To be averse, to turn one’s eyes away, is an act that chills, suggesting not only irrevocable but also unforeseeable consequence. And what we do not see, we so often fear. In ancient Rome, rites of aversion were performed as sacred rituals. But, as Johnston explains, such “rituals involved not the invocation of heavenly spirits, but the placation of ghosts.” While the poems in this collection assay a very broad range of subjects, Johnston demonstrates in all of them an awareness of what enormous challenges constitute the turning toward—or away from—the many faces of experience. And at the core of this work is an astute, passionate, empathic examination of our use of language as an active placation of ghosts. “[T]hese forms are only forms // fulfilled, as you are now // no more than this-a tone.” Paradoxically, Johnston demonstrates the ways that these ghosted forms nonetheless can offer a music intensely, eerily immediate. Here the breadth and complexity of subject matter and allusion, the deftly drawn images (some in full relief, others sketched in minimal silhouette against a sharply contrasting background), the surprising alliances and complications of emotion and idea, all make it impossible for a reader to turn his or her eyes away.
Devin Johnston is the author of a previous book of poetry entitled Telepathy (Paper Bark Press, 2001) as well as a book of criticism, Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice (Wesleyan University Press, 2002). From 1995-2000, Johnston served as poetry editor for Chicago Review, and with Michael O’Leary, he now directs a small press called Flood Editions. Raised in North Carolina, he currently lives in Saint Louis, Missouri, where he teaches at Saint Louis University.
Johnston takes the title of his new collection from the rite that ancient Romans performed to placate their dead. His is a book of hauntings: deceased loved ones, childhood bullies, ancient poets, and ideal selves all ghost these pages at one time or another. But ghosting’s not so much the subject matter as the formal method. In poem after poem Johnston turns away from the world at hand and moves into a kind of hushed borderland, even as he redirects our attention to the here and now… His poems are dignified by deftness and quietude, but they’re also great feats of enlargement: they act as conduits, allowing the past and the present to replenish each other. Large also are the pleasures they give their readers.
Peter Campion, Poetry Magazine, March 2006
perfected, ‘probing and severe’ intellectual music of Devin Johnston’s new Aversions.
Maureen McLane, Chicago Tribune, Dec 26, 2004
By turns enigmatic, insightful, and lyrical, Aversions offers a body of poetry that is subtle and almost visual in its passionate employment of language.
James A. Cox, The Poetry Shelf, Small Press Book Watch, Midwest Book Review.
When talking to myself,
I take a tone I’ve learned
from you – not of boyish charm,
but probing and severe —
to say, some things are clear
and some withdrawn from sight.
A cyclist is only such
while seated on a bike,
a sleeper while asleep.
These forms are only forms
fulfilled, as you are now
no more than this — a tone.