It was years before I learned to call
this prayer: the right-hand corner
of a page turned down to make another
page. I attempted to escape, then return
to the boneyard where I’d removed
an earring from my wife’s right ear –
diamond, the crux of the universe
contracting to leave a pin-sized hole
midair. In that margin, my words
remain transfixed until she disappears –
proof that while I swore the world
I’d created would double like a hand
beneath my own, it merely stretches
before me in consolation. There, there.
Evel Knievel Negotiates the Fountain at Caesar’s Palace
Heard myself speak fluently in my own language,
have heard myself too described as hard work
(as hard to get through as Scotch broth), though once
someone rather bladdered told me I was magnetic.
Behold my face at a quarter turn: dragonly,
dog-eared, a carnal mask mirroring
half-lit spits of wood. This morning
Nevada furrows, my shoulders
too warm for leather; yet I’ve no better
armour against the wind, the stagey
palms that threaten to bend and replace
my stationary ramps, Caesar’s fountain.
Downrange, I prepare to be bandaged,
hear myself speak fluently in my own language:
“Bridge the strips around my bicep.
It’s where I... fuck, not like that. Grip
the razor down-hilt... there. Push...
shit... it won’t...”. I turn my gaze
towards the melee that surrounds
my bike, making’s landfill a network
of forgotten jumps, a backwards glance
before a maelstrom of sand. Derelict,
I’ve seen how closely my muse lurks,
have heard myself described as hard work:
having the face of an eagle, lion and ox.
Tricked out in off-white chaps, cape,
the valley of the shadow of death,
I gauge the line from rubber to ramp:
uncamp its frame on doubled wings.
Fountain-side, Romans balance,
flock to witness my ramshackle horse couple
with sky: behold my stance,
my corrugated flanks that rake the air, its absence,
(as hard to get through as Scotch broth), though once
I groped around and found myself
unmoored at latitude. What mechanics
hold me, having already landed,
what patience, body tossed ass-first
over the gas-tank’s hive? The desert
revives as if in dream: my head a brick,
a helmeted weathervane unraveling
in every plane at once. Lo, it’s clear
that this is paradise, and if given a mic
someone rather bladdered will tell me I’m magnetic.
Louis Dudek, in Love
Umbrella held aloft like paper pulled
from a piñata, we trace the limits
of Marie-Reine-du-Monde and bull
inside. Bad luck: the basilica chaste
save for the confetti of our entrance,
the incline of a room within a room
inked-in in happenstance. By chance,
we’ve stumbled on our Waterloo:
elderly parishioners lulled to sleep,
pews like broken fingers on a working
hand. I take yours now, know your grip,
the clots that bulge like latticework,
confine the prize of blood’s ascent.
See here? Your skin grows lean. Exeunt.
Love in a Closed System
m1u1 + m2u2 = (m1 + m2) v
Love: it’s what I’ve always
known – arm thrust
toward an inexhaustible point
on the horizon
like a flare, temporal and set.
we met. This thoroughfare our
bodies soaring above two feet
linked by a leather wheel.
the calm – dirt shoulder hedged
refuse, a parade of egrets pacing
I remember the bewildered
wedge of hoods,
steel forced into a kiss. Connect
and disconnect –
your arm a twisted leaf, muscle
and helpless beneath my own.
My hand forces
an exit, movement where earlier
we had progressed
with fused elegance, unspeaking.
I bow where snow begins to fix
its frozen quills.
(Poems from Dog Ear by Jim Johnstone, copyright 2014 by Véhicule Press)
Ian Williams: You have always cherished tidy poems, narrow lines, minimalist design, and lexical precision. Your newest work though, has managed to blend objective, somewhat distant observations with more personal, intimate presences than readers are accustomed to in your poetry. 1) Are you writing for a different reader now than you were ten years ago? Are you taking us by the hand now, or the neck still? 2) What’s with the movement towards the personal? Why at this point in your career?
Jim Johnstone: I’m more conscious of a readership now than I was ten years ago. For a long time I was reticent to entertain, choosing words only for myself, and refusing the notion that my poems were open to interpretation. Looking back, I eschewed the personal for personal discovery, putting process before the outcome of what I wrote.
Today my work veers toward an intimacy that became important in my life before it became important in my poetry. The motivation behind the shift is two-fold: to entertain the reader, and to do so by providing a familiar canvas for their experiences. My poetry is less specific now, and that in itself is a form of precision. If you leave a poem open just enough, readers can project themselves on to the work, and find themselves within the words.
I first encountered this in the poetry of Frederick Seidel. His use of meter and rhyme can be deceptively simple, but I’ve never felt more freedom to impose my will on another poet’s verse. He leaves room to breathe in lines like “[e]very poem I write starts or ends like this,” which situates ‘Evening Man’ alongside both his own work and the work of practicing poets everywhere. I find the same is true of Larry Levis, although for different reasons. In his late poetry – from Winter Stars onwards – Levis gradually expanded his line length, creating a world that can be engaged with directly or lived in on the margins of thought.
With this in mind, I wouldn’t say I’m leading anyone by the hand, but more asking whoever is on the other side of the poem for a new level of involvement. It’s certainly different than taking them by the neck, and earlier when I would take a knife to a neck and press down. I still love a lean line though; minimal, and just sharp enough to communicate without apology.
Ian Williams is an award-winning poet and fiction writer. His most recent poetry collection, Personals, was shortlisted for the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize and the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award. His short story collection, Not Anyone's Anything, won the 2011 Danuta Gleed Literary Award for the best first collection in Canada. His first book, You Know Who You Are, was a finalist for the ReLit Prize for poetry. Williams has held fellowships or residencies from Vermont Studio Center, Cave Canem, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and Palazzo Rinaldi in Italy. His writing has appeared in several North American journals and anthologies, including Best Canadian Poetry. He was named as one of ten Canadian writers to watch by CBC.
Jim Johnstone is a Canadian writer, editor, and physiologist. He’s the author of three previous books of poetry: Sunday, the locusts (Tightrope Books, 2011), Patternicity (Nightwood Editions, 2010) and The Velocity of Escape (Guernica Editions, 2008), and the subject of the critical monograph Proofs & Equational Love: The Poetry of Jim Johnstone by Shane Neilson and Jason Guriel. He’s the winner of several awards including a CBC Literary Award, Matrix Magazine’s LitPop Award, The Fiddlehead’s Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize and This Magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt. Currently, Johnstone is the Poetry Editor at Palimpsest Press, and an Associate Editor at Representative Poetry Online. He lives in Toronto.