June 6th, 2008

Review by Art Beck

by Alastair Johnston


Poltroon Press
P.O. Box 5476
Berkeley, CA 94705
ISBN: 0-918395-24-0
122 pp., $19.95

Ellipsis (whose cover title appears only as its three dot symbol "...") is a collection of essays and reviews published in various journals from the 1980's into the '90s and beyond, but it also serves as a poignant memoir of the San Francisco Bay Area poetry and small press scene viewed through the eyes of a then-young Scots immigrant with his own particular take on things.
Alastair Johnston moved to Bay Area in 1974. In 1975, with his collaborator Frances Butler, he started Poltroon Press, an enterprise devoted to fine printing, book design and poetry. From the start, he seemed to view himself as a participant in an ongoing local history. An heir, not of the officially canonized Beats, but of a quieter, still fertile tradition that included such touchstones as Wallace Berman, Jack Spicer, and the Auerhahn Press.
Even so, ruminations on the Beat era keep recurring in Ellipsis. In the book's final essay, Off the Road, Johnston confesses:

I haven't read Kerouac. I tried and gave up. I put him with Tom Pynchon, Tom Robbins and Tom Wolfe, writers who have big reputations but little on the page. I couldn't even get through his roman-a-clef about Phil Whalen and Gary Snyder, two poets whose work does interest me. So why struggle with something that becomes a chore? Does Beat actually mean anything? ... I think Beat is a myth, something invented by Alan Ginsberg to promote himself by association. Burroughs and Gysin are interesting experimental writers in an older tradition that goes back to Swift. Corso and Whalen are good modern poets lumped in that school, but where's the thread that connects any of them, other than contemporaneity?

But this particular essay is new, written for a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Artist Books. For this same thread it's interesting to refer to a much earlier piece--Johnston's review of Joanne Kyger's selected poems, Going On, which appeared in Poetry Flash in 1983. In that piece, he contrasts Kyger in passing with Allen Ginsberg--and also may reveal something about his own guiding aesthetic:

The Japanese Haiku poets...tested a poem by slipping it into conversation. If it passed unnoticed in talk, it was a success. For them, the most important aspect of poetry was its capacity to correct and refine the commonplace.
...The most difficult aspect of this Buddhist poetry, however, is the abandonment of the poet's personality, whether it's subsumed into the objects she is identifying with or eliminated (as far as possible). It's this lack of "first person" subjectivity that's apt to trouble the "Me" generation reader or contemporary consumer of poetry.
Though a Buddhist poet, Joanne implies there's nothing to it: Visiting the Dalai Lama with Allen Ginsberg, he pressed the spiritual leader with questions about how much he meditates. "I don't have to," he replied.
Twenty years later, Joanne notes another Buddhist poet, Phil Whalen, worrying his prayer beads. When she asks him which mantra he is reciting, he says, "Oh, you don't need any of that in Zen, you can just play with the beads." Reaffirming a Taoist truth that has become a part of every day life on the West Coast.

In other words, Johnston seems attracted to poets who discover themselves by losing themselves in their work. Writers who view their art as a humbling rather than aggrandizing act. But only if they don't take even that stance too seriously.
Johnston is of course by trade a printer and, I imagine, he can't avoid viewing any poem tactilely--as something to be gently handled and brought to life on the page. The quiet presence of the objectified word. An art not that much different than that of a translator. If, as a fine printer, he subordinates himself to the text, he asks no less from his poets.
Beyond producing Poltroon's considerable catalog, Johnston has always been active in the San Francisco and Berkeley book arts community, teaching and writing. A number of the essays in Ellipsis are devoted to typography and the history of the small literary press.
These pieces--although geared to the initiates of fine printing--will also reward those with only an idle interest. Ellipsis is a rarity for Poltroon, which specializes in fine print art quality books-- a computer produced trade edition. The illustrations are grayscale, but nonetheless compelling on the page. Among them Jack Spicer's White Rabbit Book of Magazine Verse, Lamantia's Narcotica, prints from Wallace Berman's Semina. Johnston's unique eye for book design remains evident even in this production format.
And in the midst of this, The Author as Typographer, an essay that visits the 18th century with Sterne and Swift, then takes us forward through Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and others--all of whom bent the printed word on the page and used typography as a concrete art.
But the pieces that most connected for me were the obituaries, of which there are a number. Short appreciations of people Johnston knew and admired such as the English printer Peter Isaac, the painter and filmmaker Barry Hall, and others.
There are also obituaries for people more intimately connected with Johnston. A piece entitled Johns(t)on's Life of Gray begins, "Darrell Gray tried hard to be an island. Nevertheless, his death diminishes us. He lived and breathed poetry like no man alive." He was a close friend of Johnston who gently drank himself to death.
That piece ends by quoting two bios that Gray and Johnston had put together for Gray's volume Halos of Debris. The first was a fairly straightforward bio, but of the second version, Johnston says: "We tried a more poetic approach, but it was too cute by half so I scrapped it.'
It's this second "too cute by half" approach that lingers poignantly after Darrell Gray's death. It ends:

His poems have appeared in hospitals around the country where they have cheered the terminally ill. "The muse gives us extra days," he asserts.

