- Home and Exile
J. Chester Johnson
St. Johann Press
278 Pages; Print, $24.50
Righteousness like a mighty stream.
Chester Johnson is not an easily quotable, nor lyric poet. Small sections of his verse might be heard as rhythmic prose, albeit with idiosyncratic line breaks. Yet his "Saint Paul's Chapel" is one of the most widely distributed, lauded, and translated poems of the current century. As they say in my home borough, The Bronx, what's up with that?
Johnson has an interesting history. He was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and lived in a small southeastern Arkansas town on the Mississippi River Delta. He came of age in the deep, segregated South. In New York City, he married; and he formed a financial advisory firm that worked on debt management for states, large local governments, and public authorities. He also served as Deputy Assistant US Treasury Secretary in the Carter Administration. His office was very close to the pre-9/11 World Trade Center.
The writer in the right place at the right time.
Or as he puts it in a video interview, recorded at the University of Arkansas Archives, in the Fall of 2010:
My poem, "St. Paul's Chapel," is on the memento card that's used at the chapel for all the thousands and—thirty thousand a week, who come through there. . . Our offices—my wife and I, our business offices were about two hundred yards from the points of contact. Our offices were located on Wall Street on September 11, 2001. . . And at that point, we remembered that we had dust masks that we'd had—we had acquired for cleanup day. We never got around to it, so we had dust masks. You just can't imagine all the debris that was everywhere, and so we put the dust masks on, and we walked down the sixteen flights of stairs and walked into just, you know, there were six to nine inches of pulverized stuff—that we had to walk through and others were leaving their buildings at that time, too. . . When George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States in New York City, the Congress, and part of the cabinet, all came up to St. Paul's Chapel, and they worshiped there.
Which brings us to Now and Then, a collection of longer pieces that deal with race, identity, politics, place, religion, and destiny.
Race-mixing is the subject of "The Mixer," a tale of love and woe, written in ten syllable lines with occasional rhyme, the story told in a matter-of-fact monotone. It is set in the rural South.
They called him The Mixer, especially / as babies started to come in bunches / with skin playfully a sweet meek color / of tan; skin wrinkled of nature enough; / and blended for new grace. Did the babies / faster after rough machines wouldn't / quit and then Bill and Lucy left the fields? / they called him The Mixer when Lucy went / to apply quicker yields from welfare. They / called him The Mixer on the sleeping street.
When Johnson came north so did his poetry. January 12, 1967 describes New York City's rebellion/riots of that momentous year. The tone and diction are Latinate verbs, Miltonic nouns.
. . . Black and near-black boys pee in wintry street / Water and try to provoke fireplugs to lave away / presumptive grime. An impassive woman, who was / Once guaranteed a singular arrival, stands / At a kitchen. They came on faith. The exodus / Of blacks from a guilt-wearied South seduced the City / Into those costly dangers of the self-righteous—/ A city's ambition, sealed in its ghettos. / More souls displaced here from among placid, quixotic / towns and lands of the borne Southern; more countless / Multitudes retained slavish behind austere / Windows, inspire a language, a propagation / Of detachment. Outside this safe, fissured / Glass, smoke drifts by the slow train. Not raging, mostly / Coiling like a corpulent pile of cloth on fire; / A pall, burning clumsily, thinner than wood ablaze–/ Trailed by dense smoldering of...