MICHAEL BOUGHN Reviews
I Once Met by Kent Johnson
A generosity of encounter
I is a letterword at the centre of constant turmoil these days. It is and it isn’t. Constructed. Innate. Performed. Epiphenomenal. Real. Linguistic mirage. All in all, the last 60 or 70 years has been a tough stretch for I, dismissed by philosophers, devalued by sociologists, its singular authority fractured by democratized worlds of thinking battling over its/their ground(s), ground that is implicated with all the discriminations of power distribution in social, economic, and political zones. I as in identity where that marks out racialized zones of intense oppression and extreme privilege. I as in owner where that marks out zones of commercialized, accumulative relationality. I as in “think, therefore” where that marks out zones of brutalizing control and exploitation.
Kent Johnson’s work has often involved a critique of a certain I, one that circulates through and determines orders of authority in academic byways and poetic backwaters of the U.S. literary spectacle zone. To many people unaware even of the existence of such a backwater, this may seem pretty specialized and of questionable interest. After all, something called “the Author Function,” the focus of much of Johnson’s satire and wit, is not exactly up there with global warming and/or Kim Kardashian’s latest nude photos as a centre of cultural attention. Still, like it or not, it has been a central point of the analysis and revisioning of our condition since Michel Foucault introduced the term in a 1969 essay. Foucault argued that the idea of the author was developed to hold writers accountable in order to punish transgressive writing. As a function, rather than a person, the “author” is part of a discursive formation. There is no romantic depth to it, no possible sincerity or authenticity, all of which are merely elements of the fiction, empty concepts rationalizing the bourgeois delusion of the individual. Johnson’s critique has focussed on that I and the hypocrisies of various anti-establishment literary authorities who reject and attack it in their work, but who turn around and exploit their authorial agency in pursuit of fame and fortune as the left bloc of the Literary Administration.
It is a marvelous surprise, then, to open I Once Met and encounter a completely different mode of I, a mode of reflexive generosities and affections, with nary a mean bone in its textual body, and a hearty laugh every page or two. Jean-Luc Nancy has generosity as a dimension of freedom whose secret is “that it does not have to do with giving what one has (one has nothing, freedom has nothing of its own), but with giving oneself—and that the self of its reflected form is nothing other than generosity, or the generousness of generosity.” I doubt that Johnson was thinking precisely in those terms when he composed the pieces that make up the book, but the cumulative effect of their various divagations and extravagances lead to an experience of the prodigality of relation and the wonder of the world that Nancy would include in his sense of the “generousness of generosity.”
Johnson has been an active poet for a good 40 years or more. Born in Uruguay, he is fluent in Spanish and has translated numerous Latin American poets into English. In the early 80s he worked in literacy programs for the revolutionary Sandinista government Nicaragua. He has travelled widely as a poet and has hosted many peers at his Community College in Highland, Illinois, so he has met a lot of writers in various situations. This is not, however, a book of character sketches. Nor is it a book of history or anecdote, although all those threads run through the pieces. In fact, it is hard to say just what kind of book it is, its energies are so abundant. Each piece begins with the word I and some praise for the subject of the piece. Out of that pours a world in all its strange detail and emotional complexity, a community that is not bounded, but constantly flows beyond itself.
Certainly anecdotes are a huge part of its attraction. The book opens with a story of how Johnson and Dale Smith rested their heads against Lorine Niedecker’s homestead cabin in Wisconsin and cried. “It was quite something,” Johnson says, an understated nod to the extreme emotional power of the moment. The piece ends with them in a bar where a small dog walks in circles on its hind legs. Such incongruities abound, often humorously, accompanied by the observation, “Life is strange.” Johnson’s I in these pieces shifts, grows, observes, is observed, imagines, lies, teases, all the while pouring out a language of relation that is the unbounded site of a community always unmade and in the making.
Some of those relations contain obvious tensions, given Johnson’s gadfly presence in the U.S American poetry market. But even then, the sketches are never mean in relation to their subject, although occasionally some collateral damage occurs. When Johnson meets Marjorie Perloff, for instance, someone who has had some unkind things to say publicly about Johnson, his tone is generous, but with a slight wrinkle. He calls her a great critic and an extraordinarily generous person. Then, this exchange occurs: “Kent, this is Bob Perelman, said Marjorie. Bob, this is Kent Johnson. Oh, so you’re that guy, said Bob. What guy? I said.” The “that guy”/“what guy” exchange is part of a shtick that shows up several times in the book. The “that guy” opens into a world of circulating judgments of “Kent Johnson” beyond the world of immediate encounter. It assumes that an identity has been determined and now in turn determines or binds the relation just initiated. The “what guy?” reorients that relation in an implicit challenge to identity arrived at and imposed outside of relation, while raising the question, literally, what guy?
In one telling encounter, the narrator of these little pieces recalls meeting Vanessa Place, someone with whom he has been engaged in “poetic animosities,” in a train station after a conference. They end up sitting together on the train, traversing stations and shuttles together. By the time they part, Johnson states, “I’m no less skeptical about the current version of Conceptual Poetry, no less skeptical at all. But I have to say I came away, really, liking Vanessa Place quite a good bit, life is strange.” That emotional intelligence arising out of the generosity of relation is a good example of the tone of the book and its strange world.
While each piece introduces a poet, giving some crucial bits of information that establish our relation to them, they never end there. Instead, the encounter becomes an opening that spills out into personal observations, self-revelations, jokes, history lessons, philosophical insights, political events, what-ifs – opportunities, in other words, for the I, not as object or singularity in control, but as relational opening, to draw us into a world rich with unexpected connections. Jean-Luc Nancy calls it “being singular plural.” Some of my favourite moments: the young, unread “Kent Johnson” tells Robert Duncan how much he enjoyed “Oftentimes a Meadow Is Permitted to Come Back to Me” and Duncan slowly turns away till in profile, “his stray eye now stared, very oddly, straight at me, life is strange;” at a banquet in an ornate Czarist building in Leningrad where Ron Silliman, at the head of the table, is transformed into an Orthodox Icon, “his whole face consumed by a blinding sphere of light;” and an encounter with Emily Dickinson, “in a bikini, stretched out by the pool, oiled and sweaty, sipping a mojito, staring at paunchy, pear-shaped me over her sunglasses, casually sharing, in a high and dulcet voice, the fathomless mysteries of her impossible mind.”
Life is strange and wonderful in these delightful compositions.
Michael Boughn is the editor, with Victor Coleman, of Robert Duncan's The H.D. Book. His 2011 book, Cosmographia -- a post-Lucretian faux micro-epic (Book Thug, 2011) was shortlisted for the Canadian Governor-General's Award for Poetry. City Books 1-3 is forthcoming in 2016 from Spuyten Duyvil. He lives in Toronto. A conversation with Kent Johnson is available at Rain Taxi.