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Traveler: Poems

Traveler: Poems

by Devin Johnston

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The poems in Devin Johnston's Traveler cross great distances, from the Red Hills of Kansas to the Rough Bounds of the Scottish Highlands, following weather patterns, bird migrations, and ocean voyages. Less literally, these poems move through translations and protean transformations. Their subjects are often next to nothing in several senses: cloud


The poems in Devin Johnston's Traveler cross great distances, from the Red Hills of Kansas to the Rough Bounds of the Scottish Highlands, following weather patterns, bird migrations, and ocean voyages. Less literally, these poems move through translations and protean transformations. Their subjects are often next to nothing in several senses: cloud shadows racing across a valley before dusk, the predawn expectation of a child's birth, or the static-electric charge of clothing fabric. Throughout, Johnston offers vivid glimpses of the phenomenal world: "He describes objects with his hands and his eyes, noting texture, heft, and fit" (Boston Review). Equally, one finds a keen attention to sound in the patterning of subtle rhymes and rhythms, demonstrating "care and precision with line and pause" (Poetry).

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This fourth collection from Johnston (Sources) bring his careful, graceful, almost neoclassical pen to scenes from all over the world—Japan, Shanghai, "the Mongol steppes," the Midwest "when a thunderstorm/ trundles down the Wabash," and the Scottish holy isle of Iona. Co-editor of the up-and-coming small press Flood Editions, Johnson also earned some repute as a nature writer, and his short, deliberate stanzas show an unusually observant eye, for nonhuman nature as well as for culture. "A rough-barked/ bur oak/ mostly trunk/ outlives/ its understory"; in a prison yard, "the morning sun... glances off the hubcap/ of a distant Cadillac/ joining the flow of traffic." Sometimes sublime, more often astringent, Johnston's poems of places and things seen—they make up most of the volume—should please fans of that older world traveler, August Kleinzahler. Yet Johnston may be most original when his subjects turn up close to home: his cool temperament meets its fruitful complement when he writes of family and children, most of all his young daughter, who in the brief, fine triptych entitled "Appetites" "lies awake/ talking in confidential tones/ with one she calls/ my friend who eats me." It would take a hard heart to resist such humor, such warmth, set amid such control as Johnston shows. (Sept.)
From the Publisher

Traveler is Johnston's sixth book, and his fourth poetry collection, following Sources (2008), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. Johnston writes in the long shadow of William Carlos Williams' dictum, "no ideas but in things," but Johnston proves words are things. He is not a dictionary poet, but readers will find that visits to the dictionary are rewarded. The title poem, about the migration of a Blackburnian warbler, includes "pinnate leaves." Pinnate means feather-shaped. So the coincidence of the bird arriving in Johnston's black walnut tree becomes consequential, an excess of meaning unearthed like a fossil from the sediments of English. Even if his subjects are prosaic, Johnston is not a poet of the quotidian: his closely observed poems find meaning at these nerve-endings of word and world. "Iona," the longest poem in the book, includes many uncommon words, as if new geography and geology opened new leaves of fine print. He is one of the finest craftsmen of verse we have.” —Michael Autrey, Booklist (starred)

“Devin Johnston takes you with him when he goes down Route M or ambles along the shores of Iona, the sacred island. His anecdotal veneer is studded with a luxurious lexicon . . . Capturing the excitement of new places, Johnston paradoxically stirs up a sense of ease and belonging . . . Johnston pushes sound like few contemporary writers can or care to, producing tensile intensity in columns of lines that scan beautifully . . . Ultimately, Traveler is about life's passages and the quest for identity and community. This gifted wordsmith offers us a precious passport.” —Jeffrey Cyphers Wright, The Brooklyn Rail

