One may think of Poetry as being like Religion, a modified descendant of primitive Magic; it keeps the family characteristic of stirring wonder by creating from unpromising lifeless materials an illusion of unexpected passionate life.
-- Robert Graves, On English Poetry
The poem St. Paul’s Chapel, first printed in Episcopal Life in September 2002, begins, “It stood. Not a window broken. / Not a stone dislodged,” and repeats the opening trochee at the end, “It stood.” In between, the four stanzas speak of “the litter of the heart” and charity and a banner from Oklahoma, “with hands as stars, hands as stripes, hands as a flag. ...”
J. Chester Johnson’s poem pays homage to the chapel as a site for workers’ relief while cleaning up after the massacre. It is meet and right that St. Paul’s Chapel should open this anthology of Johnson’s shorter works, selected from a lifetime of writing poetry. Many are published here for the first time or are culled from his 10 chapbooks, whose very definition equals limited distribution.
Johnson’s poetry canters across the field of prosody. The poems’ lengths run from the 15-page Jupiter (nearly juvenilia) to four pages of 17-syllable haikus. Their feet measure from dimeter to prose poems; others step typographically close to shaped verse.
Johnson writes four-line poems (the quatrains in the penultimate section) and three-line stanzas (the tercets of My Boy at Shiloh). His rhyming patterns include terza rima (the interlocking rhymes of the beautiful Elegy to a Distant Son) and the more modern “elastic rhyme” of Back in the Garden.
He credits his work on the drafting committee that retranslated The Psalter for The Book of Common Prayer to his understanding of the caesura (a break in the rhythm of a line), as in All-American, and what he calls in his Foreward “the braiding of strophes,” or stanzas. Johnson also writes that the order of the verse “is eclectic and more thematic than chronological”; however, dates -- had he originally noted some -- would have helped.
His themes cover learning and light, aging and religion (the priestly It Happened on East Shelton Street and Fear of Flying). He writes about the Civil War from his vantage as an Arkansan; Gettysburg Tranquilized is sweetly woeful: “... death made too small / Or too relevant by too much. ...” Another theme is business, for he, like Wallace Stevens, to whom he alludes in Stevens’ Season, worked a day job – Stevens in insurance, Johnson in finance -- to support his poetry habit. His wit peeks out like Kilroy, especially in poems about writing, such as Annie Oakley at her Blazing Keyboard. In Edge, he yokes the themes of war and writing: “… the comma’s / Weapon of mass construction is its pause.”
Although he can write lightly, as witness Afterlaugh, Johnson is no Billy Collins or Ron Koertge, and unfortunately, he risks being labeled as sesquipedalian when he freights lines with words like “preliminarily.” The anthology could have benefited from an editor. Johnson scores, however, with ear-honey phrases, like “liquescent reasons,” and with whole, holy poems, like the interrogative Darkness, which ends, “Watch out for those … / who would steal your light to feed their darkness.”