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|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
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.
Poetry is the closest thing to silence, which alone on earth is
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?
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
The ways the world can hurt are becoming
contentment, which, if we are
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.