From “Wishing for Repose and the Beauty of Things,” by Matthew Gray and Timothy Johnson

Poems by Matthew Gray and Timothy Johnson
Reflection by Timothy Johnson

Freedom of the Hills

When did I exchange
without thought, my mountains for
civilization

extensive childhood
memories when I pondered
alpine landscapes filled

soulful desires
unmet dreams haunt the waking
reaching peaks now burned

A Foggy Day on the North Shore

It is difficult
to locate meaning while cool
mist blows off the sea

and islands fade in
and out of sight. Even so,
nice young girls yelling

“stupid birds,” rush gulls
from stranded picnic litter
and they soar away

 

The Lee Shore

Watching red balloons
drift past the lighthouse to sea
reminds me of dreams

Perhaps a boy let
them go as he heedlessly
blew out his candles

In time they’ll return
deflated with the tide, and
he will know regret

Your Pregnant Moon

Highway drive tonight
the city’s pink pregnant moon
reminds me of you

dear friend, remember
desert eves beneath mountains
this same moon rising

reaching above peaks
shadowing conversations
shaking consciousness

Primal Wisdom

Bird songs fill the tree
each content with their homestead
Such essential verse

tempts imitation;
guileless sirens breaking
down my self-conscious

chatter. A bobcat
stalks by swiftly, low, unseen
in the harmony

River in November

Placid black mirror, the
Ipswich beneath me reflects
light clouds and dark trees

not a metaphor
for time in my life, rather
of boyhood summer

the sheen beckoning
to be broken, or gothic
old-age’s unplumbed depth


This collection of poems, and forthcoming book, has been the work of seven years’ intermittent effort. Above all it is the embodiment of a friendship kept thriving through collaboration. It was conceived as a Heideggerian project, a way to create purpose and meaning in the face of life’s conundrums, changes, and ultimately death. Through the process of crafting these poems Matt and I have refined our awareness of self in nature, in society, and in life; we have obliterated space and toyed with time. For the reader, some of these poems may succeed and some may fail, aesthetically speaking. For me, they are all that remains of a transformative creative process that harnessed the power of poetic form to alter phenomenal reality and capture the ephemeral.

The seven years of occasional observations and poetic temperament captured in this collection spanned the late 20’s and early 30’s of the authors. Both Matt and I settled down, began careers, bought houses, and started families. Matt got a dog, I did not. Rebellious and unconventional dreams came to reside in the form of white-American, middle-aged, middle-class life. A friendship founded on outdoorsmanship, literature, speculative philosophy, and political concerns became divided by two thousand miles. The perennial tensions implicit in these common transitions motivated the creation of these poems. Particularly within the context of our increasingly materialistic and environmentally irresponsible culture, a poetic synthesis appeared to be called for.

I came up with a triplicate haiku form as a possible embodiment of the synthesis that was needed. I blended the image driven simplicity of the haiku, and its attention to natural cycles and metaphor, with the developmental possibilities of the sonnet. We decided on a minimalistic approach to punctuation. More importantly, as the project grew, the creative process became entirely collaborative. Each writer would submit drafts to the other, who would then have the liberty to rewrite and recraft in ways that would certainly violate the etiquette of any workshop setting.

As such, these poems are co-authored in a profound way. Effectively, these poems embody the deconstruction of authorship, as it is traditionally conceived. Usually, the author is thought to have an inspiration, some insight, as an individual, that then gets objectified in the production of a work of literature. Revision is a process of refining and circling in on an accurate portrayal of the individual’s perspective. Even the Japanese collaborative Raiku tradition preserves the individual voice of the competing poetic composers. In contrast, our poems come from a transcendent perspective that exists due to the collaborative attempt to craft poems with a single speaker. The “voice” of each poem is singular, but its ontological referent is the synthesis of a plural consciousness; it belongs to both the authors of this collection, and cannot be parceled out.

These poems are the aesthetic embodiment our “answer” to the problems of our time (at least some of them). The romanticized conception of the artist as an inspired individual has contributed to our culture’s increasing blindness to the work and craft inherent in anything of beauty and value, as well as the cult of the individual where “everyone has their own opinion”. In the place of superficial “acceptance” we all must undertake the rigorous work of crafting a self in relation to the other. In this vein these poems are a meagre beginning (two middle-aged, white men collaborating is hardly the cross-ideological and multi-perspectival process that will be needed to resolve the global environmental, economic, ethnic, religious, and gender issues that populate the planet), but I think it is a beginning nonetheless. The synthetic, transcendent perspective generated by thorough co-writing is a space where tensions are brought into relation as parts of a whole, without violence or sublimation. The speaker of each poem above is the singular voice of a human collective, a collective that, for now, is comprised of two individuals, but, theoretically, without limit.

