Traveler: Poems

Traveler: Poems

by Devin Johnston

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Overview

The poems in Devin Johnston's Traveler cross great distances, from the Red Hills of Kansas to the Rough Bounds of the Scottish Highlands, following weather patterns, bird migrations, and ocean voyages. Less literally, these poems move through translations and protean transformations. Their subjects are often next to nothing in several senses: cloud shadows racing across a valley before dusk, the predawn expectation of a child's birth, or the static-electric charge of clothing fabric. Throughout, Johnston offers vivid glimpses of the phenomenal world: "He describes objects with his hands and his eyes, noting texture, heft, and fit" (Boston Review). Equally, one finds a keen attention to sound in the patterning of subtle rhymes and rhythms, demonstrating "care and precision with line and pause" (Poetry).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374533489
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 02/19/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 80
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.19(d)

About the Author

Born in 1970, Devin Johnston was raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author of three previous books of poetry; as well as two books of prose, including Creaturely and Other Essays, reflections on the natural world. He works as an editor for Flood Editions, a nonprofit publishing house, and teaches at Saint Louis University in Missouri.

Read an Excerpt

Traveler


By Devin Johnston, First edition 2011

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2011 Devin Johnston
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8666-7



CHAPTER 1

    FROM MEDICINE LODGE

    From Medicine Lodge
    to Coldwater, from Coldwater
    to Protection and beyond,
    this undulating line
    intersects no industry
    yet slows to Central,
    resumes a bare number,
    and finally frays
    in shallow tracks
    where Black Kettle
    and Standing Feather
    took their geologic time
    and left no cairn.

    Salt and gypsum collapsed
    to form a basin
    shadows race across,
    their smooth momentum
    broken only
    by a spindly windmill
    with its corrugated trough
    or scratchy, windrattled
    cottonwood, a graph
    of fluctuating force,
    anything upright
    under revision.

    A twist of hair
    threads the ring
    of a dried-up sink
    as stackenclouds and fibrous
    sonderclouds draw silver
    from common sagebrush,
    or waneclouds streak
    the afternoon with grains
    of polished wood—
    only to kindle flame
    as everything shuts down
    but cloudworks, unfinished
    parts of a world.


    NOTHING SONG

    after William IX, Duke of Aquitaine

    I made this up from nothing.
    It's not myself I sing,
    or love, or anything
    that has a source.
    I dreamed these words while riding
    on my horse.

    I've neither youth nor age.
    Ambitions out of range,
    I feel no joy or rage
    to see them go.
    One midnight worked the change
    that made me so.

    I wonder, do I wake
    from dreams, or dream I wake?
    Beneath a sheet, I shake
    and clutch my heart,
    though part of me—aloof, opaque—
    remains apart.

    For such uncertainty
    I've found no remedy
    in psychotherapy
    or sedatives.
    I rummage through debris
    where nothing lives.

    A friend I've never met,
    unknown to me as yet,
    has kindled no regret
    or happiness,
    no tender sobriquet
    to curse or bless.

    As coldly radiant
    as stars, and light-years distant,
    this expectation can't
    embrace a life,
    but shines on, ignorant
    of lust and strife.

    My song of nothing done,
    I ride from Avignon
    and leave my words to one
    who turns a key
    to find the deadbolt drawn
    and stable empty.


    EXPECTING

    what will she
    now a she

    trailing clouds
    yet hearing our

    muffled voices
    all the while

    from this dark
    world and wide

    what will she
    mew or bray

    as any envoy
    might derive

    an embryon
    from animal

    or amnion
    from tender lamb

    though tethered to
    a human form

    an embryon
    in amnion

    or bloom of jellies
    at the whim

    of storm and tide
    the ocean's roar

    above, around,
    and then inside


    AUBADE

    A vacant hour
    before the sun—
    and with it a valve's
    pneumatic hush,
    the deep and nautical
    clunk of wood,
    chanson du ricochet
    of rivet gun,
    trowel tap,
    and bolt drawn—

    the moon sets
    and water breaks.

