In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
The poems in Devin Johnston’s collection Dragons are lyric wonders, drawing the amazing from the commonplace.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
“[Dragons] explores the present and past with effortless rhyme and gentle music . . . These poems are well wrought and moving, each filled with a ‘mild expectancy’ that connects the mundane with the awe that gives life meaning.”
In his own words, here is Devin Johnston’s Book Notes music playlist for his poetry collection Dragons:
“Strange Things Happening Every Day” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
My poems often try to render the ordinary strange, and the strange ordinary. The book begins with a total solar eclipse, with friends gathering for the spectacle: “By noon we could discern their massive coils / emerging from a bale of cloud, / scales scattering crescent dapples / through walnut fronds, / the light polarized, each leaf tip in focus” (“Dragons”). It’s a sort of quiet rehearsal for apocalypse, ceremonial, but not quite as celebratory as that of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
“Flight of the Pelican” by Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight
This is a moody song, deep and dark. It seems a fitting accompaniment to poems such as “Mist” and “Monody,” poems of fog and interiority, without much horizon. These poems circle around the question of home and what it means to have one, as does the book as a whole. It may be worth noting that the pelican is a figure of self-sacrifice and caring, in several traditions (apparently, Lal Waterson was a heraldic artist when she was young).
“Dark Eyes” by Dawn Landes and Bonnie “Prince” Billy
In “After Wyatt,” I was thinking about Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem “They flee from me,” with its intimate, rare instance of giving voice to the loved one: “Dear heart, how like you this?” My poem is a loose reworking of Wyatt’s poem, with the ending less bitter and more desolate: “She lingered in my consciousness / when I awoke, a bit confused / to find her gone, the place a mess / and emptiness come home to roost.” The look back on lost love echoes through a thousand songs and poems, including Dylan’s “Dark Eyes”: “Oh, time is short and the days are sweet, / and passion rules the arrow that flies; / A million faces at my feet, / but all I see are dark eyes.” Did the French girl die, struck by a drunk driver? It’s not entirely clear, but her piercing glance remains. Dawn and Bonnie sing it sweetly!
I thought of including “Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez instead, for the ghost of an old love mumbling on the other end of the telephone line, from “a booth in the Midwest.” But the version of that song I like best is not that of Baez, but unrecorded: my friend, the Australian folksinger and poet Kate Fagan, sang it at the end of a pier on the Hawkesbury River, at sunset.
“Not Dark Yet” by Bob Dylan
“Shadows are falling, and I’ve been here all day” could be me, still at my desk on a given winter afternoon. “Last Song” is my version of Be·m degra de chanter tener by Guiraut Riquier, the last of the Occitan Troubadours. Along with preserving the rhymes, I tried to bring out the bleak humor and blues of the poem, with Dylan’s voice in mind (and Leonard Cohen too): “My fire dwindled long ago. / I rake the askes, fitting muse / for crafting esoteric blues / from scraps of what I feel and know.”
“St. Louis Blues” by Bessie Smith
This song was written by W. C. Handy in 1914, six years after my current home was built on the south side of St. Louis. Living in this city, it’s hard not to have the song, with its ragtime syncopations, humming in your head. The opening line, “I hate to see that evening sun go down,” probably led to “an avenue without renewal / on which the evening sun goes down,” in “New France,” an ode to St. Louis. Come to think of it, “St. Louis Blues” sketches out a significant portion of my book’s geography, from Cairo up through southern Illinois. Even the song’s mysterious image of “a heart like a rock cast in the sea” resonates with “Far from the sea, / far from its whip and precipitous glare, / a floodplain streaked with rills / condenses the leaden light” (“Chester, Illinois”).
“Wildwood Flower” by the Carter Family
This song has become a folk song, but the text seems to come from a Victorian poem, with its antiquated turns of phrase and language of flowers. I’ve known it all my life, and it often circulates in my head unprompted. My poem “Morning Glory” enters a long tradition of songs and poems about flowers, maybe at the weedy end. The poem concludes: “Tough and tissue soft, loose blossoms / open for a while to sense, / whatever slant of daylight comes, / the close to cold in a slow wince.”
