On “Beam 17, The Book of Orpheus” from Ronald Johnson’s ARK

Andrew David King
December 30, 2013
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[This post commemorates the recent republication of Johnson’s masterwork, ARK, by Flood Editions.]

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That music is the art of TIME. Its work is Abstract and Mathematick, but is created in our own image. That the orders of lyre and year have such a close fit one could not slip a grassblade between.

“Beam 17” is dedicated to Robert Duncan and has all the trappings of his mythologizing tendencies: Blakean diction, mention of a lion that “lie[s] with lamb in The Imaginary Menagerie”—the music in that phrase!—a mystical metaphysics of “TIME” and “SPACE,” capitalizing the latter as Olson did when making his famous declaration, in Part I of Call Me Ishmael, that he took “SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now.” (The “central fact”—a spatial metaphor recursively describing itself.) Olson went on: “I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.”

For Johnson, there might not have been mercy, but there was something like wonder—whole varieties of it. And beneath wonder there was a slickness, a fitness; the “orders of lyre and year” so closely enjoined, so tightly dovetailed, as to admit of no exception. This was part of ARK’s vision, which was a vision in every sense: in project, in sight, in prophecy.

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That wonder takes all forms—Euridice, slip-knot through flesh, abreast the well of light, hand dipped in mercury through breath of earth—and thus is One Form.

Orpheus and Euridice appear here and throughout ARK. What the above-quoted passage illustrates best, I think, is the way in which Johnson’s writing so quickly turns delirious without ever fully losing itself in either delirium or sense. Both the former and the latter, Johnson seems aware, can be straightjackets as much as they can be salves.

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“FIRST DREAM,” from “Beam 17”:

There is no wall

to it all.

Up, goes the widening ball,

till I fall.

Hard to know what to make of these gleeful and childlike moments in the work. Perhaps they represent just another “Form” of wonder, another method one might adopt in receiving and articulating the beautiful, contingent madness of things. This short quatrain begins with another attempt to establish the obliteration of borders, boundaries, horizons, limitations, delineations—but does so, strangely, in the vehicle of a straight rhyme that turns, as it were, on a dime. The metrics of poetic form stand in as a policing element, a restriction, even as all “walls” are supposedly dismantled. But maybe this isn’t a problem for Johnson; maybe these are chains his feet, no pun intended, are willing to accept.

“Up, goes the widening ball”: the grandeur of the world inflating and ascending by means of one’s acknowledgment of it? “[T]ill I fall”: a mention of a “Garden” follows, but even now, in Johnson’s semi-Seusslike world, the Christian overtones remain. Though they’re not, perhaps, as sinister. The “I,” the singular voice, falls, but does not Fall. (And we’ve seen the importance capital letters can play: “One Form.”) Falling as a way of being awestruck, of being sublimated, subsumed.

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That Angels are not subject to gravity, and are therefore a cuckleburr of senses, apples all eyes and hearing spheres.

That one prism holds the spectrumed “glory” as surely as whole populations of droplets strummed by sun.

That the action of the universe is metamorphosis—its articulation, metaphor. White crow, black swan, these are the hinges of Heaven.

In the long sermon of ARK, these sentences sound like antiphons, statements of faith. Talk of angels and of spheres is common. But here the thesis about shape, “One Form,” extends to number as well. One prism and whole multitudes of droplets compare in their capacity to hold “the spectrumed ‘glory’”; and these droplets are not strummed by the sun but by sun, where the exclusion of the definite article frees the designation “sun” from rigidity in signification. Anything can be or become sun, so it makes little sense to speak, in ARK’s alchemical language, of the sun.

This is especially so if it is true that “the action of the universe is metamorphosis…” But what does it mean for metamorphosis to be the “articulation,” the “metaphor,” of the universe? It seems one thing to say that metamorphosis, as such, is an appropriate expression for the sorts of changes we see taking place in the natural (and perhaps supernatural) world; it seems quite another to say that those changes just are metamorphosis in one sense or another—either in that they constitute multiple, minute changes, or comprise one all-encompassing change. The last line quoted above seems to suggest both interpretations, i.e. that metamorphosis is both a convenient descriptive device and one accurate to actual processes; Johnson holds up the white crow and the black swan as “hinges of Heaven”—ontological inversions, things that shouldn’t be but are. (The miracle of every existent thing.)

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From “A MEMORABLE FANCY”:

That clockwise, counterclockwise, as blue bindweed to honeysuckle, the cosmos is an organism spirally closed on itself, into the pull of existence. In the beginning there was the Word—for each man, magnetized by onrush, is Adam to his Tyger.

That the cosmos “is an organism”—ARK’s thesis writ large. Or one of its theses, at least. In setting up a story about existence, Johnson seems to want to assert, as the Gospel of John does, the primacy and priority of “the Word” as that which sets opposites in motion, those contraries that Aristotle spoke of in the Physics. Blake’s Tyger is to Adam, to humankind, an emblem of both his destruction and potential.

What follows in “Beam 18” is no less mysterious, but also no more: a handprint, presumably Johnson’s, shrunk down to fit the page. No commentary is appended; none is needed.

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