by Devin Johnston
Turtle Point Press, $15.95 (paper)
In his third collection, Devin Johnston backs away from the first-person singular complaints that hampered his earlier work, grounding these new poems in the plural. The effect is to transform his observations from stage-projected declamations into conspiratorial whispers; the obstinate quality of his early work now yields to tender and startling considerations, as in “The Golden Hinde”: “On Christmas Day, Kathleen and I / propel a raft with plastic spoons / through the hissing fur of surf, / stirring as we go / an Alka-Seltzer sun.” The big day and close companion (the poet’s sister) set a gentle tone, while the synecdoche (by “plastic spoons” he surely means “oars”) and aural and tactile comparisons derange expectations without entirely eluding them: the sea does in fact hiss; the surface of waves can look and feel like otter or seal skin. The poem is wild and real, unwilling to explain itself but not beyond understanding. Johnston practices craft and restraint while remaining indifferent as to whether those qualities are, as critics have protested, virtues in themselves. He prefers the spare line and enormous force favored by American isolatoes from Lorine Niedecker to Robert Creeley to Merrill Gilfillan. Like them, and following Pound’s insight into Shakespeare, Johnston prefers short action verbs to the static is. He describes objects with his hands and his eyes, noting texture, heft, and fit, and he can be counted on for a showy metaphor linking the inhuman other with something wryly familiar: “Outside a warbler / hurries through // its auctioneering”; “Waves detonate / a cold piano.” In “Departures,” he connects a goodbye kiss at the airport with hogs scraping their bristles and birds painting themselves with crushed ants, a random-seeming comparison until you consider what makeup is made of. Electric, soothing, and melancholy, this book is a wonder.