    Curled within
    a warm pleroma,
    playing for time,
    you finally turn
    and push your face
    toward November's
    glint of frost,
    grains of salt,
    weak clarities
    of dawn.


    CESAREAN

    Graphing pain,
    the toco monitor
    scrolls a white
    bounding line
    on a blue field:
    not heraldry but
    a lightning flash
    illuminates
    the rugged range
    of your estate,
    from deep crevasse
    to trackless slopes
    of Traversette.
    Dryly tapping,
    a clerical ghost
    prints a pan-
    oramic strip.
    In a sudden charge,
    the air contracts
    a vast expanse
    (remote and thin)
    to this bare room
    where surgeons cut
    a Gordian knot
    and everyone
    says wonderful
    when they forget.


    TRAVELER

    From the foot of Cotopaxi
    and across the Gulf

    a Blackburnian warbler
    follows a pulse,

    follows Polaris
    and the Pole's magnetic field

    through travail
    and travel's long ordeal,

    until he drops
    to a black walnut's
    pinnate leaves

    tossing like waves
    in the North Sea

    and glances toward
    my lamplit, stationary world
    of smooth planes:

    against a cloud,
    his throat's flame.


    FOREIGN OBJECT

    The hours spent on transpacific flights
    pass like a sandstorm through the Mongol steppes,
    lodging a single grain—an irritant
    to memory—within the furrowed cortex.
    Nacred by revolving doubt, it grows
    a pearl as black as the ocean depths
    and lustrous as the moon
    through sublimated ice.

    This pearl outlives its host—and can be bought
    in Shanghai, from an unassuming shop
    on the French Concession's western edge.
    The jeweler plucks it from a velvet box
    and cups the pearl like a Dramamine
    in the hollow of her outstretched palm.
    She stands like that, expectantly,
    revolving shapes to come.


    ROGET'S THESAURUS

    At the first surge of psychotic trance,
    to ward it off or ride it out,
    Peter Roget took up a list:
    breeds of dogs, human bones, anatomies
    of cloud, or forms of transport.
    It steadied his mind to study the spokes
    of wheels glimpsed through vertical slats:
    van, wagon, whisky, tumbrel, truck;
    the blur of whips and hooves,
    ornate signage stripped of syntax.

    Now, among aseptic cells
    of Bonne Terre, Roget's thesaurus
    circulates more than Malcolm X.
    One offender, stout as a mule,
    circles the yard while leafing through
    a dog-eared passage (cf. trough)
    from hole to eye to aperture and on:
    outlet, inlet, orifice, throat,
    channel, chimney, pit, pore,
    sieve, riddle, borer, screw,
    bodkin, needle, warder, gouge.


    As an officer calls for head count,
    the morning sun reticulates
    filigree of chain link
    and a curl of concertina wire.
    It glances off the hubcap
    of a distant Cadillac
    joining the flow of traffic.


    NOWHERE

    Sifu John has left the dojo
    and struck out on his own.
    No more shit from Master Jong,
    no endless adjudications
    of single whip, no banquets,
    belts, dues, or membership.

    His only student—big dude
    with the tight, slick ponytail
    of Steven Seagal—
    got lit and locked
    a bartender in tiger claw,
    then spent a night in jail.

    Clearly distinguish
    empty from full,

    the classics instruct.

    Mornings, feeling thick, John
    crosses off his mother's list
    at Schnucks, returning home
    with tourniquets of plastic bags.

    Evenings, sifu and student
    grasp the sparrow's tail
    beside a picnic pavilion
    perched above the park's basin,
    its pooling shadows
    emptied of pedestrians.

    As snow begins to fall,
    they return to fundamentals
    of Peng, Lu, Ji, An ...
    slow as three-toed sloths
    under the orange glare
    of sodium lights
    with all else thrown in darkness.
    Getting nowhere.


