2008 Poetry Finalist Sources, by Devin Johnston

by Eric Miles Williamson | Feb-23-2009

Each day leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2008 NBCC awards, we highlight one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Eric Miles Williamson discusses Devin Johnston’s Sources (Turtle Point Press)

As poetry has faded from the American landscape and imagination (if ever poetry occupied a significant place in our culture at all) poets have tended to become either more reactionary or more obscure. On the reactionary side, drum-pounding malcontents of every variety sound off their personal or group gripes concerning socio-economics, politics, racism, sexism—we all know the list. The obscure poets, on the other hand—and we all know who they are—write poetry so impenetrable that PhD’s can’t figure out what the hell the poems are trying to convey, if anything. Snickering and aloof, they need translators from English to English.

What’s increasingly rare is poetry that is neither extreme, that isn’t whining, screaming and howling, begging for our sympathy like overdressed street corner bums and preachers, or, at the other end, isn’t so coy and vague and strewn with ten dollar words that a normal educated person can’t come away from it feeling anything but stupid and resentful.

What’s more often than not missing is an attempt to render what aesthetes used to call, back in the days before performance poets and poetry slams, “the beautiful.”

That’s where Devin Johnston comes in. His NBCC Finalist third collection of poetry, Sources, is a beautiful book, intelligent without being overbearing, thoughtful while not didactic, delicate yet not pretentious or dainty. The forty poems of Sources (the title a reference to the fact that Johnston’s book is not a collection springing from nowhere but a collection of poems that has its roots in the ancient and classical poetic tradition—the epigraph is from Herakleitos) are like the whispers we strain to overhear when we know what’s being said is important. There’s a haiku-like quality to these finely chiseled poems, and, as in haiku, every word carries much freight. With entire poems totaling as few as twelve words, others poems strung with one- and two-word lines, Sources at first glance is a quick read. Don’t be misled: the seeming simplicity of most of the poems is deceptive, as each reading unveils more weaves of meaning.

More than anything else, Devin Johnston’s Sources is a book a reader will want to keep on the shelf, to re-read periodically. In the poem, “Sleeping In,” Johnston writes,

Every creature
only seeks

reprieve from habit,
lives and breathes

on borrowed money,
borrowed song,

striking matches
against the sun.

And that’s what the book is like: striking matches against the sun, Icarus igniting a torch rather than torching himself, or getting close enough to the sun to actually engage it rather than be destroyed by it, or reaching for the sun to light a match and lighting the match and becoming incinerated for overreaching and while overreaching at least being engaged enough to overreach, or . . . or . . .

While reading like a book written today, Sources nonetheless manages to operate in the best traditions of poetry, giving readers the oldest gifts works of art can give—instruction and pleasure. A remarkable trove of poetry that will stand the test of time.

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