Flood Editions, $14.95 (paper)
The world comes partial. An honest reader sees only what she sees, hears only what she hears, and does not claim an attention that encompasses all. No such attention exists. This seems redundant, but it is fundamental: I can only read the book I can read. I do this work as myself. Any other claim inflates the creative act of reading into broad criticism, into generalities, into “universals.” And as Ronald Johnson’s spiritual ancestor William Blake so fervently believed, generalities are for blockheads. Genius recognizes itself in particulars.
First published in 1977 and reissued this year, Radi Os, an erasure of the first four books of Milton’s Paradise Lost, gives us the particulars of Ronald Johnson’s reading. (An erasure is a poem constructed by crossing out or erasing words from an already existing text.) Johnson’s title—itself demonstrative of the book’s composition (Paradise Lost)—offers multiple methods for its own reading. First, eliding the absence separating I from o, we read “radios.” One senses that Johnson left intact those words to whose frequency—against the syntactic static the words are embedded in—he found himself remarkably attuned. Second: Radi Os has a curious, phonetic overlap with radius. In which case Johnson’s erasure functions as a line drawn into the orb of Milton’s work, not bisecting it but entering into it, and what we read in Radi Os is one account that measures circumference to center. The words speak the span they measure. This isn’t a geometric principle but a reader’s unique sensibility. Such radii don’t cut evenly across the whole. Nor does this radius form a straight line; it is as crooked as genius’s paths. Every unique reader, Johnson suggests, reads a unique book. Radi Os is one such book; it is his. He wrote it by reading.
Emerson, in his speech “The American Scholar,” claims that if creative writing exists, then so does creative reading. Johnson’s erasure offers a radical example of Emerson’s point: the work of writing is here an act indecipherable from the act of reading. Later in the speech Emerson unfolds the nature of great oration. One can tell that one is listening to a great orator, Emerson says, when the words spoken come to the hearer as his own. The subtle but shocking paradox of such a moment of listening reveals genius as a different capacity from the one we normally think of—not singular and aloof but communal, an approach to universal insight that awakens in us the particularity of our own minds. Genius is echoic. Genuine eloquence does not convince us of another’s genius so much as it convinces us of our own. “Convinces” may be the wrong word: our attention to another’s genius makes us capable of our own. The humility of listening is matched with the audacity of claiming the work heard. The receptive and the expressive are yoked into a single gesture, in which the words in my ear transubstantiate into the words in my mouth. Or, to push further along the synesthesia Johnson takes as his poetic bedrock, we write with a speaking ear, we hear with a listening mouth. The confusion endemic to poetic endeavor strangely orients us—not by delimiting realms, not by making more distinct what’s mine and what’s not mine, but by refusing such commonsense boundaries. Johnson seems to say of Milton, I will speak with his mouth as before I lived he spoke with mine.
One could dismiss Radi Os as mere gimmickry. One could read it and say, “But anyone could have done that; I could have done that.” Part of what is so remarkable in Johnson’s project is the empowering sense that any genuine reading of such a work as Paradise Lost accomplishes within each reader a similar work: a reading as individual as the mind that reads. We write our work within it as a single flower sprouts up and blooms within a sheltering bush. The point widens. No poet possesses a language entirely original. To favor the poem that seems to come out of nothing—or out of the chaos-leaved dictionary blown about in the mind—over the poem pulled from another poem, over the poem discovered by shearing away the language from its original syntax, judges the issue falsely. These compositional methods that seem so opposite do not oppose at all. We all speak words already spoken and write words already written. Seldom do we get to see the poem leap up so from its source.
“Leap up,” actually, misguides. The truer image is more ruinous. What we sense, in part, in entering into Johnson’s Radi Os is the grandeur of the whole that has fallen, by erosion or by violence, away. We see that which remains; we witness the ruin we read:
into the World,
Rose out of Chaos:
on the vast
We forget what Ronald Johnson, in his first invocatory utterance, insists we realize again: that reading is chaotic activity. This chaos is as silent as its etymology: the mouth of a child before a tooth has broken through the gums. This chaos is the fecund silence before song, whose first syllable uttered forth on sound, forms the world of which it sings. How to create a world? Put your tongue against a tooth. A consonant is a cornerstone. A vowel contains breath. Here is the source of the wind that erodes the stone.
Johnson pulls from Milton’s invocation a radical, though ancient, wisdom. He finds within the fall a ruins by which a kind of paradise may again be created. Milton’s “Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree” in Johnson’s chaotic reading sloughs two leaves and blooms anew as “O tree.” The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for Johnson as for us, is a windfall. From such fruit come the seeds out of which lyric’s tendrils unfurl. Reading-as-writing is the creative act by which one tries to put the fruit back on the tree—and one does so, is able to do so, only after devouring the fruit entire.
Such is the nature, Johnson knows, of ruin and song—and ruin and song are anonymous work. Within Radi Os lurks a radical claim for lyric verse. Located within epic—and the cultural identity for which epic labors—are words whose meanings can betray epic’s ambitions. Johnson gives us one such possible betrayal but in his singular effort implies more: And I will bring thee
under the flow
Imparadised in one another’s
Still unfulfilled, with
Lyric accomplishes a work against All for all’s behalf. Milton’s epic surrounds Johnson’s lyric with its awe-inspiring All. There are no words for Johnson’s poem save those Milton wrote. But Johnson sees layers in words, sees beneath an image another image, beneath meaning another meaning grown wider. Lyric attends to this sense of meaning that widens even as it deepens, that begins with what “I read” and ends by recognizing in that intimate reading self a lyric everyman. Johnson presents us with a paradox that is lyric’s paradox: I am I, and I am not I. For in Radi Os, who is I? I is Satan. I is God. I is Adam and Eve. I is all the angels, and I is Johnson. And I is I as I read “Still unfulfilled, with / All.”
Johnson’s poem, as it erodes Paradise Lost’s status as an All, bears Milton’s echoes. Part of the miracle, though, of what Johnson accomplishes, is that Radi Os never feels imitative. A simultaneity occurs—lyric boldly sprung from within the epic expanse. And while one never really loses sight of the corresponding narrative, one never fully sees it either. The new book—like the moon certain months—arrives with the old book in its arms. Whereas Milton sweeps us into motions so large the vision nears impossibility, Johnson slows, delays, fragments. Some moments seem to reflect the nature of his poetic undertaking:
By act of grace,
: so should I
Other moments arrive with a beauty devoid of self-reflection or allusive connection: “Knit with the // gathered— // through the world— // eye.” I like to think these two excerpts bear on poetic possibility—that realm that readers of Ronald Johnson turn to him to explore. Johnson calls out through what he culls. He does so with the experience accumulated in his eye: an eye that’s learned to sing. He sings grace by writing void. And in so doing, he makes a radical sense of Milton’s “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” For Ronald Johnson has taken Satan’s Hell and in it found that “We can create, / out of pain / Of darkness / an / unobscured / round // lustre.” One doesn’t have to write this luster ex nihilo. It already gleams: written in the already written words.
Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of North True, South Bright, Spell, and the forthcoming Mulberry. He teaches in the MFA Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.