure of this Ark, this universe of meaning. These beams (which are also at least sometimes illuminations as in beams of light) are the phenomena of existence, the mind which knows (constructs) meaning and form out of these phenomena, and the constructions (physics, poetry, and so forth) of that mind that makes sense and shape of the (apparently) physical phenomena of existence. BEAM 15 for example, “Cornerstone,” quotes Henry David Thoreau’sWalden and alludes humans’ need to know themselves, especially in their spiritual dimensions through the “living waters” of their own experience and thought, the serpent of error entering when they “drink” of the stagnant waters of others’ experiences. In BEAM 17, Orpheus, Johnson asserts a number of propositions, the poem will illuminate, for example, “That one prism holds the spectrumed glory’ as surely as whole populations of droplets strummed by sun./ That the action of the universe is metamorphosis—its articulation, metaphor. White crow, black swan, these are the hinges of Heaven.” In a prose section of BEAM 17, he writes: “In the beginning there was the Word—for each man, magnetized by onrush, is Adam to his Tyger.”
BEAM 18 is a palm print (one assumes of Johnson’s right palm) the meaning of which seems related to the idea of man as maker—toolmaker, maker of music, maker of poetry, maker, indeed, of all meaning. Johnson says that it relates to one of the central myths of the poem, Orpheus and Euridice, and Jean Cocteau’s handling of the “looking back” by visioning a mirror as a bath of mercury, Johnson’s palm print being the “palm going into the mercury to get to the underworld.” Even reading the poem then as an examination of man the maker, of the Ark as a vessel of meaning, one will inevitably ask why Johnson tortures grammar and syntax so? Perhaps he is arguing the inadequacy of “regular” linguistic and rhetorical rules to jar readers into meaning and understanding. Perhaps his “violations” of these rules comprise a meta-poem on the arbitrary (and insufficient) relationships among language, knowing, knower, and the known. Perhaps the most cogent view is to see the central myth of Orpheus creating and enacting the rhythmical, musical aspects of nature rather than the grammatical.
The structural components of the Spires section comprises sections Johnson calls “Spires,” perhaps intending to suggest certain components of life and death. ARK 34, Spire on the Death of L.Z. argues that life, “as quick as a squirrel’s tail” transforms into death “evenly distributed as nesting sights/ or silvery layers of film/ over rotifers.” The closing images of ARK 34 move from the foundations on “this, red clay/ grassland” to “where the cloud steeds clatter out wide stars,” asserting finally that “this is paradise . . . this is.” ARK 37, Spire called Prospero’s Songs to Ariel (constructed in the form of a quilt from Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to Western Birds) is remarkable not only for its title but for the rendering in sound and visual imagery of bird life in the Kansas plains constructed, classified, described, rendered in all its aspects and stitched together by its music, a tour de force. The following poem, ARK 38, Ariel’s Songs to Prospero is “the invisible Spire . . . a tape recording made with the assistance of sound technician Roger Gans. . . . [taking six months] with the end result being just over six minutes of musics’ constructed out of recordings of songs of the birds of eastern United States.” ARK 47, Plow Spire, figures the “dry red Kansas, country empty, even Great American Desert’/ no mapped puddle skipped a pebble, but Flood” and the pioneers jostled in their covered wagons later.
The third and final section, “The Ramparts,” comprises elements Johnson names “Arches,” and these seem to refer pretty clearly to the architectural elements of structure, the social construction of realities by the conjoint efforts of poet and reader. Arches, one recalls, are among the oldest of engineering forms, strong, adaptable to and made from many materials, and often strikingly beautiful because of their lines and their strength. In ARK 69, Arches III, Johnson writes in three-line stanzas one of which reads: “wordsmith, way forth/ the old grammaire/ break dawn across foothills” suggesting that by breaking the conventional rules of syntax the poet “breaks” new light across the landscape(s) of creation, sings new music, calls forth new ways of reading, of constructing the world and, thus, of approaching the Ark itself.
