Infinity Network by Jim Johnstone (Signal Editions, 2022)

“A critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others…I may or may not like [it], but it’s essential that I care about it.”

A.O. Scott Better Living Through Criticism

Recently, I’ve been struggling somewhat to write poetry reviews and, in several cases, I decided not to write them at all. When I was less experienced in the art of the review I would have written them anyway, pointing out tritenesses, flaccid diction, lax form or just how dull I found many of the pieces. The above quotation however finally summed up what is required, of me, to do a book justice – I must care about it – feel its project, intent, vision is worthwhile – not to praise it, per se, but so I have the engaged clarity to assess its aims effectively and fairly. If I feel like tossing the book across the room or falling into a snooze, I’m not going to review it. This book simply isn’t for me. Criticism is designed, at its finest, to deepen understanding, enlarge the vocabulary of perception, widen available sensitivities, not for either outright gush or total condemnation.

That said, Jim Johnstone’s Infinity Network is (phew), reviewable! This collection (the third book in his trilogy of cultural examinations – the prior two being Dog Ear (2014) and The Chemical Life (2017) all of which have exquisite covers, small formats and delightful fonts) is a visual joy to read. First line of fire in not pissing off a reviewer 😉 Johnstone also has an ear, paramount criteria for this critic. Even if the content doesn’t always compel me, an attention to sound can lift any poem into the excitement of its light. As he remarks in a 2015 interview: “Poetry is more akin to song than conversation.” He also notes in this interview how vital it is not to get stuck in one mode of writing either, so that each manuscript, regardless of how well the prior book succeeded, locates its own renewed way of elaborating its subject matters, forms and musics. This is the kind of essential freedom all artists need to embrace in order to continue to grow fully in their craft.

I like triptyches. John Pass and his trio of texts that explore classical and ecological materials or even Cormac McCarthy’s bleak and stirring Border Trilogy come to mind. With this third instantiation of inquiry, Johnstone zags into how identity is compromised, manifested, defeated by our age of surveillance, social media, the selfie and other zones of erosion. The most powerful pieces in this slender collection hold the potency of repetition of phrases and auralities. Trompe L’Oeil repeats, “The problem is,” its jagged lines excavating various contrived subject positions as ordained by virtuality and how to flee that bind with the restitution of, “The problem is/us,/not them,” while The Outrage Industry reiterates the notion of “work around” as an improbable negotiation and Pornography pummels the word “not” into the page until porn, “not the rub, the shame,/the swell” is revealed as “hemorrhage.”

Johnstone’s adeptness with form is highlighted in the three eight-line stanzas of Speaking Distances where Al Purdy’s buff statue is derided as a bird flies “into outlines of larger birds” pasted, again with futility, on windows, a failed mimesis, as well as in the final longer piece The Ouroboros (Reprise) that recollects the breath-lines of Jorie Graham and works most sharply with assonance and consonance (“infusing a wound,” or “the paint,/ the pavement”) and subtle, weird rhymes (“indomethacin…pigeons”) to interrogate the brutality of walls, divisions, constraints. Even in a seemingly simple poem such as Two Sleep Through, alliteration, punchy enjambments and consonantal pairings (“balloons…stills…spill”) texture the energy, recollecting Ted Hughes’ thought fox and exploding into our contemporary malaise of palimpsested detachments.

In the same interview, Johnstone comments that he thinks poetry in its spare, focused attentions is an “empathetic art form.” Infinity Network is a definite yes to empathy, but a necessarily complex one.


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