t the end of this long poem ARK, Ronald Johnson has appended a two-page explanatory note, the first lines of which inform us that Johnson spent over twenty years composing the work we've just read. The note is dated 1991. A quick glance at the copyright page will confirm that it then took Johnson another five years to get his masterwork into print. Thankfully, he persevered and the complete ARK is available “At last!”—as its author inscribed every time he autographed a copy.
Johnson's difficulty in finding a publisher for ARK is no mystery: there simply isn't a very large audience for his work, no market for any publisher to target. When the first third of ARK was published by North Point Press in 1980, a reviewer estimated that Johnson's readership totaled about 50. There is no reason to believe that number has grown appreciably since then, posing any number of difficulties for your friendly reviewer, foremost among them: how to introduce an author to a wider public via his masterpiece? A masterpiece, at the very least, presumes the knowledge of other of an author's pieces to be used for comparison, and in Johnson's case, very few have this context, thus making any declarations of ARK's status as a masterpiece empty encomiums. Hoping to convince others of ARK's value, and yet unable to determine what might convince the uninitiated to take a chance, I've asked the editor of the Authors Review of Books to stand in as a representative of the type of audience who should be reading ARK and asked him to pose the potential queries members of this audience might ask about this poem.
Scott: This is a huge poem. Why is it so big?
All night the golden fruit fell softly to the air,
Dirk: Long Poem Syndrome seems to strike most poets at some point in their career. The accomplishment of Homer keeps everyone in the shadows and itching to break out with an epic of their own. Johnson's immediate precursors, however, are Ezra Pound (The Cantos), Louis Zukofsky ("A"), and Charles Olson (The Maximus Poems), all of whom used various historical materials to help shape their long poems. Johnson, on the other hand, seeking to write a poem "without history" attempts to write what Edgar Allan Poe declared was impossible: a long poem that maintains--throughout--the intensity of a short lyric poem.
Scott: What is the meaning of ARK?
Dirk: 1. Noah's Ark, which becomes by the final lines of the poem a spaceship to Alpha Centauri.
2. The Ark of the Covenant, with all the grim orthodoxy scraped off.
3. Ark = arc(s), whether of rainbow or electricity or… .
4. A monument to be built in Kansas; the poem is the blueprint.
Scott: What is a language poet, and why?
Dirk: If Johnson were a language poet, this question would be relevant. Fortunately, he isn't, though he knows some.
Scott: What's with the architectonics?
Dirk: Writing a long poem "without history" means, in practice, that Johnson avoids narrative of all kinds. Johnson sets out to celebrate, with touches of mysticism and gobs of transcendentalism, the vibrant, creative beauty of the universe, and he does this by constructing his own intricate and wondrous construction. Instead of story arcs, Johnson gives us architecture. From his explanatory note: "Literally an architecture, ARK is fitted together with shards of language, in a kind of cement of music. Based on trinities, its cornerstones the eye, the ear, the mind, its three books consist of The Foundations, of which there are 33 beams, then The Spires of which there are 33 built on top, with 33 arcades of The Ramparts rounding the periphery. The first book goes from sunrise to noon, the second ends at sunset.… The third is the night of the soul." Johnson, then, is concerned with documenting THE Day, not particular days and individual events, and thus relies on his formal structures to suggest such an "ideal" day. (The resemblance of Johnson's three book format to Dante's Commedia has been noted by some commentators, though Johnson denies the influence.)
Scott: Doesn't this guy write cookbooks?
Dirk: Yes. For a time, Johnson was even able to make a modest living by writing cookbooks. Sadly, that time has passed. However, the University of New Mexico Press still carries his Southwest Cooking, and distributes reprints of his other cookbooks which are published by Living Batch Press.
Scott: Why are there no page numbers, man, there are no page numbers. That's crazy, isn't it?
Dirk: No crazier than Ed Dorn's Gunslinger which also had no page numbers (the first edition, that is). Page numbers would only reinforce time's linearity. In ARK it doesn't matter where or when you are because ARK is about when timelessness meets everywhere.
Scott: What's with the handprint on Beam 18?
Dirk: For many years, Johnson identified himself as a Concrete poet; the handprint derives from Concrete poetic practice. Later in ARK Johnson "writes through" the Psalms of the Bible and calls the results "Palms."
Scott: What other writers would you compare this guy with?
Dirk: No one really; Johnson is pretty much sui generis. He claims to be a disciple of Louis Zukofsky (via Mallarme) and Charles Olson. However, he has a much better eye than Zukofsky and a far better ear (way, way better) than Olson. Robert Duncan seems closer to me, but still I find the comparison less than useful. And while Johnson's collage techniques sometimes produce work that resembles the "meaning-free" zones developed by the Language poets, Johnson always has a point and is never as unreadable.
Scott: What's the structure on the front of the cover, and how is it all related to Don DeLillo, and why?
Dirk:: The cover photo shows a detail of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Johnson says he built ARK using the same principles Sam Rodia used to construct the towers, which are immense collages of found objects. While Rodia collected bottles and other discarded items, Johnson collects words and phrases, and then artfully arranges them. No direct connection with Don DeLillo has been identified. Yet.
Scott: Except that the Watts Towers also figure prominently in Underworld, and serve a metaphorical function in a similar way. I suspect a conspiracy. So anyway, what does this poem got to say about love?
Dirk:: Not much.
Scott: So why should I read it?
Dirk:: For lines like these:
pips ablaze, our eyes skinned back.
Clouds loom below. Pocked moon fills half the sky. Stars
comb out its lumen
in gone-to-seed dandelion
as of snowflakes hitting black water, time, and again