He never drinks before waking up.

The poet now rests in peace at the pit of an avocado, hoping for rain.

The quiet heart of the collection may be a memoir and obituary for a short story master--Lucia Berlin: Lady Linotype Operator--that originally appeared in the Chicago Review. The piece is only four pages long but has the weight of a full biography. And for me, it exemplifies Johnston's qualities as friend, editor, printer, and--for want of a better word--maybe, midwife? It begins:

Lucia Berlin died on her sixty eighth birthday, November 12, 2004. Though she was older than me, I felt paternal towards her because she had the same birthday as my son, and because she so often seemed like the young girl in her stories. I met her when she was first emerging as a writer. She was struggling with alcoholism, and a lifetime of various addictions, pain pills for her back (she had scoliosis), cigarettes, and her attraction to men who had worse habits. She cleaned peoples' houses, worked as a waiting room nurse and her incredible stories gradually made it into typescript.

Johnston goes on to chronicle Berlin's steady success and recognition during the mid '80s. And her seeming inability to cope--not because of the recognition her work was getting, but despite it.
In 1988, Poltroon published Safe and Sound, Berlin's third collection of stories. Johnston writes, "She had been fired from a succession of jobs for falling off the wagon. She seemed determined to keep it together this time. I asked her if she wanted to come and work at the press. She jumped at the notion and was radiant at the idea of learning how to run the Linotype machine... At first, all went splendidly:

She brought over her jazz tapes. Polka Dots and Moonbeams by Lester Young was her favorite. We talked about books and writing a great deal. She liked Flaubert and the Russians. She gave me G. Cabrera Infante's Three Trapped Tigers and a novel by Michael Ondaatje.

One day she came with a brand new story, sat down and keyboarded it over the next three days. Then she read the story in the metal (unproofed) and dumped the slugs back into the hellbox for return to the melting pot. 'Don't I even get to see it?' I complained. She explained how the process of setting the story in hot metal had helped her to see it was false...

Johnston goes on that note that: "Safe and Sound ended up being 100 pages long (and there are 33 lines to a page), so she became quite adept on the machine. But then, one July day, there was a grinding crunk..." Berlin had somehow let an oil rag become entangled in the gears of the ancient machine. They were unable to dislodge it with "scissors, screwdriver, tweezers..."

"We could set fire to it," said Lucia. But the machine was covered with oil. The whole place could go up. Finally, though, soaking the rag in kerosene and setting it on fire seemed the only solution. Johnston stood by with a fire extinguisher, while Berlin lit the match. "The smell abated and the machine returned to normal." Berlin really had mastered the Linotype.
If Berlin learned typesetting from Johnston, he in turn,

learned a lot about writing from Lucia. How she would start with something as simple as the line of a jaw, or a yellow mimosa which spurred 'Andado' and was her Madeleine cookie entrée to that novella. Her writing was cathartic but instead of building to an epiphany, she would evoke the climax more circumspectly, let the reader sense it... I thought "Andado" was a beautiful erotic story. No, it was much more brutal than that, it was more like rape, she said. She had turned it into a telenovela to exorcise some demons of her past.

As in his piece for Darrell Gray, Johnston gives Berlin, herself, the last word:

"It would be nice, of course, if I could just walk along stumbling on tin cans or Pekingese puppies which would inspire me to write a story," she said, "but the image has to connect to specific intense experience. Often the recalled emotion is painful, the remembered event very ugly. For the story to work the writing itself must rinse or freeze the initial impulse. Somehow, there must occur the most imperceptible alteration of reality. A transformation, not a distortion of the truth. The story itself become the truth, not just for the writer but for the reader. In any good piece of writing it is not an identification with a situation, but this recognition of truth that is thrilling."

Is this really so far off from the legend of Basho and Issa, "slipping a poem into a conversation"? Or a master printer, slipping something alive into the ink.


Art Beck is a San Francisco poet and translator who's published two translation volumes. Simply to See: Poems of Lurorius (Poltroon Press, Berkeley, 1990) and a selection Rilke (Elysian Press, New York, 1983). He’s currently trying to atone for some of his earlier Rilke versions by retranslating the Sonnets to Orpheus, one of which appears in Rattle #29.




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