The process of authorship, here, began in the traditional manner. I would notice something and make a note in my pocket Moleskine, or deliberately go in search of a natural scene that I could use as a scaffold for some human issue or psychological conundrum. After making a prose description or narrative, I would then revise that into the Triku form. Still raw, I would send a group of these to Matt, in Denver, via email or, more often, snail mail. Upon receiving my drafts, Matt would smile at the tea stains on the paper, and read my drafts. Reading, here, becomes a psychological journey across the time and space that separates the two of us, it becomes an attempt to be in the same place the poem was written from. As such, the co-author would sift the murky draft for a kernel of shared experience or understanding and then begin their own creative effort to rework the wording, the line breaks, and often the images and concepts themselves to express that shared perspective. Matt’s efforts then came back to me, where I would repeat the process again. Drafts shuttlecocked back and forth across two thirds of the continent over the course of seven years until they coalesced.

Sometimes the revisions were a matter of tinkering and refining. For instance, I sent Matt a draft of “A Foggy Day on the North Shore” where the second and third stanzas read: “and the islands fade/ in and out of sight. Even/ so, a few young girls// rush the seagulls from their stranded picnic litter/ yelling “stupid birds.” Matt’s marginalia reveal that his first move of revision was to alter the enjambment in the second stanza: “and islands fade in/ and out of sight. Even so.” Thus the “in” and the “and out” are separated by the line break, which better replicates the phenomenal experience of the islands shifting status from the speaker’s perspective. Also, the revision frees up a syllable which allowed Matt to move “yelling “stupid birds” into position as the last line in the second stanza. This adjustment juxtaposes the discontinuity of the visual image with the sight and sound of the girls, and it opens a way to remake the last line of the poem into one that makes the move back toward the psyche of the speaker. Matt’s third stanza then reads: “young girls rush seagulls/ from stranded picnic litter/ insight soars away.” Thus the poem completes a cycle.  It begins with the speaker’s description of an image that captures the ephemerality of sight, the division that separates human experience in time from the universal truth of the island’s’ existence, it then moves out to narrate the dynamic of the girls (whose youth is similarly ephemeral, whose innocent thoughtlessness has polluted the beach, and whose attempts to judge the birds’ Darwinist opportunism ironically reflects on them), to finally move back to the impact on the speaker’s ability to grasp “insight” which “soars away” like the birds.

To move the draft in this direction effectively, Matt had to make the experiences and insights his own, he had to imaginatively sit on the beach with me in the summer, while he sat in his Denver home in the fall. When he sent his comments back to me it was winter, but as I continued to work out the kinks in the poem I too returned to the beach to see what my friend was noticing there. Drafting and revising became a way to spend time together in a space created by aesthetic composition. Even though the seasons changed, and the moments were gone, and we were never literally working on the same poem at the same time, when either of us was working on a poem, we were with the other in the imagined perspective and space generated by the poem.

As the poems gained layers through this process, so did our friendship. Some of the tensions in my transition to middle aged and middle class life became resolved. Through collaborative poetry I found a way to develop new facets to an old friendship in spite of geography and other responsibilities. I was able to express my need for individual and intellectual activity while being a family man. I found a balance between the need to work on a career and the need to work on myself (in nature and as a member of numerous levels of community). Other tensions proved intractable. The act of objectification brought these conundrums into a psychological space of antithetical harmony. Poetry, on its own, cannot solve the plethora of global environmental problems or the complex dynamics between society, capitalism, and the manifold of needs of an individual for a fulfilling life. However, the process of writing brought these tensions together on a plane that generated a transcendent perspective, and thus allowed me to hold them without a nagging sense of stress and anxiety. The writing better enabled me to comprehend a practical path of action. So, while I still find it “difficult/ to locate meaning,” I think that the apotheosis of beauty that arises through the search leads to a better life.  I hope that reading these poems, and thinking about them, may do the same for you.

Timothy Johnson is a writer, deep reader, and spends his career teaching high school English in the north of Boston. He loves doing stuff outside with his big family of four children and wife, Amber Ellis, and loves hiking and getting lost out in the woods. He is currently working on a new collection of essays.

Matthew Gray writes whenever he can manage it while chasing his toddler around in Colorado. He teaches and leads and is of service to his community in many ways. In his spare time, he likes running ultra marathons and hiking in the wilderness.

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