“This lovely book begins with a survey of land traversed then turns deftly toward the more mysterious journey of a child's birth and early years. A hospital monitor ‘illuminates / the rugged range / of your estate, from deep crevasse / to trackless slopes.' Johnston's images and short lines might tempt some to label him a minimalist, but that would belie the richness of these poems' textures, their cunning rhymes and meters: ‘across an ocean, / skimming foamy paragraphs of Ossian.' No matter where his gaze travels, Johnston evokes the world with the wonder it--and his book--deserves.” —Dave Lucas, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“There's much to delight in here . . . The sense of reserve in Johnston's poems often serves them well: they are momentary stays against confusion, sensitive to their and our momentariness . . . Whether to ward off a psychotic trance or ride it out, they are worth following, if only to see where they may take us . . . It is good to travel with these poems.” —Scott Challener, The Rumpus

“Sparkling with energy and intelligence, these poems are like chips in a mosaic, spare, hard, precise, and with a classic humanity and grace.” —David Malouf on Sources

Library Journal
In his fourth collection, Johnston (Sources) explores nature, travel, and the journey of being a new parent. The poems presented in foreign settings rely on natural details and vivid naming to nail down place: "Returning day, volcanic spilth of dawn,/ instantly overflows the Firth of Lorn." Johnston often incorporates rhyme, including half rhyme, but unlike many who write more formally his lines never feel forced. In "Roget's Thesaurus," he displays a strong humanistic streak as he describes a prisoner circling the yard while paging through a guide to synonyms. Even in this bleak setting, the poet finds beauty: "filigree of chain link/ and a curl of concertina wire." The poems with musical cascades of evocative sounds continually strike chords of optimism: "Wake up, wake up,/ a kettle yawns/ and coughs,/ slurring its copper bell." A couple of short poems give descriptions only and seem to be mere padding. VERDICT Johnston's strengths include a vibrant vocabulary, lines that soar, and an eagerness to record the quirkiness of the world in such lines as "From smoking haar to affluence to loch,/ the long hydraulic cycle never stops."—Doris Lynch, Monroe Cty. P.L., Bloomington, IN

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.93(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.24(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Devin Johnston, First edition 2011

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2011 Devin Johnston
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8666-7



    From Medicine Lodge
    to Coldwater, from Coldwater
    to Protection and beyond,
    this undulating line
    intersects no industry
    yet slows to Central,
    resumes a bare number,
    and finally frays
    in shallow tracks
    where Black Kettle
    and Standing Feather
    took their geologic time
    and left no cairn.

    Salt and gypsum collapsed
    to form a basin
    shadows race across,
    their smooth momentum
    broken only
    by a spindly windmill
    with its corrugated trough
    or scratchy, windrattled
    cottonwood, a graph
    of fluctuating force,
    anything upright
    under revision.

    A twist of hair
    threads the ring
    of a dried-up sink
    as stackenclouds and fibrous
    sonderclouds draw silver
    from common sagebrush,
    or waneclouds streak
    the afternoon with grains
    of polished wood—
    only to kindle flame
    as everything shuts down
    but cloudworks, unfinished
    parts of a world.


    after William IX, Duke of Aquitaine

    I made this up from nothing.
    It's not myself I sing,
    or love, or anything
    that has a source.
    I dreamed these words while riding
    on my horse.

    I've neither youth nor age.
    Ambitions out of range,
    I feel no joy or rage
    to see them go.
    One midnight worked the change
    that made me so.

    I wonder, do I wake
    from dreams, or dream I wake?
    Beneath a sheet, I shake
    and clutch my heart,
    though part of me—aloof, opaque—
    remains apart.

    For such uncertainty
    I've found no remedy
    in psychotherapy
    or sedatives.
    I rummage through debris
    where nothing lives.

    A friend I've never met,
    unknown to me as yet,
    has kindled no regret
    or happiness,
    no tender sobriquet
    to curse or bless.

    As coldly radiant
    as stars, and light-years distant,
    this expectation can't
    embrace a life,
    but shines on, ignorant
    of lust and strife.

