Oyster Boy Review 14  
  Winter 2001
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To Do As Adam Did by Ronald Johnson

Jeffery Beam

Johnson, who died in 1998, has yet to be acknowledged as the great 20th century American visionary poet that he was. Johnson's architectural, visual, and aural poems explode on the page—fireworks moving easily from meditation to ecstasy. Grounded in scientific precision, the poems are dolphin-like, intense, sleek, beautiful, experimental—yet accessible. They contain some of the most unashamedly gorgeous language in poetry: "What we wanted // was both words and worlds / you could put your foot through."

Poetry like this deserves to be read aloud as the subtleties of its music ring more clearly when nursed by the voice. Johnson's work is one of exploration and unknown lands—the mind's land enraptured by the shape of things, the earth's landscape becoming the mind's residence. Grounded early on in a hybrid 18th century post-modernist style which soothes as the gorgeous prose of English writer/artists such as Samuel Palmer soothes, and surprises as the Concrete and Objectivists poets surprises, Johnson's work evolved into an ecstatic otherness which is hard to describe—abstract, metaphysical, scientific, futuristic, and, yes, pastoral.

This volume contains poems from some of my all time favorite volumes of poetry by anyone, Johnson's Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses, The Book of the Green Man, and RAD IOS (a poem "found" in the text of Milton's Paradise Lost). As the essentially pastoral vision of his poems transformed into a cosmic one (as Blake and Palmer moved from pasture to constellated sky), Johnson built a space ship out of words and created ARK—a work which expanded into a celestial riff in the mode of Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles or James Hamilton's "Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly" (which can be seen at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in D.C.). The beauty, the weirdness, the spinning lightness and vortex-aural dizziness of ARK is unsurpassed anywhere in poetry—particularly in America. "I find I advance with / sidereal motions / —my eyes containing substance // of the sun, / my ears built of beaks and feathers— // I ascend with saps." ("Emanations") ARK is the culmination of work begun by Blake, continued by Dickinson and Whitman, hinted at by Sitwell, and demanded by our dark time.