Devin Johnston
Sydney, Australia: Paper Bark Press, 2001
Devin Johnston's Telepathy has an unnerving, foreign beauty. These richly allusive, densely written poems linger at the edge of memory after the eye has taken in the contents of the page. The intriguing quality of the book is that it is able to function as conveyance both because of, and despite, its challenge and difficulty. As its very title would suggest, these poems communicate by some means other than mere sensory perception, perhaps a "desire so tangled tongue/could never/make it understood."
Not that this is a disembodied poetry or in any sense devoid of sensual pleasure. Johnston may well have the best ear of any poet of his generation. His prosody has an almost sleight-of-hand deftness, permitting him to integrate rhyme with the full naturalness of speech:

Some call it base
to cocker lust--
    as starlings flock
or skirr
for cockling crust
and pithless hull--

In addition, the poems are flavored by Johnston's eccentric and difficult lexicon. Here is a sample set: alkahest, bergschrund, cenacle, grum, harl, thill. Bits of Greek, German, and French also surface occasionally. When this best works, the reader feels almost physically called into the realm of a new language--or a vastly older one. At other points, however, the obtrusion of unfamiliar words can literally frustrate understanding. Is this what the author wants to have transpired? I'll wager that a little frustration would be at home in Johnston's poetics. The obscurity of his references cannot always indicate, but they can conjure. And if this sounds like a poetry of arcana, let me clarify: these are not poems of pedantic seriousness. They are also at home embracing the mundane (finding a parking space on a snow day) or incongruously invoking Christ's healing utterance on a day when allergies oppress. In other words:

This house is built
of all we thought we knew--
though knowledge is
but passing through.

A series of poems called "Vacations" which are placed at intervals through the first section of the book may suggest something of Johnston's larger approach: "not traveling/but describing a circumference," so that vacation resounds more and more with the vacancy or transience of any given terrain. Explorations such as these may be gripping as well as ephemeral.
Later, in "Commentaries on 'The Witch of Atlas,'" the reader encounters a being who "must dwell apart/and take her form from passing things." Even the reassuring cycle of seasonal change "awakens an/inverted world,/and we read unwisely." Yet, inevitably, we do read on, ourselves the vehicles, or passengers thereof, which take form from a transitory medium. The poet asks, "When shall we be done with changing?" There
is, of course, no answer to such a query. The book ends rightly with the momentary, homely grace of "a puff of steam."

-- Elizabeth Robinson