—revisiting Johnson's ARK via Peter O'Leary's edition for Flood Editions, 2013
Ronald Johnson, a poet associated with both the Black Mountain school and Objectivism, but whose own poetics was far more cosmically inclined, spent over two decades building his ARK, an epic-length lyric poem that effectively reconciles Blake and Newton. The poem was written while Johnson resided in San Francisco and was completed in 1990; shortly after, Johnson returned to his native Kansas, dying there, aged 57, in 1998. The plan of ARK (whose title is always given in capital letters, as if it were the acronym of a top-secret project) is both simple and unlikely: as Johnson explains in his Afterword, “its three books consist of The Foundations, of which there are thirty-three beams, The Spires, of which there are thirty-three built on top, with thirty-three arcades of The Ramparts rounding the periphery.” Since Johnson makes explicit reference to the folk-visionary edifices constructed by the Postman Cheval in Provence and Simon Rodia in Watts as models for his ARK, we may imagine that Johnson’s own construction also conforms to a human scale—its size compatible with something a single person could cobble together over the course of a lifetime. This is the homely aspect of Johnson’s ARK, which undertakes a revisioning of “home” as a manifestation of Oz-in-Kansas, celebrating human residency within the turbulent tornado of nature. Johnson’s poetic mission in ARK—to re-enchant the world revealed by science—is to present modernistic natural knowledge as a system of magical correspondences similar to the knowledge-systems of the Renaissance. However, his system moves as a swarm, exceeding the confines of its own repetitive ark-itecture; improvisatory and non-hierarchical, the sum of his “Linkings, inklings” resembles a rhizome rather than a ladder:
Let the craters of Mercury trumpet first and last things from C to shining C.
Let the Magellanic Clouds be shot through with glissandi of migrations of great whales.
Let twin amoebae discombobulate The Leonids hairsbreadth twists.
Audible in these and many other lines of ARK is the poet’s Orphic invocation of music, as the art that unfreezes architecture—music as the principle of motion itself, activating both word and world. This principle extends, throughout ARK, to the visual music of arranging letters and other typographical elements on the space of the page (previous to ARK, Johnson made notable contributions to the form of concrete poetry). And here it should be recalled that Johnson’s original title for this work was Wor(l)ds. If those parentheses seem to imply that cosmos is carried embryonic within logos, the relation between sign and non-sign is further complicated by another pair of—this time, reversed—parentheses in the first section of the poem. Here is Johnson’s “definition of perception”:
Here, all of language is poised parenthetically within a blank infinity that represents, outside the sign, the sum of all phenomena. Perception according to this definition brings about not confinement or capture of the thing-in-itself, but rather its release and relay. With calligraphic economy, Johnson inscribes two crescents in paradoxical relation and thereby frees the imagination to overleap the limits of language and figuration. Indeed, the whole of ARK is reflected in the mirror-reversal of these two freely floating arcs. Either arc may be read as the fragment of a circle, the mark of an attempt to encompass the whole; together, they represent infinity as an open book. Or perhaps there are two ARKs, one written, the other composed of everything that could not be written.
As indicated by the disjoined parentheses, the work of ARK “overspills space” as well as textuality; the work is not fully present to itself. “Ark 38” is deemed the “invisible Spire”; it consists of six minutes of tape-processed birdsong, an audio artifact not included with the printed book. And although Johnson considered Radi os—his erasure of Paradise Lost—as a part of ARK, it too is not included here. Like a hyper-dimensional polyhedron, not all of the poem’s facets can be manifested to the mind or eye. Moreover, its inclusions prove as uncanny as its exclusions. For ARK incorporates a good many found objects and oddments: quotations, scientific illustrations, a human handprint, a musical score. Enhancing its homely quality, these “pasted-in” items make of ARK a philosophical scrapbook; here, Johnson’s life-labor begins to resemble that of the artist Joseph Cornell, who also sought to reconcile science and magic in his collages and “infinity boxes.” Yet in Johnson’s work the coherence of disparate elements does not depend, as it does in Cornell’s, on a system of subjective desire. Cornell’s artworks stage, for intimate viewing, the subject’s longing for the object as a private ritual; Johnson’s ARK, in contrast, parades objective wor(l)ds as a public celebration, its fireworks display conducted in affirmation of a democratic republic of mind and matter.
a community epic, cyclical
hung in the balance
stream sweet Time
The “transcendent razzmatazz” of Johnson’s vision calls together a cosmic community “in balanced dissent,” yet “dizzy with unison.”