by Scott Owens
by Larry Johnson
David Roberts Books, 2009
It takes a significant level of negative capability to forego the comfortable and familiar “I” of the poet-speaker and place oneself firmly, convincingly and insightfully into the complete milieu of a speaker that is decidedly “other.” Yet, such a dissolution of ego is a vital component of a great deal of successful poetry as it allows the poetic imagination’s free rein run across a wider range of human experience than one trapped in first person, in the “cell of self,” could hope to achieve. Among the many impressive qualities of poetic practice present in Larry Johnson’s Veins, perhaps this ability is the most satisfying as this seasoned writer skillfully moves forward, backward and laterally across time, place and psyche to expand the readers’ grasp of the timelessness and universality of human experience.
Make no mistake about it, the clear subject of these poems is what some would say is the only proper subject of poetry: mankind. And accordingly, these poems are steeped in the humanistic traditions of literature, art, music, politics, and philosophy, of man’s efforts to create meaning, significance and lastingness. Even in poems about natural beauty or disaster (ivory-billed woodpeckers, Krakatoa, Herculaneum), it is the impact of these natural elements on the human world that is the focus of consideration.
The opening line of the opening poem, “Man Going” (one of my favorites), demonstrates the reason for such a focus. “What is on earth that tenses,” the line asks. The inevitable answer, of course, is mankind, the one creature on earth that bears the weight of consciousness, of knowledge, of contemplation of the possibility of ruin; the one creature that might pause to consider the significance of “a meteor sifting through Leo’s flank,” and taken a step further, might even write it down and follow it with the question, “How may we see beyond this,” and then answer that question with the Wordsworthian suggestion that we “ease back to warm sand / and the sucking sea/ and feed on ruins of strange fish.”
Thus, with the license granted by such an understanding of the uniqueness of mankind’s place on earth, Johnson ventures out into a wide range of human perspectives, sometimes his own, but just as often reinvigorating the circumstances of Marcus Aurelius, Juvenal, Hadrian, Caracalla, and many others. From these perspectives Johnson shares what it did or what it might have felt like to be there. Given his awareness of the temporal pageant of human history against the larger, more “automatic” pageant of natural history, one might wonder what Johnson offers us in the way of not just experiencing but understanding. The answer is just this — that our greatest defense is our appreciation of the vitality, the potential, of the single moment. Thus, as a reminder of this fact, in a poem perfectly titled “Once,” Johnson shows us an ironic younger speaker lacking that understanding: “The rarest creature of earth, / and I saw one, fallen to earth, / but less precious to me than the helicopter / which had sliced and dipped so silverly.”
It is no surprise that Johnson’s photo on the back cover of Veins shows him standing at Keats’ grave. The stance these poems encourage is the belief that life is best experienced in the full consciousness of human history but without the distorting, perhaps even blinding, influence of prejudice or expectation. Could there be a better definition of negative capability than that?