The late, and beloved, poet Margaret Avison writes, “Poetry is always in / unfamiliar territory” (Avison 27). I hope you can forgive me for opening a review of Gordon Johnston’s recent book of poetry, But for Now, with this quotation from another poet. I do this because I know that Johnston is an avid reader of Avison’s poetry, but also because these lines indicate a central theme of But for Now: the position in time and culture of poetry. This book, as all good books of poetry must, challenges assumptions about genre and invites readers to enter the “unfamiliar territory” of poetry.
What is most striking about this collection is that it manages to stay in the present moment, while drawing from what may seem like a distant and unrelated past. This is not the clever, postmodern wordplay of Jeramy Dodds or Adam Dickinson; it reaches back to the devotional tradition of Margaret Avison, and further still to the metaphysical poets and even the psalmists. Yet, it is very much of the here and now, as the title suggests. The question that remains is whether there is still a place for this contemplative vein of poetry in a rapidly accelerating, globalizing world that seems to be leaving poetry, at least as a function of mainstream culture, in its wake. Perhaps the answer is clear: now more than ever is the time for poetry that re-energizes ancient traditions.
The reasons that Johnston and his editors have chosen to place “Finally the End of Poetry” as the final poem in this collection are all too obvious. This obviousness is one gentle critique that I would offer in more than this single instance. Perhaps there could be more faith, on the poet’s part, that the reader will be able to connect the dots that his images and metaphors so deftly leave behind. Nevertheless, this final poem is a strong indication of the noble work done by this collection. Johnston says, “We shall write to each / other now / from the heart.” With his particularly careful, thoughtfully spare lines, Johnston gestures toward a loftier goal than the creation of good, or successful, poetry. Poetry is a still-necessary means of finding “the best / words we / can find / in the full light / of everything we know.” Johnston makes himself vulnerable throughout this collection as he strives for form and content that communes with self, other and God.
This is courageous poetry for an often-cynical time. His poem “Credo,” which is divided into latin-titled, liturgical sections begins, “Most days don’t need heaven; here’s enough.” Throughout this poem and his eight “New Psalms,” Johnston takes a piercing look at the place of faith in contemporary society. In “A New Psalm, of Uncertainty,” he acknowledges that “here” is a place of “uncertainty” and “threadbare faith.” This series of “New Psalms” picks up nicely where the “New Psalms” in his 2006 volume, Small Wonder, leave off. Once again they leave the sense that now, more than ever, is a time for new forms of devotion and prayer because of the overwhelming uncertainty we face. “A New Psalm, of Unknown Ironies” makes this sense of the uncertain and the unknown plain. The poem illuminates “The scrim, the barrage / of misinformation, / of half-truth and spin” of the here and now. Johnston proposes a resistance to the spinning of the media: “In self-defence I send jpg images / of my granddaughter, to family and friends, / as if there were no war.” The haiku-like hinge that these final lines offer reveals the underpinning desire to connect to “family and friends” in resistance to troubling times.
This desire for connectedness runs deeply through the collection. Throughout, there are generous dedications for family members, friends, and colleagues. There are also many epigraphs that range widely between people such as Li Bai, Tolstoy and Elizabeth Bishop. Johnston’s love of music and the relationships that it facilitates is also an abiding presence. This book is at odds with most elements of mainstream culture, and many elements of literary culture as well. It seems to occupy, as Avison says, “unfamiliar territory.” However, But for Now makes a strong case for reconnecting to such outmoded forms as psalms and liturgy. This is poetry to keep by one’s bedside, especially in times of distress.
Avison, Margaret. Momentary Dark. McClelland & Stewart, Toronto: 2006. Print.