The in­fin­ity of things


Christo­pher J. John­son

Christo­pher J. John­son ded­i­cates his first col­lec­tion of po­etry &luck­ier (The Cen­ter for Lit­er­ary Pub­lish­ing at Colorado State Univer­sity, 2016) to grand phys­i­cal things: “for the depths of Vos­tok& Jupiter’s an­cient storm.” Vos­tok, the for­ever-frozen Siberian lake, is a time cap­sule of pre­his­toric times. Jupiter’s swirling red eye, so large it could swal­low three Earths, is at a dis­tance that re­quires imag­i­na­tion to pic­ture its size and en­ergy. “I feel that these large nat­u­ral mir­a­cles pro­vide a sense of scope that might help align our un­der­stand­ing of a place in na­ture,” John­son wrote in an ex­change of emails with Pasatiempo. “I would pre­fer to be a part as op­posed to aside from na­ture, to para­phrase a 14th-cen­tury al­chemist.”

Some­thing of an al­chemist him­self, John­son also ded­i­cates his vol­ume “for all cu­ri­ous things” — which has a dou­ble mean­ing, not only re­fer­ring to cu­ri­ous things, but also to the gift of cu­rios­ity, a mea­sure of con­scious­ness. That this con­scious self is too a cu­ri­ous thing is re­flected in the ti­tles of two of his po­ems — “It oc­curred to me” and “I am un­like noth­ing.” Fi­nally, John­son stip­u­lates in the ded­i­ca­tion that his po­etry is also “for the faces we make when we don’t know what faces we should make” — a sug­ges­tion of in­no­cence as well as con­fu­sion. To break the con­fu­sion re­quires ques­tions and imag­i­na­tion about hu­man­ity, as John­son writes: “Who but gods could have trained them:/the moun­tains, those foothills, these stones,/who but ti­tans: wind& rain, fire/&the mad­ness a man is.”

John­son’s themes come of read­ing — po­etry, of course, but also phi­los­o­phy and the sciences. His

cos­mol­ogy is one of scale. Small things mat­ter, too. In the poem “We have for­got our gods,” he sug­gests some­thing of Wil­liam Blake’s “To see a World in a Grain of Sand ... Hold In­fin­ity in the palm of your hand” when he writes, “i am in­debted to the spar­row, nas­tur­tiums,/net­tles& pollen grain.”

&luck­ier is pre­ceded with a line — “And to die is dif­fer­ent from what any one sup­posed, and luck­ier,” from Walt Whit­man’s “Song of My­self.” The Whit­man quo­ta­tion sheds light on his ti­tle, sug­gest­ing that life is the for­tu­nate con­se­quence of fac­ing death. Like Whit­man, John­son is prone to marvel. He said, “Lake Vos­tok, for ex­am­ple, has been un­der an ice­cap for 400,000 years. What lies un­der that ice is, for me many ways, some­thing an­ces­tral — or at least I hope so — in the form of mi­crobes or other kinds of life. They even call the wa­ter in this lake fos­sil wa­ter. I mean, that is pretty damn cool, right?” Yet his po­etry, or­bit­ing ev­ery­day feel­ings and cir­cum­stance, is qui­etly re­served in its awe and mod­est in its ques­tions: “What a lush world it is: pre­par­ing for events,” and “how shall I sit to the right& to the left of me;/how shall I be­have?” He’s con­stantly look­ing for as­so­ci­a­tion with in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties: “with the bark i share bit­ter­ness/with wa­ter i share sus­te­nance;/i re­gard ev­ery­thing, i give it a name; i am un­like noth­ing.”

John­son’s po­ems re­flect another line from “Song of My­self”: “ev­ery atom be­long­ing to me as good be­longs to you.” But he also ex­am­ines how he stands apart. “I fre­quently have ques­tions as to what sets peo­ple aside from other things,” he said. “The largest thing I come up with is con­scious­ness, the process of thought . ... I don’t think con­scious­ness should set us aside from other things, but rather al­low us to see that ev­ery­thing comes from the same source and to be in awe of this.”

He said the cadence of his po­ems comes from “deep en­gage­ment” with blank verse, sonnets, and the like. “What you’re think­ing when you’re walk­ing down the street sounds good in iambic pentameter,” he said. The rhythms re­flect the speech he hears around him, par­tic­u­larly the use of at­tached am­per­sands in­stead of “and.” He said this prac­tice “started as a way I un­der­stood the use of ‘and’ in speech.When we give lists of things and use ‘and’ to con­nect the items in our list, we tend to speed up our voice. Hear­ing this as a col­lege stu­dent, I wanted to write it how I was hear­ing it.” His work has a sub­tle vis­ual qual­ity on


the page with its stanza breaks and in­den­ta­tion, the use of the long dash (“I am dark for —”), and other, odder punc­tu­a­tion. Seem­ingly clev­erly placed trios of hash­tags lend an em­blem­atic qual­ity, putting teeth in “the croc­o­dile ### his tooth& oaks,” or re­sem­bling stitches in the line “even deep in our wounds ###”. “Strangely enough, the hash­tags are a print­ing er­ror,” he ex­plained, “but I’ve dis­cov­ered that my use of punc­tu­a­tion must be un­usual enough that peo­ple think it is some­thing in­ten­tional. They were meant to be long dashes, but there seems to have been some kind of a word pro­ces­sor mal­func­tion when it came to print­ing the book. Makes some sense, I sup­pose, con­sid­er­ing my in­ter­est in er­ror in gen­eral.”

John­son, a grad­u­ate of the Col­lege of Santa Fe (now Santa Fe Univer­sity of Art and De­sign) cites Edna St. Vin­cent Mil­lay, H.D., John Ber­ry­man, and other mod­ernists as in­flu­ences, as well as John Donne and other English meta­phys­i­cal poets. But the poets he reads “again and again” are con­tem­po­rary women poets, in­clud­ing So­phie Cabot Black, El­iz­a­beth Wil­lis, Mary Rue­fle, and Wendy Cope. “They seem to hold some anonymity in their work. They talk about broad so­cial sub­jects that af­fect us all, but also seem to be talk­ing about their own lives in an indi­rect man­ner, as if to make room for the reader to fit into their po­ems,” he said.

John­son’s rep­u­ta­tion as a writer ex­tends out­side po­etry. He writes for Meow Wolf, in­clud­ing nar­ra­tives for the in­stal­la­tions Due Return and The House

of Eter­nal Return. He said he tries to keep his po­etry sep­a­rate from the fic­tional work he does for Meow Wolf, and that this nar­ra­tive work “al­lows me to reach such a broad au­di­ence, and I re­ally hope to share with them some­thing that they can take away, whether it be a spir­i­tual dis­cov­ery, a deeper un­der­stand­ing of what art could be, or even just a re­al­iza­tion of oth­ers.”

How­ever sep­a­rate his fiction and po­etry, there’s a the­matic con­nec­tion. Re­turn­ing to the Whit­man quote that opens &luck­ier, John­son said his po­ems “are about how the end is not the end ... that there re­ally are no end­ings. ‘The small­est sprout shows there re­ally is no death,’ Whit­man writes. This is very much in line with what I want to con­vey, what I come back to again and again, the in­fin­ity of things.”

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