Sunday, the locusts, by Jim Johnstone and Julienne Lottering
Proofs & Equational Love, by Jason Guriel & Shane Neilson
Reviewed by Ingrid Ruthig
Since books are not written and do not exist in a vacuum, since they form a continuum, the best way to gain perspective on a writer’s work is to view it as a whole, as well as within the broader historical and contemporary context. Give the nature of these two books, however, I chose to approach them as if they stand alone, in order to determine how much each reveals and enlightens.
Sunday, the locusts is a small, square, 86-page, black and white volume of image and text. Described by its publisher, Tightrope Books, as “fragments of verse and hybrid-media collage,” it is a collaborative effort that combines a long poem written by Toronto poet Jim Johnstone with illustrations created by visual artist Julienne Lottering in response to or in tandem with the written work (the book does not specify which). As with illuminated Medieval texts, Japanese haiga, and any number of examples of illustrated books that have come before, the combining of text and image is meant to enrich the experience of each medium involved, by setting up resonance that would not exist if each component stood alone. It is certainly one of the goals of this volume.
What next becomes clear with Sunday, the locusts (Johnstone’s third book) is that it is a work not easily entered into or followed. The book’s five sections comprise a labyrinth built of allusion, textual fragments, erasures, tangled images, nomenclature, geographic coordinates, scientific equations, and even genetic coding. At the outset, Johnstone provides a couple of keys which help to direct the reader — the first is a quote from Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus: “ …These locusts were once men, before the birth of the Muses, and when the Muses were born and song appeared, some of the men were so overcome with delight that they sang and sang, forgetting food and drink, until at last unconsciously they died.” This notional thread weaves in and out of the collection, as do various other sources of inspiration and texts referenced in endnotes.
Found more than halfway along in the book, one of the most engaging segments (whose title, upon closer inspection, is the geographic coordinates for Crete) encapsulates the tone of the whole project:
Our steps curve upon themselves. Escher’s infinities leave us widowed, bound to inward vectors. No longer seeking breadth, iron-flecked winds strain against our legs, tessellate and interlock. We came to the morass as wayfarers, architects trafficking in illusion. Our own faces everywhere, we hungered to build a veneer, shut ourselves behind walls resilient enough to house Achilles. In time our frames have evolved – the cold heaving quills of lead through our veins.
It is as if an intriguing view, maybe even a truth, has been glimpsed out the corner of the eye, yet it’s never allowed to materialize fully. Mystery and questions coexist alongside elements of visual and aural clarity. One moment, the reader tackles “walls resilient enough to house / Achilles”, then tries to envision “[c]old heaving quills of lead through our veins,” wondering at some missed or missing association. And the next moment, the images created by “Escher’s / infinities leave us widowed” and “architects trafficking in illusion” (a particularly juicy phrase for this former practitioner) transfix the reader, along with the delicious sounds of “vectors,” “tessellate,” “morass,” and “trafficking.”
Something mythic, near religious, is also happening here:
I wake in the ash and the wind
of the night, breathless.
Forsaken by a flood
I scull forward —
gills unsettled, body a knot
in the current’s
labyrinth of applause …
The atmosphere thickens with foreboding, abandonment, and bewilderment. And while Johnstone’s choice of “labyrinth of applause” must be deliberate, it’s also an example of the type of momentary distraction that causes the reader to stop and try to nail down the image. Granted, not everything has to make sense; sometimes sound alone is reason enough, sometimes a riddle is a riddle is a riddle. But it’s this elusive quality that extends to Sunday the locusts in its entirety.
In terms of the purely visual aesthetic, a book rarely does full justice to any work of art, due to limits of size, format, and materials. Though Lottering’s visual pieces may originally have been rendered in colour, they are reproduced here in greyscale, and the largest is only five by five inches. In this sense, they too only hint at what reality or truth might be. On the exterior, magnified splatter details from the art featured inside are reproduced on the cover and section header pages, evoking the locusts of the title. Inside, each work is a collage assembled from rough-hewn sketches, sweeps and splatters of ink / paint, torn images, segments of handwriting, and cut-and-paste typeface. The technique reflects the text, in that it is graffiti-like and sets a raw, desolate mood. Sketched images include a windmill paired with a heart (drawn in cross-section and filled with shreds of printed pages) which convincingly play off the facing page’s poem. And later, a vague seascape (overlaid with handwritten notes, typescript, and a thin, vine-like flourish linking sea and sky) juxtaposes “Clothed in lightning, an opera / of fat sparks, // you’re the first blooded / creature // I touch. // Albumin, urea, silk. // Hemocytes // leaving / and returning / changed.” While these moments resonate, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the oblique, unpolished, childlike execution and “post-apocalyptic” (quote from publisher) tone is somehow too familiar overall. The act of revisiting — whether it be revisiting styles, images, ideas, or myths — might be the whole point, but it is not enough in and of itself.
Artistic collaborations, where one medium juxtaposes or interweaves with another, seek to enrich and enhance the experience of each form. They constitute deliberate acts of engagement, reflection, re-evaluation, and response that aim to set up resonance through harmonies and tensions, and to provide an impact greater than the mere sum of the parts. The reader / viewer, once entering the picture, should be rewarded for sharing the journey, by extracting something of significance, even if it is only a powerful contradiction. As both book and work of art, Sunday, the locusts achieves this on some level, even though it detours around clear meaning and travels a less common route. As a collaboration, it is at its best when the images, conjured visually and linguistically, strike a chord with each other and the reader. It intrigues, coaxes along, and while the reader may well close the book feeling as if he hasn’t grasped it altogether, it does offer up glimpses of something beautiful and near-tangible lurking in the shadows, and in lines such as: “I offer my voice to the moon, return to land after / years at sea and still the locusts sing.” Even if its Escheresque journey elicits more questions than answers, Johnstone and Lottering’s Sunday, the locusts imprints the reader with mood and a sense of having gleaned an understanding of our own myth-making.
