Radi Os, by Ronald Johnson
Flood Editions \ 107pp. \ $14.95 \ 0-9746902-4-4
The reissue of Ronald Johnson’s 1976 volume Radi Os is a partial event and a full accomplishment. Not so much based on the first four books of Paradise Lost as a radical excision of Milton’s original text, it is part of its predecessor’s whole but a whole in its own right. Johnson described his process as a kind of “etching,” cutting away the original to reveal, re-imagine, and interpret afresh the various textual forces radiating mutually from the imagination of a blind English Puritan and a contemporary American poet. We can attend to Johnson’s book as homage, a posthumous collaboration, and a singular invention.
It would be mistaken to assume that Johnson is uncovering the essence of Paradise Lost or that his tactical pruning and paring intend to subvert Milton’s quest “to justify the ways of God to Man.” Neither divinity nor deviltry resides in Johnson’s poetic cycle; high and low, good and evil, extremities all, are surgically removed: “no bars of Hell, nor//far off Heaven.” Man becomes the centerpiece of attention, but at a price: the incorporation of the godly and ungodly, the elemental and the mortally cultivated, bring both a prestige and painful immanence to the human condition. God is absent, occluded, but not gone. He is the absent present, forever signaling from the sidelines of humanity’s domain. His presence and transcendence are implied in the atmosphere Johnson generates. In his Notebooks , Wittgenstein notes: “How things stand, is God. God is, how things stand.” Johnson may subtract Jehovah, but multiplies His subliminal bearing throughout his work.
This cycle, as original as it emulative, risks parody in its invocation of the original while willing itself to another kind of passage. Johnson did not merely extrapolate at whim. He surveyed the Miltonic pattern and culled from its treasure trove a parcel of incandescent meaning. Man is a creation of folly, but so too the circumstances that wrought his appearance:
. I started back,
It started back;
‘What thou seest,
And I will bring thee
The reflexive gesture calls to question the basis of human belief in the Divine and divine conception of the Human. The dialogue of creation that Johnson suggests refers not only to Milton but to the act of poetic creation as well. The aggregation and cancellation of intersubjective possibility is given life here, as Johnson addresses Milton, and as their divergent practices embody differing scales of experience for persons, gods, and poets.
Johnson in these cut-ups keeps referring back to the “image” and “stars.” In this way, he channels Dantean currents and observes the riptides of old and new orderings of holiness and poetry. Radio Os is an odyssey that transports the reader into a world of imaginative experience that annotates, while it articulates, the richness of Milton. Johnson shows himself to be a supreme critic of his precedent, in lines artfully imbued with cadence and poetic power. What he chose to retain cannot be condemned as aleatory, especially since the lines left amid the spaces are so sonorous–provocative rhythms regardless and perhaps because of manufactured elisions. What Johnson allows is a reading of Milton as an authorial text and an encryption of other, hidden ideas. The fragments Johnson coheres are fractured pieces of a Biblical and secular world put into perspective. He urges the reader to sense his work in its own right while furnishing a home that is homeless but hopeful, divine and human, obedient to Milton’s text and flighty enough, to endorse a reading that is not so much a re-reading or a sub-reading, but a twin reading:
and thy words so strange
Ronald Johnson is one of our best contemporary poets, and died far too young. In this way, he is Milton’s Lycidas. He revived Milton, while Milton revived him. He revised Milton, but only to revamp him. Each is a powerful poet, with only one of the two a willing accomplice. No matter, they each embarked on magisterial projects. As Ronald Johnson writes, not eroding but radioing the majesty of Milton and poetic creation: