A Review of Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses

A Review of Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses

Sean McCoy
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Ronald Johnson is one of the special poets for whom the subject of his poem becomes the poem. I mean this both specifically and generally—each poem is so entirely formed, so precise in the focus of its vision, that its life on the page feels preordained. His great theme is not so much (or only) the world, but rather poetry itself: poetry as a way of seeing, hearing, being in, and being of the ritual surround. In this sense, it’s a poetry preoccupied with sight. Also with speech: the origins and material of language, its roots and branches, and where they point. His poems are dowsing rods held to the ground, alive with its hidden vibrations and messages.

Born in Ashland, Kansas, in 1935, Johnson worked as a cook, caterer, baker, author of cookbooks, and bar manager, primarily in San Francisco, where he was also a cofounder of the Rainbow Motorcycle Club—a “band of lusty roistering men, often partying until dawn” (his phrase). As a poet, he traced his lineage through the objectivists and Black Mountain school, and became, over the course of his career, a talented practitioner of erasure poetry (Radi os), concrete poetry (Songs of the Earth), ecopoetry, and documentary poetry, before such labels were commonly applied. He had birds in his ears. He was egregiously overlooked and ahead of his time.

Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses, recently reissued fifty-four years after its initial publication, comprises shades of each of these modes. Even today, the formal range is astonishing, most of all because the volume feels so unified: its range, if that is the word for its cosmological scope, never feels overstretched, but always of a piece with the “tangled actual” that is Johnson’s constant interest. The book’s first section, “A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees,” lies as deeply rooted in the Kansas sod as the plants in its pages. Its poems are odes, gardens, still lifes, constellations, small histories depicting the humanimal world.

The draft-phase title for Johnson’s Ark—his opus, on which he toiled for over twenty years—was “Wor(l)ds.” This says it all: the two are one. Our words don’t only name but also make the world as we encounter it. Through subtle echo and syllabic magic, Johnson instills this two-in-one in the reader’s soul. “What words // must I corner like / hedge-hogs // to put them on a page?” he asks. Letters are shy and mystical creatures; they flap and burrow, take on new forms, respire, shed horns and skin. His sentences run “clear / as nails // but with all a lichen’s curious thrust.” Johnson is a master of brief, assonantal lists—botanical, elemental, radiant. Listen to him on apples: “but wild may brindle // as a cow / may rust like / rock.”

His eye often revels in the vegetable realm. It also questions—rather than simply taking for granted—what it means to inhabit a landscape in a historical sense: buffalo bones, songs of extinct pigeons, the absence and enduring presence of its Indigenous inhabitants, and Coronado’s search for gold all populate these pages, are continuously exhumed and reexamined. Johnson heeded Charles Olson’s call to “dig one thing or place or man until you / yourself know more abt that than is possible.” The dirt piles, rising around him after so much digging, appear in the text in the form of quotation; a majority of Johnson’s poems are intercut with other voices (Thoreau’s, Emerson’s, Sioux lore, and others) or references to startling etymologies and treasures from his research. Johnson is a poet in response. His poems sprout from epigraphs.

In the second section, “The Different Musics,” the conversations open further. The title piece, dedicated to poet Robert Duncan, crisscrosses the field of the page in a smoke of word-spirits. The sound is pure spring: “the reiteration of a red-eyed vireo.” I’ve read it more than twenty times, each time differently. There’s also a suite of ten “letters” to Whitman, brimming with erotic “cosmic cud”: “the circulatory music of all things, omnipresent & in flux.”

At long last: the prairie bard extraordinaire is back in print.

Publisher: The Song Cave Page count: 150 Price: $18.95 Key quote: “What hand will reach out to see the world?” Shelve next to: Lorine Niedecker, Eleni Sikelianos, Charles Olson, Henry David Thoreau Unscientifically calculated reading time: The time it takes for a sunflower to germinate

Sean McCoy
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