The poems in Devin Johnston's Traveler cross great distances, from the Red Hills of Kansas to the Rough Bounds of the Scottish Highlands, following weather patterns, bird migrations, and ocean voyages. Less literally, these poems move through translations and protean transformations. Their subjects are often next to nothing in several senses: cloud shadows racing across a valley before dusk, the predawn expectation of a child's birth, or the static-electric charge of clothing fabric. Throughout, Johnston offers vivid glimpses of the phenomenal world: One finds a keen attention to sound in the patterning of subtle rhymes and rhythms, demonstrating care and precision with line and pause.
"Devin Johnston's Traveler is, as its title implies, a book about passing through states. So we have poems about birth, Marco Polo, journeys (as in the title poem), the etymological variants of 'dragonfly,' bird migrations, house wreckers and (why not?) Scotland. Johnston is a formal master who can handle some of poetry's trickiest structures—the two beat lines in 'Expecting,' for instance—with such ease that you hardly even notice his dexterity. Much of the work here has a dry, distanced tone that may seem odd to readers accustomed to thinking of poetry as a fountain of feeling. But Johnston's writing suggests that it would be better to imagine poems as gemstones—and that we should value the perfection of the cut, not the gaudiness of the material. Traveler's considerable ambition can be seen in the ways each piece quietly, even tenderly tests the barriers it assembles; as Johnston puts it, 'I like the sort of track that passes / out of English altogether.'"—David Orr, NPR
"This lovely book begins with a survey of land traversed then turns deftly toward the more mysterious journey of a child's birth and early years. A hospital monitor 'illuminates / the rugged range / of your estate, from deep crevasse / to trackless slopes.' Johnston's images and short lines might tempt some to label him a minimalist, but that would belie the richness of these poems' textures, their cunning rhymes and meters: 'across an ocean, / skimming foamy paragraphs of Ossian.' No matter where his gaze travels, Johnston evokes the world with the wonder it—and his book—deserves."—Dave Lucas, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
"This marvelous collection illuminates the secrets of ancient and modern poetry. The poems enchant, enthrall, and draw one forward with confident joy. They reinvent a great inheritance. If influence is infusion, then Traveler is infused with deep literary learning, romantic love, and rediscoveries of the natural world."—Fanny Howe
"A lyric poet of the first intensity is, as an old hillbilly acquaintance of mine used to put it, 'rare as blue wool and the grace of God.' And one with the eye of Linnaeus, along with uncommon intelligence and breadth of interest—well, that's nothing short of an event. In Devin Johnston's poetry every syllable is alive; the vowels and consonants combine to make a distinctive, lovely, austere music; his line is tensile, masterfully controlled. As Dante instructs, he 'keeps only the best words.'"—August Kleinzahler
"Devin Johnston takes you with him when he goes down Route M or ambles along the shores of Iona, the sacred island. His anecdotal veneer is studded with a luxurious lexicon . . . Capturing the excitement of new places, Johnston paradoxically stirs up a sense of ease and belonging . . . Johnston pushes sound like few contemporary writers can or care to, producing tensile intensity in columns of lines that scan beautifully . . . Ultimately, Traveler is about life's passages and the quest for identity and community. This gifted wordsmith offers us a precious passport."—Jeffrey Cyphers Wright, The Brooklyn Rail
"Johnston writes in the long shadow of William Carlos Williams' dictum, 'no ideas but in things,' but Johnston proves words are things. He is not a dictionary poet, but readers will find that visits to the dictionary are rewarded. The title poem, about the migration of a Blackburnian warbler, includes 'pinnate leaves.' Pinnate means feather-shaped. So the coincidence of the bird arriving in Johnston's black walnut tree becomes consequential, an excess of meaning unearthed like a fossil from the sediments of English. Even if his subjects are prosaic, Johnston is not a poet of the quotidian: his closely observed poems find meaning at these nerve-endings of word and world. "Iona," the longest poem in the book, includes many uncommon words, as if new geography and geology opened new leaves of fine print. He is one of the finest craftsmen of verse we have."—Michael Autrey, Booklist (starred)