Only just having finished the book, I feel like jumping right back into it. I don't see how it won't become a classic, much in the way of Joe Brainard's I Remember. Yet it is absolutely itself. A book which should be in the hands of anyone interested in poetry. However, it is not to be mistaken as simply writing about poets and poetry, rather it is poetry. Powerful, moving and, at times, hilarious poetry. Often saying beautiful things: The two poems to his sons, for instance. Of his youngest son, Aaron, he writes: ‘And the more worthy man than I that he is destined to become is as certain as the mountains he so loves are perilous and real.’ When I returned home, I immediately read them to Jasna in the garden over Turkish coffee. Both poems took her breath away. Susan and you deserve the highest praise for bringing out such a wonderful and important book in such a fine fashion.
Please, do pass on my thoughts to Kent. I'd like him to know there's someone over in Cornwall who now has a smile on his face that he put there. It might well be a permanent smile.
Of course, Kent Johnson has been in this territory before; indeed, he should be proud of the memory of the Yasusada Affair which is several times mentioned within its pages. He should be proud of having a part – however small he claims it to be – in the creation of such a myth. How many do that? In fifty years most of the poets in the book will be dead and their work, currently judged valuable or not, will be long forgotten. Will it make the book any less song or less true? No. Not at all. The book – the very stillness at its heart – is pure. There is no stain upon it. Let those who wish to see it in such a light walk away declaring themselves half-blind. It is a wonderful creation and – this might seem crazy, I know – I do not see it having much at all to do with anybody mentioned in it! They are not important enough – in the history of poetry – to become these poems. Not until they themselves have become myths – as has your own Emily Dickinson. Do you think she is upset over being mentioned in the book? No, she is happy as a jaybird, doing a little jig for celebration in her grave. Would she be upset if she happened to be alive and living in Amherst today? Unlikely. I imagine she wouldn’t have the vanity to consider that she is the Emily Dickinson mentioned in these pages, even if Kent and her did hang out by a swimming pool (Dickinson wearing a bikini and sunglasses!), sipping mojitos, ‘casually sharing...the fathomless mysteries of her impossible mind.’
Now, I’m not at all sure this is a path worth going too far down, but listening to John Berger, having just read Kent Johnson, seems, in a sense, a continuation; a continuation, at least, of sense making. Both writers actively relish the world and the activity of being in the world. Perhaps the major difference, obvious to any, would be Johnson’s finely tuned sense of comedy and self-deprecation. After all, I ONCE MET is an intensely funny book, not that the humour refuses the tragic, or excludes mention of many of the concerns both writers share: the horrors of war, their belief in socialism, the disease of imperialism. Worth noting here the places Kent Johnson visits in I ONCE MET – among others: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Leningrad, Nicaragua: all places that have held/hold John Berger’s interest. Much as I admire and respect John Berger’s work, Kent Johnson comes across as a much different writer, one who relishes celebrating his own failures and frailties, one who comes over as exemplifying the Dharmic beliefs of the illusionary nature and the impermanence of the self, and who does so – ironically enough – in a book of his own meetings with a vast array of poets from across the world. Is there another writer who could have composed such a comedy of manners? A book that indeed holds everything – and therefore every meeting – to be dear, in the same moment as it recognizes nothing and no-one is there to be held dear, or not for long.
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