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Ronald Johnson: Activist, Heritage Chef, & Poet

I first learned of Ronald Johnson in graduate school, in a poetry workshop by California writer, Brian Teare. Teare had challenged me to re-encounter and incorporate Mormonism, the religion of my childhood, its language and peculiar cosmology, into a series of chants, curses, liturgies, etc. he hoped would force me to make my history my own again. I failed his challenge spectacularly, I think—I only really regurgitated my experience of Mormonism on the page—but discovered and fell in love with Ronald Johnson in the process. Johnson’s erasure poem, Radi Os, was one of the books I was given to study.

Ronald Johnson was born in Ashland, Kansas in 1935. He attended the University of Kansas and then Columbia, before hiking through Appalachia and Western Europe to (he insisted in his lifetime) become a poet. A student of the Black Mountain School (both the physical place and the poetic tradition), Johnson spent most of his adulthood writing and working in San Francisco. His life, which ended in March of 1998, was proof that people can thrive doing many different things: Johnson was active in San Francisco’s early bear community, a subset of the city’s gay culture; he researched and published award-winning cookbooks, such as The Aficionado's Southwestern Cooking (1985) and The American Table (1984); he wrote poems for the rest of his life, showing a precision and range that made Guy Davenport call him “America’s greatest living poet.” Johnson’s greatest work, the long poem, ARK, was just republished in 2013 by Flood Editions out of Chicago.

When I first encountered Ronald Johnson, his obsession with spirituality was plain before I’d opened to the first page. Radi Os is an excising of the first four books of Milton’s Paradise Lost: the wars of the angels in heaven, Lucifer’s fall, the Garden of Eden, all show up half-elided in Johnson’s work; Radi Os removes perhaps 90% of Milton’s original text, taken from a 1892 edition, leaving Johnson’s new poem to emerge. There’s something gnostic, even apocryphal, about the project—although anyone familiar with Milton’s own subject position and political leanings, writing Paradise Lost, might see this as more a dovetailing; Johnson himself said, of the poem, “I omit most of the text to create a Blakeian visual page and a new Orphic text of my own.” It was my first erasure poem.

Radi Os was also my first real experience with the page as a visual field. (I read May Swenson, the famous Utah lesbian poet, and her shape poems, at the same time…) Dan Jaffe of the Saturday Review calls Johnson’s voice:

“symbolist…in intention, but…informed by the facts of art and flora. Writing in an often extremely elevated diction, hardly fashionable today, Johnson utilizes words most contemporary poets shun, words like ultimate, exquisite, chaos, fronds, gorgeous, and celestial. But Johnson is no purveyor of poesy. He counterpoints carefully.”

There’s something simultaneously right about diction like that floating in mid-page, unaccompanied by any other language. It’s dynamic, interrupted, which causes me to slow down even more than I normally do with a new poem. The form of the erasure, for me anyway, justifies its existence.

Yet stranger still is ARK. There are conflicting sources on whether or not Johnson intended Radi Os to appear in ARK. Flood doesn’t include the poem at all. When ARK originally appeared in pieces, some originally published at one time, other sections another time, neither publisher could agree on what exactly to include. The mode of its creation—begun at age 35, twenty years in the writing, traded between jobs “as a cook, a caterer, a manager of a bar,” etc. or fueled by his role in San Francisco’s Rainbow Motorcycle Club, Johnson’s “band of lusty roistering men”—meant that the poem existed at the epicenter of many seeming paradoxes. This, more than anything, strikes me as what Whitman meant by “I contain multitudes.”

If people see spirituality and myth at the forefront of Johnson’s work, then prayer for Johnson isn’t unlike a recipe. His work is painstakingly researched, like the methods he highlights for cooking jambalaya in The American Table, product of his own serious play and artful experimentation, and simultaneously an oral or communal tradition he traveled to, so as to unearth. ARK has its own internal consistency, intentional structure, even movements that seem to me as necessary as the ordered adding of ingredients or as rhythmic as a heavenly plea. His poems are endowed with purpose.

I keep coming back to Johnson’s work perhaps, more than anything, because I crave the kind of diverse accomplishment he achieved: part activist and historian, part hedonist and consummate artist, I’m delighted by an example of most expansive humanity. I’m puzzled by him, too, how he could have kept so thorough a relationship to his own roots: the heritage, the food, the Kansas prairie where he returned to die. Jaffe says his works are “calculated expressions of the energy of the universe.” Are we, as humans, as artists, anything less?

Stay Backwords,

Matthew D. Kulisch

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