ARK 71, Arches V, “Death of R.D.” appears to be an elegy in function although unlike conventional pastoral elegy as it exists through the Romantic poets at least. Written again in three- line stanzas (the form suggests the Christian Trinity), the section alludes to Christian religion in a variety of ways—a section of hymns, citations of holy places, conjunctions of creation myths with “scientific” theories of origins, celebration of God’s creations, allusions to Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Blake done in ways reminiscent of the ways musical composers will quote riffs or patterns from this or that predecessor. There is power in this section, one that speaks especially in the last twelve lines of the section
ligh t struck handsbreadth air—
if life maintain not lift
I wreath bequeath
pressed into wall!
trumpeter swan how signal dolphin
abreast far outer spray
wound into ball about us
crow eclipse sky
In the valley of the shadow of
fair trial by fires, in vitro
a breviary of universe
This section fairly illustrates some of Johnson’s techniques: allusion, compaction, the metaphysical conjunctions of image sources with strong visuals and other sensory appeals create a form that does not invite the reader to participate in the construction of statement and meaning; rather they compel one to do so. One must read the spaces and the pauses and the breaks in syntax and metrical moves to make Johnson’s daring and demanding moves accessible. A large number of his images strike with surprising force, as the last stanza quoted above: “fair trial by fires, in vitro/ gathering life/ a breviary of universe.” Thus the poem becomes a “breviary of universe,” a collection of hymns, offices, and prayers for the canonical hours, an ordered and regulated celebration of creation envisioned often in terms of the glorious great plains or at least its tattered remnants. “Intact as effigy,/ windmill stood face plain/ tablets applaud far climbs of man” compose a stanza compacting images that resonate with aspiration, law giving/discovering, mankind’s strenuous efforts to achieve coherence even though alone and sturdy in the midst of history.
ARK 85, Arches XIX, moves readers closer to poet as maker, as architect, as carpenter and dancer (Johnson’s father was, he says, a carpenter, his mother a dancer, his “main characters [of the poem] somehow” he calls them) as intercessor with whatever deities there might be as he begins with this triplet: “Craft, to seek renewal/ askew all question/ & exit in resonance genesis” and ends with “bluer as hillrise above hill/ apportioned lot, behave/ who Art in heaven.” Throughout this final section, each Arch seems to rise higher and higher, the poetic intensity increasing, the claims for poetry and poet expanding. In ARK 97, Arches XXXI, for example, the last stanza reads: “quintessence in chorus/ sapphire Hemisphere/ deeps, crowned with stars,” suggesting a convergence of music (of the spheres), of colors, of rule and government, of hierarchy, of connection, a kind of twenty-first century Great Chain of Being. In ARK 99, Arches XXXIII, readers find a closing exuberance: “Lo! allegro non troppo/ remake mankind/ a joyous noise into the void.” Ark is that “joyous noise into the void” “all arrowed a rainbow midair,/ ad astra per aspera/ countdown for Lift Off,” the movement of the entire poem from sunrise to sunrise captured here.
In “A Note” at the end of the volume, Johnson instructs readers on how to approach the poem, alluding to the sources of portions of technique and world view, arguing for his original take on the subject matter. Most interesting, however, is his assertion that “the idea of ARK came when I was able at last to conceive it as a structure rather than diatribe, artifact rather than argument, a veritable shell of the chambered nautilus, sliced and polished, bound for Ararat unknown.” He sees himself as one who is constructing on the Kansas prairie an “Ozimandias of the spirit,” an architecture “fitted together with shards of language, in a kind of cement of music.” He asserts that the trinity of eye, ear, and mind are the constructing powers that erect the Ark, its foundations of thirty-three beams, the thirty-three spires on the top, and the arcades of the thirty-three arches encircling it about. It is instructive that a picture of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers graces the cover of the book, itself an architectural monument constructed from shards. One cannot help but think of the line from T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (1922): “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” the salvation inherent in the creative act foremost in the figure.
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Review. XLII, Winter, 1996, p. 23.
Parnassus: Poetry in Review. XVII/XVIII, 1992- 1993, p. 273.
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