I met my friend Ken Johnson six or seven years ago at Gallery 57 where he had a one-artist show of his painting and poetry of his experience as a Vietnam War veteran. That night a group of us went out after the show to talk about poetry and art. He told me that one of the points of the show was to help him recover memories that were lost due to the PTSD following his combat experience. He told me about many of the other moments of darkness that he’d faced as a firefighter, a psychologist, and a teacher. He told me that he’d been a second responder as a clinical trauma psychotherapist at 9/11, uprisings in Los Angeles, earthquakes, and large fires. He told me that I was possibly suffering from secondary trauma as an educator myself and explained the process, and he explained how to find hope using art, writing, and meditation. In other words, that conversation, like so many conversations that I have had with him, was filled with the intensity and emotional sensitivity that seems so much a part of who he is as a person. When his latest poetry collection Fireflies Against Darkness came out, I wanted to talk to him about it, and given that his job requires him to enter traumatic situations again and again, how he does find these bits of magical light in a profession that required him to engage in darkness. This, of course, is the central metaphor of the collection.
Because of COVID, we didn’t want to meet indoors, so instead we met on the Claremont College campus at the permanent installation of James Turrell’s Skyspace. Skyspace is in an outdoor courtyard that is covered by a metal canopy with a square cut out of the center. At dawn and dusk, different colored lights are projected onto the canopy, changing the way we see not only the canopy, but also what lies behind it, clouds, space, and light. Thus, Turrell reframes the way that we see the sky. One moment it appears purple because of the contrast to his lit-up canopy and the next moment it might seem red, orange, or black, and our relationship with what we think of as fixed and permanent, the sky, evolves.
It seemed right meeting there because Ken’s book works like that as well. It reframes the way that we see what often seems fixed in our lives. The trauma that we drag with us often feels hopeless, and I don’t suppose that we can ever leave it behind or even should leave it behind. But what Ken shows us here is that while there is pain, there is pleasure, happiness, and even joy, too. He uses the story of Clemency Burton-Hill, the British broadcaster who suffered a stroke in 2020, to give us an example of how healing is possible:
It wasn’t the mathematical purity that drew Clemency Burton-Hill back to Bach, as she fought back from her debilitating stroke. Relearning to speak, to sit up and swallow and reach for things, while barely clinging to life itself, she listened to Bach. Clemency rediscovered what Pablo Casals and Albert Schweitzer had said, and what she herself had written the year before about Bach’s healing magic. At first she couldn’t listen because Bach’s emotionality and depth was too much. Then she gradually began to reclaim the Bach within her. She finally began to play. Every day she would begin to feel her molecules start to sing (21).
This poem and poems like them are not banal cliches about how everything is going to be better with determination and hope. After all, the metaphor is fireflies against the darkness. This is about looking to find those tiny flickers and work toward joy through them. Bach is not a panacea. His work is something that can make life better, something to focus on rather than all that is wrong with this world. It is a way of reframing what seems permanent the way that Turrell does as you sit under that canopy in the lowering light of evening.
There is something about Skyspace that silences people. Sitting there, I had questions for Ken, but they all ran away as we saw the space above us define and redefine itself again and again. I thought about those things inside of me that seemed fixed, that seemed as if there was only one way to look at them. I thought about the work that Ken must have done in his life to be able to contextualize what he had been through. In “Vincent’s Story,” he uses van Gogh, another person who recontextualized the world, to help us grasp how to move forward in our lives after pain, emotional or otherwise:
After the tangle he’d made of his life, van Gogh retreated. From his self-quarantine in the asylum in St. Remy, he would rise on sleepless moonlit nights and peer out his window toward the mountains to the south. He’d look at the cypress trees stretching upward, how they reached toward the moon and sky beyond. The night was alive and full of stars. Vincent reached for his pipe and brushes. (25)
Again, Ken shows us how we can find hope through art, experienced or created. He does not bother to psychoanalyze van Gogh. Rather he shows us those moments when he himself was able to find purpose and meaning. That’s what we need and what his book gives to us.
There is something inside of Ken’s poetry that cannot be spoken, and it has to do with the way you are being changed. It is like Turrell’s work; it must be experienced to be understood, and it changes you if you open yourself up to it. Ken and I stopped talking after a while, and we just watched the light change, and we experienced what Turrell was showing us, that there are true things in this universe, stable things, but there are many ways to see and experience those things if we simply choose our point of views.