Review/Comments about Seeds of Tolerance
by James Tracy

Seeds of Tolerance

 

"What distinguishes these poems is an oddly distanced yet precise diction, and the way they are so carefully pared down to their raw essentials.... Mr. Johnston also has as wildly imaginative regard for the world of objective reality that enables him to uncover a wonderfully surprising quirkiness in things, driven by an angle of vision unique to our recent American poetry."

Bruce Weigl, Poet,
Translator; Professor Oberlin College

Stanzas of Social Significance
RK Johnston’s “Seeds of Tolerance” a plea for peace

Sing me a song with social significance, All other tunes are taboo.
I want a ditty with heat in it, appealing with feeling and meat in it.

-From the 1937 hit musical revue, "Pins and Needles," performed by rank and file members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Southern Californian poet, RK Johnston’s second collection “Seeds of Tolerance” delivers steady, soft, spoken meditations on the human condition in a time of war. Readers used to these themes delivered in a declamatory style of a poetry slam will just have to listen up: the message is powerful in a whisper as well as a scream.

Johnston’s poems walk the well-traveled terrain of a lone individual summoning a moral righteousness against a corrupt and decaying system. For a less engaging poet, this “voice in the wilderness” approach would probably sit on the border between self-righteousness and rhetoric. Yet through careful, sincere language Johnston takes residence at the corner of personal and political; making this a fine read.

A recurring theme here is disappointment-that of the ideals of a “democratic republic” contrasted against the dirty deeds done dirt cheap in service to empire. Half way through the book lies one of the most powerful poems of the collection, Once Again:

Tossed in an ill wind
by Jeffersonian masked tyrants,
citizens are confused by preempted acts
reaching for the New Order,
moistened by the blood of non-represented children.

Repeatedly, Johnston invokes the power and necessity of poetry to make sense of it all, as in the next stanza

The howl of Ginsberg is required now
to help trample the brown lashers
and sagebrush rebels,
and the WTO’s fraudulent legends
of immoral ethics and closed circuit TVs.

Occasionally, the metaphors get a little obscure and can confuse the meaning, rather than clarify. What exactly is a “brown lasher”? Taken in context of the entire book, one would think that Johnston would see no need to trample the rebels, whether they hide in sagebrushes or not. But moments of ambiguity do not ruin and otherwise excellent text.

The strength of this collection lies in the range of concerns it addresses. Poems such as the touching story of the creative process in “In My Case a Clarinet” as arts are one of the only areas of post-modern life that can be a refuge from the soul-crushing effects of life under empire. Good descriptions of nature and emotion punctuate the entire book.

Yet for all the looking outward, by far the finest poem is “My Talk With Dad” about searching for connection with his blue-collar, very conservative father. Johnston seamlessly makes a very political observation pulled from one of the most intimate parts of life, the relationship with one’s parents.

Freedom and self-determination he roared
but later I wondered whose freedom
and self-determination.
And yet, with courage his
sons and daughters
would take the challenge, blindly sometimes.

Johnston’s poetry does exactly what poetry should—sense life and the solutions to the problems of our age using full-barreled humanity. These stanzas do indeed carry much social significance.

James Tracy, Poet, Author and Art Critic
San Francisco

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