    My song of nothing done,
    I ride from Avignon
    and leave my words to one
    who turns a key
    to find the deadbolt drawn
    and stable empty.


    what will she
    now a she

    trailing clouds
    yet hearing our

    muffled voices
    all the while

    from this dark
    world and wide

    what will she
    mew or bray

    as any envoy
    might derive

    an embryon
    from animal

    or amnion
    from tender lamb

    though tethered to
    a human form

    an embryon
    in amnion

    or bloom of jellies
    at the whim

    of storm and tide
    the ocean's roar

    above, around,
    and then inside


    A vacant hour
    before the sun—
    and with it a valve's
    pneumatic hush,
    the deep and nautical
    clunk of wood,
    chanson du ricochet
    of rivet gun,
    trowel tap,
    and bolt drawn—

    the moon sets
    and water breaks.

    Curled within
    a warm pleroma,
    playing for time,
    you finally turn
    and push your face
    toward November's
    glint of frost,
    grains of salt,
    weak clarities
    of dawn.


    Graphing pain,
    the toco monitor
    scrolls a white
    bounding line
    on a blue field:
    not heraldry but
    a lightning flash
    the rugged range
    of your estate,
    from deep crevasse
    to trackless slopes
    of Traversette.
    Dryly tapping,
    a clerical ghost
    prints a pan-
    oramic strip.
    In a sudden charge,
    the air contracts
    a vast expanse
    (remote and thin)
    to this bare room
    where surgeons cut
    a Gordian knot
    and everyone
    says wonderful
    when they forget.


    From the foot of Cotopaxi
    and across the Gulf

    a Blackburnian warbler
    follows a pulse,

    follows Polaris
    and the Pole's magnetic field

    through travail
    and travel's long ordeal,

    until he drops
    to a black walnut's
    pinnate leaves

    tossing like waves
    in the North Sea

    and glances toward
    my lamplit, stationary world
    of smooth planes:

    against a cloud,
    his throat's flame.


    The hours spent on transpacific flights
    pass like a sandstorm through the Mongol steppes,
    lodging a single grain—an irritant
    to memory—within the furrowed cortex.
    Nacred by revolving doubt, it grows
    a pearl as black as the ocean depths
    and lustrous as the moon
    through sublimated ice.

    This pearl outlives its host—and can be bought
    in Shanghai, from an unassuming shop
    on the French Concession's western edge.
    The jeweler plucks it from a velvet box
    and cups the pearl like a Dramamine
    in the hollow of her outstretched palm.
    She stands like that, expectantly,
    revolving shapes to come.


    At the first surge of psychotic trance,
    to ward it off or ride it out,
    Peter Roget took up a list:
    breeds of dogs, human bones, anatomies
    of cloud, or forms of transport.
    It steadied his mind to study the spokes
    of wheels glimpsed through vertical slats:
    van, wagon, whisky, tumbrel, truck;
    the blur of whips and hooves,
    ornate signage stripped of syntax.

    Now, among aseptic cells
    of Bonne Terre, Roget's thesaurus
    circulates more than Malcolm X.
    One offender, stout as a mule,
    circles the yard while leafing through
    a dog-eared passage (cf. trough)
    from hole to eye to aperture and on:
    outlet, inlet, orifice, throat,
    channel, chimney, pit, pore,
    sieve, riddle, borer, screw,
    bodkin, needle, warder, gouge.

    As an officer calls for head count,
    the morning sun reticulates
    filigree of chain link
    and a curl of concertina wire.
    It glances off the hubcap
    of a distant Cadillac
    joining the flow of traffic.


    Sifu John has left the dojo
    and struck out on his own.
    No more shit from Master Jong,
    no endless adjudications
    of single whip, no banquets,
    belts, dues, or membership.

    His only student—big dude
    with the tight, slick ponytail
    of Steven Seagal—
    got lit and locked
    a bartender in tiger claw,
    then spent a night in jail.

