There exists a quote by Leonard Cohen regarding Charles Bukowski that struck me in my adolescence, “He brought everybody down to earth, even the angels.” For the much-accomplished Jim Johnstone, award-winning Toronto poet and author of Dog Ear, I would say the opposite is true—his work elevates us: ‘Bringing the ghetto uptown’, so to speak—fitting for a collection in dedication to Parkdale.
Dog Ear, Johnstone’s fourth book of poetry, fulfills the promise proclaimed in its name on the first page…then the next. Soon, my copy takes on a decidedly diagonal profile as the folded-down, ‘magic-markers’ stack up. The title poem, a searing lament for the love/lunacy that is making a living by language, actually imparted goosebumps. As an untested writer, I felt at once an admiration—mixed with anxiety, though, that a poet at this level might still feel, if not anathema, at least, in some sense, accursed to be a writer.
Johnstone makes no bones about the trials and tribulations of life. He is honest, in the most rationally painful of ways, with his difficulties. But, this appeals to the truth-seeker in me—as he speaks I begin to believe that maybe, just maybe, perhaps the pain of sight is worth it to be free of the triteness found in the majority of modern-day poetry. Philosophically, Dog Ear explores dark themes; nihilistic lines leap out, like, “Remember the cipher/ we misread, holding/ its message between us/ like barbed wire?// We thought ourselves/ kings, the fire/ necessary to extinguish/ code that said:// It’s impossible to wear/ the crown/ without the bullet that follows/ entering the head.” (Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown). This being said, ultimately, the author has stared into the abyss not with despair so much as jubilation. He revels in deviance and the macabre with the realization that these, too, are as much evidence of the sublime as are wildflowers: windows need not look out only on gardens to draw watchers into other worlds. Indeed, there’s a thin line between these words and the worlds they describe and, perhaps, divide in defiance with a draconian violence (and whether this mimicry is batesian or mullerian is for Johnstone alone to know) for the purpose of forcing our tired eyes open, and widened.
The flow is lyrical in the same way that The Velvet Underground was musical: abrasive, aggressive, and, at times, atonal on purpose—Johnstone bites his thumb at convention, seemingly decided that his annihilating the status quo is easier than conforming. I can’t help but agree. Topically, there is diversity in the issues addressed, influences confessed, and questions raised that are then left to the reader’s best guess. High-minded theoretics find themselves entwined within society’s reckless, ‘not even second-best rejects’: such as in ‘Casca’s Beasts’. Zeno’s Paradox pops up in ‘Temps Mort’, though seen from a decidedly Heraclitean or Xenophanean perspective—then, in the last stanza, Johnstone takes a malicious, gnostic twist…almost, it seems, for the pure (what some might mistake as ‘sadistic’) intention of suggesting eternal recurrence; that is, ‘malicious’ as meant only for the reader unsatisfied with their life as it is, and unwilling to change it.
And, then, there’s Johnstone’s analytic take on fate. Mass, coefficient of friction, and velocity: these are the initial, contextual tools when introducing ‘Love in a Closed System’:
Love: it’s what I’ve always
known – arm thrust
toward an inexhaustible point
on the horizon
like a flare, temporal and set.
we met. This thoroughfare our
bodies soaring above two feet
linked by a leather wheel.
the calm – dirt shoulder hedged
refuse, a parade of egrets pacing
I remember the bewildered
wedge of hoods,
steel forced into a kiss. Connect
and disconnect –
your arm a twisted leaf, muscle
and helpless beneath my own.
My hand forces
an exit, movement where earlier
we had progressed
with fused elegance, unspeaking.
I bow where snow begins to fix
its frozen quills.
I will confess that, on a first read, I was drawn to this piece primarily by its aesthetic qualities—the musicality, the rhythm, the fragments of photographic imagery stabbing up from the page like stained-glass shards on the backdrop of…snow. Snow is an interesting substance in that its coefficient of friction varies widely depending on certain factors: most critically, temperature and the texture resulting from surface compression. The title also lent a clue to the enigmatic setting; but, ultimately, it was a combination of the physics formula and the simple somberness of “an exit, movement where earlier/ we had progressed” that permitted my re-interpretation of momentum and direction. The formula can also be read in reverse.
Out for a drive in the country with his love, one hand on the wheel, the speaker, distracted by omens in his peripheral vision, makes a fatal error: at least, fatal to the love in his reach. “I remember the bewildered/ wedge of hoods,// steel forced into a kiss. Connect/ and disconnect—“ Once the shattered, stained-glass window-pane of this poem is reconstructed, these vaguely violent slivers of the whole vision assume their true form; these are gut-wrenching scenes of a tragedy familiar to many Canadians, conveyed with an empathy-inducing, melancholic honesty that promises to follow me and, maybe, influence my own poetry.
In closing the poem with, “Unspeaking still,// I bow where snow begins to fix/ its frozen quills.” Johnstone provokes a multiplicity of emotional interpretations regarding the preceding events. The truth is, though, that this is the only way the poem could end—in ambiguity. The speaker himself is unsure of his feelings. Johnstone is suggesting that an event with this level of significance does not cause clear-cut responses…when one moment changes not only your life, but also your very outlook on life, how could you possibly expect a definite interpretation?
As I close Dog Ear, the purpose of Johnstone’s page-turning prayer becomes clear; this is the perpetual, ritualistic practice of a writer conquering by writing that feeling that most afflicts writers—fear. Fear of being forgotten with death; fear of being not-gotten in life; fear of not fitting in with the rest; and fear not doing your best with the time allotted to you, regardless of what convention expects. Few writers are in this league. Well, to quote what Johnstone ends this collection of reflections with himself, “Like a sheet/ we’ve loitered beneath with notions of rest/ the sky is suddenly dark, sulfur lamps/ diffuse before steel can stoop to illuminate/ new men crafting new manners of love.” (Epoch).