    SET APART

    Set apart
    from the compound
    friction of forest,
    a rough-barked
    bur oak,
    mostly trunk,
    outlives
    its understory.

    A sapling in 1700,
    it rose like smoke
    from leaf litter,
    a totem for those
    who told tales
    vertically,
    every episode
    the offspring     of earth and sky.

    Carotenoids flare
    through its vascular system
    in slow time,
    releasing aromas
    of black tea
    and tobacco.

    Winter-hardened,
    the oak endures,
    a column supporting
    nothing but its own
    fixed extension.

    The fine point
    of a feeding warbler—
    a drifting spark
    or cursor—
    ghosts its crown.


    COLD-BLOODED

    Beyond a ring
    of mercury light
    nothing conspicuous
    could survive
    the coming night.
    The rippling hunch
    of a barred owl
    propounds as yet
    no prey, no rattle
    in late September's
    coil of fern.
    A cold breath
    of Brush Creek
    gently rocks
    joe-pye weed,
    but skin still
    radiates heat
    from the setting sun.
    Fever kindles
    a turbulent flow
    continuous with sleep,
    shape-shifting
    until an earthen
    effigy uncurls
    its cursive form
    across the ridge.
    The snake god
    swallows an egg
    as Draco slips
    through tattered leaves.
    Beyond the creek,
    a white truck
    catches the last
    light of day
    and sends it back.


    HIGH AND LOW

    Placid Pan
    snores in the sun
    as a thunderhead
    comes to rest
    on the canyon's rim.
    From a hump
    of high withers
    a ridge descends
    to a moist rhinarium
    or the puckered phrase
    e pluribus unum.

    Bison bison,

    periodic
    as prairie fire,
    graze its aftermath
    of new grass,
    their burnt heads
    slung low
    and panicked by any
    cracked report.
    The lightning bolt,
    lord of everything,
    drawn on a skull
    in red ochre,
    draws a herd
    whose delicate hooves
    thunder to raise
    a cloud of dust.


    STORM AND STURGEON

    When a thunderstorm
    trundles down the Wabash,
    revealing the form
    of flow in every flash,
    northerlies lash
    the walls that keep us warm,
    rummaging grass,
    scattering flock and swarm.

    Beneath an icy
    column thick as phlegm,
    this cold coyote
    of our river system
    peers through a scrim
    of silt and leaf debris
    as lightning skims
    the shoals of Harmonie.

    As each percussion
    shakes the sturgeon's bladder—
    a loose vibration
    felt in fleshy matter—
    her switch-tail stirs
    beds of hibernation,
    bottom dwellers
    lost in cloud formations.


    TANGLED YARN

    Darner, sewing needle,
    exclamation damsel,

    pennant, flying adder,
    tang- or sanging eater,

    fleeing eather, bluet,
    steelyard, spindle, booklet,

    skimmer, scarce or common,
    sand or shadow dragon,

    cruiser, shadow damsel,
    devil's horse or saddle,

    darning needle, dancer,
    meadow hawk or glider,

    water naiad, threadtail,
    sylph or sprite or penny nail.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Traveler by Devin Johnston, First edition 2011. Copyright © 2011 Devin Johnston. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

From Medicine Lodge 3

Nothing Song 5

Expecting 7

Aubade 9

Cesarean 11

Traveler 13

Foreign Object 15

Roget's Thesaurus 16

Nowhere 18

Set Apart 20

Cold-Blooded 22

High and Low 24

Storm and Sturgeon 26

Tangled Yarn 28

The Inland Road 29

Early April 30

Marco Polo 32

At Sea Ranch 34

Oracle Bones 35

Thin Place 37

Relatives 39

Appetites 40

Kid 43

Rough Patch 46

Crumbs 48

Static 51

A Lost Notebook 52

The Young Pretender 54

Burren 56

Iona 58

The Rough Bounds 65

Acknowledgments 67

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