“Serenade for a Poodle” by Slim Gaillard and His Trio
I undertook “The Leash” at the request of my child Clyde, who wanted me to write a text about our dog Edie that he would illustrate. His interest in the project waned as mine grew. “Serenade for a Poodle,” a ridiculous and delightful novelty song with a superb and offhand guitar solo, seems the obvious soundtrack to my ebullient rhyming poem. A little annoying? Sure! But I hope readers keep in mind Slam Stewart’s barking sounds when they get to my lines, “My fringe and ears recall a legal wig / that rides atop a spinning whirligig.” Slim Gaillard was quite a character, deserving of a good biography.
“The Grey Funnel Line” by Maddie Prior and June Tabor
In 2019, I brought the musicians Joan Shelley and Nathan Salsburg into ERDCC, a men’s prison in Missouri where I host regular events. Joan performed a beautiful, unaccompanied version of Cyril Tawney’s “The Grey Funnel Line,” about a sailor in the British Royal Navy. I like this version of the song, but in my head I hear Joan’s version. Of course, prisons resemble ships, which added an unexpected and moving dimension to the lyrics: “I’ll pass the time like some machine / Until blue waters turn into green. / Then I’ll dance on down that walk ashore / And sail the Grey Funnel Line no more.” In “Beulah Land,” I was trying to get down a friend’s account of release from prison, the equivalent of stepping on solid ground for a sailor, after years at sea.
“The Last Toast” by Iris DeMent
This song is one of DeMent’s beautiful reworkings of Anna Akhmatova’s poems as country songs: “I drink to the house already destroyed, / To my whole life too awful to tell.” When I was translating Horace’s Ode I.xi, his carpe diem, it occurred to me that the poem might be cast as a sort of desperate New Year’s toast: “Genetics, habit, accident— / don’t ask, and try to be content / to let the whitecaps do their worst / on this December thirty-first.”
“If I Could Only Fly” by Merle Haggard
Haggard’s rendition of this Blaze Foley song is bleak and beautiful, with his characteristic nuance of intonation and phrasing. I always think of his singing as a model for creating space and intimacy. My poem “Lingering in Alabama” has a similar grounded quality, a song of loneliness and distance. Truly, “I wish they all could make you smile.”
On the liner notes to A Portrait of Merle Haggard, K. Vincent connects Haggard’s name (via Webster’s Dictionary) with a wild hawk, or one captured as an adult. Haggard’s songs are often a complex negotiation between captivity and flight.
“Masanga” by Jean Bosco Mwenda
In the 1950s, Mwenda made famous the Congolese fingerstyle of guitar playing that emerged from towns and mining camps of the Copperbelt of the Katanga region. Apparently, the title refers to beer (or more likely, palm wine) in Lingala. A few sources have it as a crossroads or meeting place. Mwenda recorded the song as an instrumental (for solo guitar), as well as a version with him singing. The Swahili lyrics translate in part: “If you happen to be going by the town of Jadotville, go see Bosco . . . tell him to go home to bed.” My poem “Bière de Garde” begins: “How good it is, to sip a beer / outdoors, with winter drawing near, / above the wreckage of a meal.” I had in mind a beer made from chanterelles by Scratch Brewery in Ava, Illinois. I recommend a visit, if you are ever passing that way.
“Anything Could Happen” by The Clean
The book ends in New Zealand, where I traveled in 2018. I had this song in my head while wandering the streets of Wellington, and on the cold, windy ferry across the Cook Strait, as I watched a mollymawk take off across the water. The Clean were from Dunedin, on the South Island. I put this song on again after I heard that Hamish Kilgour died, last December. I can’t pretend it has anything to do with my book, but I like it. Perhaps it’s the secular echo of “Strange Things Happening Every Day.”
Born in 1970, Devin Johnston spent his childhood in North Carolina. He is the author of six previous books of poetry and two books of prose, including Creaturely and Other Essays. He works for Flood Editions, an independent publishing house, and teaches at Saint Louis University, in Missouri, where he lives.