    Clearly distinguish
    empty from full,

    the classics instruct.

    Mornings, feeling thick, John
    crosses off his mother's list
    at Schnucks, returning home
    with tourniquets of plastic bags.

    Evenings, sifu and student
    grasp the sparrow's tail
    beside a picnic pavilion
    perched above the park's basin,
    its pooling shadows
    emptied of pedestrians.

    As snow begins to fall,
    they return to fundamentals
    of Peng, Lu, Ji, An ...
    slow as three-toed sloths
    under the orange glare
    of sodium lights
    with all else thrown in darkness.
    Getting nowhere.


    Set apart
    from the compound
    friction of forest,
    a rough-barked
    bur oak,
    mostly trunk,
    its understory.

    A sapling in 1700,
    it rose like smoke
    from leaf litter,
    a totem for those
    who told tales
    every episode
    the offspring     of earth and sky.

    Carotenoids flare
    through its vascular system
    in slow time,
    releasing aromas
    of black tea
    and tobacco.

    the oak endures,
    a column supporting
    nothing but its own
    fixed extension.

    The fine point
    of a feeding warbler—
    a drifting spark
    or cursor—
    ghosts its crown.


    Beyond a ring
    of mercury light
    nothing conspicuous
    could survive
    the coming night.
    The rippling hunch
    of a barred owl
    propounds as yet
    no prey, no rattle
    in late September's
    coil of fern.
    A cold breath
    of Brush Creek
    gently rocks
    joe-pye weed,
    but skin still
    radiates heat
    from the setting sun.
    Fever kindles
    a turbulent flow
    continuous with sleep,
    until an earthen
    effigy uncurls
    its cursive form
    across the ridge.
    The snake god
    swallows an egg
    as Draco slips
    through tattered leaves.
    Beyond the creek,
    a white truck
    catches the last
    light of day
    and sends it back.


    Placid Pan
    snores in the sun
    as a thunderhead
    comes to rest
    on the canyon's rim.
    From a hump
    of high withers
    a ridge descends
    to a moist rhinarium
    or the puckered phrase
    e pluribus unum.

    Bison bison,

    as prairie fire,
    graze its aftermath
    of new grass,
    their burnt heads
    slung low
    and panicked by any
    cracked report.
    The lightning bolt,
    lord of everything,
    drawn on a skull
    in red ochre,
    draws a herd
    whose delicate hooves
    thunder to raise
    a cloud of dust.


    When a thunderstorm
    trundles down the Wabash,
    revealing the form
    of flow in every flash,
    northerlies lash
    the walls that keep us warm,
    rummaging grass,
    scattering flock and swarm.

    Beneath an icy
    column thick as phlegm,
    this cold coyote
    of our river system
    peers through a scrim
    of silt and leaf debris
    as lightning skims
    the shoals of Harmonie.

    As each percussion
    shakes the sturgeon's bladder—
    a loose vibration
    felt in fleshy matter—
    her switch-tail stirs
    beds of hibernation,
    bottom dwellers
    lost in cloud formations.


    Darner, sewing needle,
    exclamation damsel,

    pennant, flying adder,
    tang- or sanging eater,

    fleeing eather, bluet,
    steelyard, spindle, booklet,

    skimmer, scarce or common,
    sand or shadow dragon,

    cruiser, shadow damsel,
    devil's horse or saddle,

    darning needle, dancer,
    meadow hawk or glider,

    water naiad, threadtail,
    sylph or sprite or penny nail.


Excerpted from Traveler by Devin Johnston, First edition 2011. Copyright © 2011 Devin Johnston. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Born in 1970, Devin Johnston was raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author of three previous books of poetry; as well as two books of prose, including Creaturely and Other Essays, reflections on the natural world. He works as an editor for Flood Editions, a nonprofit publishing house, and teaches at Saint Louis University in Missouri.

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