If sharing a particular understanding of a writer’s work is one of the goals of critical essays, other aims include introducing the work to new readers and setting it in perspective with the larger context of its contemporaries and predecessors. Proofs & Equational Love — The Poetry of Jim Johnstone, the second limited edition Literary Criticism Monograph published by Frog Hollow Press (2011), consists of two essays written by Jason Guriel and Shane Neilson respectively. The slim volume opens with Guriel’s “Proofs,” in which he states that he “was invited to say something about Jim Johnstone’s collection of poems, Patternicity (Johnstone’s second collection of poems, published by Nightwood Editions in 2010)…” and has dealt “with the, quote, pure poetry of the book,” while poet and critic Shane Neilson has handled “the science.”
“Proofs”’ focus, though narrow, also tackles the visual component of Johnstone’s work, pointing out the science at work in poems which occasionally “function like equations.” Some of them even reproduce equations as epigraphs…” and can be enjoyed (if not understood) on the level of “how they look on the page; […] to the extent that they remain unreadable, like well-executed graffiti or characters in a different alphabet,” yet they are also “physical shapes that speak for themselves.” Guriel pronounces, rather cryptically, that “[a]s Patternicity demonstrates, the better visual poetry is usually accidental; the better poetry, rarely visual.”
He goes on to cite examples of Johnstone’s preoccupations with science and math, and the Canadian-ness that surfaces in poems such as “Saturn’s Witness” with its road hockey scene. The examination’s direction allows a brief opportunity in which Guriel places the poet in limited context: “Indeed, Johnstone belongs to a generation of Canadian poets […] who may have found, in science and math, a subject, but who can also elucidate the inexplicable.” Such provocative statements (that raise more questions than they answer: e.g. Can the inexplicable be elucidated? Isn’t attempting to do so the task of any poet?) sit alongside those that do clarify: “It may be that Johnstone has an advantage, a knack for picking out patterns and proving connections.”
As indicated at the outset, the essay does not reach beyond the scope of Johnstone’s second collection of poems. The broader brushstrokes of influences, his development as a poet, his first collection The Velocity of Escape (Guernica Editions, 2008), are not examined here. And Guriel only details certain facets of several poems in Patternicity. The reader, without having read Johnstone’s first book, gains little insight into the big picture of “The Poetry” suggested by the chapbook’s subtitle. Further, the reader who has not even read Patternicity cannot forge any real connection with the essay’s subject matter. What Guriel’s brief study of the poet’s work does do is to merely whet the reader’s curiosity.
In his “Equational Love” essay, however, Neilson taps into both first and second books, The Velocity of Escape and Patternicity, and draws a little deeper. He, too, does not explore the broader context in which Johnstone’s work resides. Rather, he elaborates on the importance of science, math, and metaphor in Johnstone’s poetry, and how each informs and shapes it over the course of both collections. “Equations matter to Johnstone; they refine his approach to poetry, they anchor his ideas, they offer him a way into poetry.” Neilson then offers some “sense-making within the lines” in a detailed examination of metaphors employed and how the reader might unlock meaning in the first collection, based on its science: “The equation is simple: ѵe = square root (2GM)/r. This means, that for an object to escape the earth, for example, it needs to have a constant multiplied by the force of gravity and the object’s mass divided by its radius. The poem uses these principles without explicitly naming them — assuming we’re conversant.” As an explanation, it seems too much and too little, at the same time.
Neilson goes on to discuss how Johnstone revisits a science-and-poetry fusion in Patternicity. He writes: “It would be accurate to say that Johnstone is writing poems firstly, and is letting the science take care of itself, as opposed to writing didactically and hoping that poetry somehow happens.” While that might sound reasonable, no doubt the process is more complex and, one would hope, more deliberate than that. Then he says, “Thankfully, too, some of the equations in the book […] are beyond the casual reader.” What exactly is the reader to glean from this? How can such a feature be an asset? Surely, connections made during the reading are important, and if few occur, the impact of the experience is less than it might have been. Yet, in summary, Neilson offers only this convoluted reprise:
The applicability of these equational poems is opaque to me. But there are a handful of other poems where the science is understated but definitely there, giving the poems a valency, an other-life, that they would not otherwise have had if there was not a science-trained brain straddling science with that other-training, poetry, and the resultant charge on the electron is higher, the electron is hurtling faster, than if there were simply straightforward lyric poetry being written.
Finally, given that Johnstone’s body of work currently consists of three books (with the most recent, Sunday, the locusts, a poem sequence rather than a full collection) one has to ask: does it yet warrant this sort of attention and critical study? Proofs & Equational Love — The Poetry of Jim Johnstone may not quite be myth-making in progress, but it certainly verges on it, and the exercise is arguably premature. Together, the essays only offer a handful of observations, rousing enough curiosity to nudge the reader toward visiting, or revisiting, Johnstone’s first two books. The reader will ultimately benefit most by engaging with the poems themselves, and by digging a bit deeper, will begin to gain an understanding of the poet’s work.