2011, 76 pp., 6" x 9"
$16.00 Paper, 978-0-615-43357-8
Cover illustration by Chris Warrington
Study in Pavilions
and Safe Rooms
Paul Foster Johnson's Study in Pavilions and Safe Rooms is an exploration of public and private space at their extremes. Taking their titles from state-planned exhibition halls and panic rooms built for riding out the apocalypse, these poems stage collisions of aesthetics, politics, and history I artificial environments. In these phenomenological investigations, principles of order and constraint go awry under the sway of unruly and contradictory forces.
Smart, elusive, like Debussy’s Nuages, crossed with Ashbery’s Three Poems—a stately Happening, where Stockhausen drops by to dish. Paul Foster Johnson uses syntax as a friend, a chaperone, a punching bag: it keeps him—and his happy reader—in a sequestered, cozy space of detente and narcosis. Reading these taut, architectural poems, I feel like I’m figure-skating on Bauhaus ice; thus Johnson gives us a sexually ambiguous, cerebral map of how to write a poem today.
Seemingly benign spaces reveal a grotesque theater of conflict where we find ourselves “atomic raw material.” The situation’s untenable, the only possible protest overemphatic and self-ironizing, criticism “uproarious but no longer available.” The poems—though they too may prove “not not not a horizon”—are dazzling.
In his new book Paul Foster Johnson goes to town on rooms, on poems as rooms, on spatial arrangements, on being alone in a crowd of people, in every sort of space from cafeteria to monastery, from cage to chat room. When the mood comes on him, he breaks into verbal stutter—the syllable “not,” the syllable “need,” repeat in the mix—product of stress? Magical invocation of the other? We really need this work now, in depression times. I could never figure him out, he remained elusive to me, but now I’m holding him down long enough that all of you can take a bite of something great.