The Ditch Was Lit Like This

Fiddlehead, Summer #260Sean Johnston’s poetry is as easy on the tongue as Arthur’s, but not as sporadically foolish. Johnston does not posture. There is no irrelevant imagery in his poetry — indeed, the poetry is comparatively bare. Johnston’s emphasis is on our emotional reaction to “poetic” events or thoughts, rather than on the events or circumstances that provoke the emotions. And, although like Arthur he emphasizes our mortal fragility, it is not “nothingness” he stresses, but rather a numinous “silence” that in everything mortal gestures and “invites” us
toward beauty, and, “ìnnocently, toward our end.” (“We’re all Invited” 29-32).
He makes the trip seem worth while.

When the silence of the universe seems to speak to us, it does not speak in words. To convey the speaking of that “silence” Johnston relies on the intelligence of his ideas, on the beauty of his cadences, and a judicious selection of silence; the silence to which we are listening.

What does the “silence” tell us? What poetry at its most beautiful can tell us — and for which we have no adequate word: “enlightenment,” “wistfulness,” a sense of oneness with the universe? awe? grief? joy? acceptance? Or in Wordsworth’s terms, “thoughts too deep for tears?” Johnston’s reaction is to emphasize the value of a spiritual acceptance: to live fully in the present, yet conscious of the transience of the moment, the continual flux of time, and, in addition, to make art — to write poetry:

Poetry is the closest thing to silence, which alone on earth is
as close as we get to [heaven]. (“February 15, 2009” 86)

To convey mindfulness of present, flux, and the “invitation” of “silence,” Johnston sometimes uses a broken assertion: an assertion which remains, for the reader, somehow unfinished, (an effect which I hope he will not continue to use — too often repeated, unfinished assertion becomes a gimmick.)

There are two sorts of unfinished assertions in The Ditch Was Lit Like This: the first sort is the book’s title, the last line of “We’re All Invited,” and brackets the whole poem. The “ditch” is not, as a ditch, described. Rather the memories and concerns that flood the poem lead up to the instant: the transient present, in which the ditch “lit like this” (32) — the ditch is lit like the poem.

Similarly, the title of the first section of the collection: when it’s night because it is, which would not, in other contexts, strike us as a “touchstone” line (in Matthew Arnold’s sense) — nothing you would pin up on a refrigerator — but it works in Johnston’s context as a reminder of isness — is is where we are. Conventionally, we want the ditch described, the night’s presence explained. But isness does not do that.

The second variety of unfinished assertion in Johnston’s poetry is the broken sentence: like Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, or like Bach’s last fugue in “The Art of the Fugue,” the daring conclusion of “February 15, 2009” breaks and leaves us in silence.

What did I feel, leaning in the shadows of such tall buildings?
What did I feel, escaping at night the brutal meanderings of a species
pretending toward progress, or slouching, or breathing deeply,
sleeping in the sunshine? The humans that did all humans do. Was I (87)

Yes, that is how the poem ends: “Was I” — not even a period or a question mark. We are meshed in the steady flow of time.

There is, of course, a great deal more that should be said about Sean Johnston’s The Ditch Was Lit Like This. I find particularly attractive his philosophy, his valuing of isness, his spiritual sensitivity. I would like to quote some parts of his long poem “What Is the Best Thing to Do On a Hot Summer Day, Stopped for Road Construction?” — a poem which asks, and answers:

what is the best thing to do?

What you shouldn’t do is contemplate the eternal
verities and worry about the gas . . .

The ways the world can hurt are becoming
       more obvious every day but unavoidable just the
same. I want to say there can be
a word I know is coming. . . .
turn down the radio, listen to the wilderness
                 with the CBC underneath
and don’t think of all the people gone: next thing you know
                         you’re asleep in the sunshine and
that’s pretty good. I think
in the end you’ll be awake, listening to the chatter
each night of those who had survived
                      the day
suddenly, startlement, a stolen word, the smile
       that comes with it, or did, so just sit
and flex/ you and your legs:
       get out and stretch, stay a little
longer with the ones who love you . . .
        I have been waiting the arrival forever
                     and I hear in the voices, listening
to the chatter each night of those who had survived the day        a tentative
    note just
above sorrow, even above

                                                   contentment, which, if we are
honest can happen, has happened, so
above all don’t narrow your sight to the scar on your hand on the wheel.
                                                   Are we the only
animal that feels regret? I saw a candle once blow out
by the closing of a door, then burn
again with the movement of something within the dark room.
                                                   It was never meant
as an experiment. Open the windows again,
                                                      let the heat seep in. (77-79)

The poem never leaves the hot, stationary car. And neither the waiting nor the “candle” nor life in general were “meant /as an experiment.” Things just are: the night, the ditch, the heat, the world and lives that surround us. We are asked and told to “listen,” to not narrow our sights, to wait the “arrival” and the silent “tentative note” — the poem conducts itself with a minimum of personality, a minimum of imagery — and is, nevertheless, richly perceptive.