Mosses and Lichens: A Selected Bibliography

August 13th, 2019

If a rolling stone gathers no moss, the poems in Devin Johnston's Mosses and Lichens attend to what accretes over time, as well as to what erodes. They often take place in the middle of life's journey, at the edge of the woods, at the boundary between human community and wild spaces. Following Ovid, they are poems of subtle transformation and transfer. They draw on early blues and rivers, on ironies and uncertainties, guided by enigmatic signals: "an orange blaze that marks no trail." From image to image, they render fleeting experiences with etched precision. As Ange Mlinko has observed of Johnston's work, "Each poem holds in balance a lapidary concision and utter lushness of vowel-work," forming a distinctive music. Devin Johnston will read from Mosses and Lichens, with poet Susan Kinsolving, Thursday 10/24 at 7pm at the Poetry Foundation

Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield by Robert Gober - We used an early Burchfield watercolor on the cover of Mosses and Lichens, and he’s an artist with whom I feel an affinity. His modernist technique is brought to bear on whatever is close at hand, namely landscapes of Ohio and New York State. I like best when his work balances visionary and ordinary qualities, nimbic radiations and a weedy desuetude.

Ovid's Metamorphoses : The Arthur Golding Translation of 1567 - Ezra Pound called this the most beautiful book in the English language. It has a richness and physicality that tends to be missing from other translations. Written in fourteeners, Golding has room in his long lines to include several interpretive possibilities, rather than choosing just one. So I consulted it occasionally, while working on the loose versions of Ovid included in Mosses and Lichens.

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead - This novel begins in antic comedy and steadily descends over five hundred pages into abject tragedy. It’s the story of a family, with its own intellectual babytalk idioms, and with a genial tyrant of a father (“Mr. Big Me” to his wife, “Sam-the-Bold” to himself). Among other things, it’s a devastating account of the asymmetrical relationships between parents and children. I’m sure it lies in the background of poems such as “Domestic Scenes” and “Thrown Object” (from Mosses and Lichens).

Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown - Brown traces Stagolee back through the variants of the blues song to an 1895 murder in the “Deep Morgan” neighborhood of St. Louis. It’s a rich exploration of my city’s history, and the ways in which songs circulate. The book piqued my curiosity about other ballads that have St. Louis origins, including “Frankie and Johnny.” Such songs are so ubiquitous and familiar that it seems strange to think of them resulting from literal events in specific locations. A few years ago, I did a little research on Frankie Baker in the archives of the St. Louis Circuit Court, which resulted in the poem “Frankie.”

Sidney Nolan by T. C. Rosenthal - Nolan is one of Australia’s greatest painters, and his series on Ned Kelly are forcefully iconic, rendering the outlaw as a black square with slits for eyes. But his backgrounds and landscapes have great subtlety and variety. A few years ago, I drove from Sydney to Melbourne, and then west along the Southern Ocean. I passed through Ned Kelly country, as well as regions painted by Brett Whiteley, Fred Williams, Clarice Beckett, and others. I could only make sense of those new landscapes through the painters (and I tried to find poetic equivalents in “Two Australian Landscapes”).

The Reception by Michael O’Leary - Michael is a dear friend, and together we edit Flood Editions. My poem “The Well” in Mosses and Lichens is based on his experience working as a structural engineer (but lightly fictionalized). Michael is himself an excellent poet, as The Reception bears evidence. There’s a sophistication to his tonal range, wistful and lightly ironic; and a classical clarity to his handling of form. The title poem brings in a range of voices, and a breadth of social textures, that is altogether rare in poetry, and more often found in good fiction.

The Art of Language: Selected Essays by Kenneth Cox - Cox was an idiosyncratic English critic of modern literature. He generally launches into analysis without argument, and without much attention to historical context. But his discussions of prosody, syntax, diction, and all such matters of poetry are simply unmatched. His essays on Ezra Pound, Lorine Niedecker, and Basil Bunting are particularly recommended. He’s perhaps the only critic who has influenced my poetry, if only through the heartening prospect that such close attention is possible.

About Devin Johnston: Born in Canton, New York, Devin Johnston grew up in Winston-Salem and received his PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Far-Fetched (2015), Sources (2008), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Aversions (2004), and Telepathy (2001). His prose writing includes the critical study Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice (2002) and Creaturely and Other Essays (2009). A former poetry editor for the Chicago Review from 1995-2000, Johnston co-founded and co-edits Flood Editions with Michael O’Leary.

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