It commences on a festive note – a Summer Christmas, with plum trees and gum trees, wild honeysuckle and ‘the roar of the midday sun’. It is sentimental and (can one say it, in this day?) has a feminine sensibility. It is part celebration, part elegy for a lost father. It is poetry that grabs the nose as much as it does the eyes and the ears. Verbal potpourri – atmospheric and sensual.
a fisherman’s red cap back to front
beside the sea, a red truck stuck
in a tree trunk, the sun’s red shadow
tilting, remembering black dahlias…’
house there were curtains of silence. Around
the cottage, the hills rattled and sang, mound
and hummock of gorse seed popping in their ears…’
Then there are poems about travels - taking us from Moroccan hotels, Autumn in Provence through to Singapore. Not such a fan of hearing the travelogues of more intrepid others, I initially skimmed over this section. On a second read, however, I came to reluctantly enjoy those more exotic images.
‘’Tis better to have loved and lost’ quoth that inimitable bard, Alfred Lord Tennyson. It feels like Andrew Johnston is not so sure.
Fits and Starts is a triptych which deals in losses. It peels, for us, forbidden fruit – then snatches them away. The collection kicks off with a poem where omniscience is granted (by an otorhinolaryngologist – who better to have omniscience at his discretion), and then extinguished. The all-knowing patient says ‘suddenly I understood/ history, weather, time’ but is left ‘hankering, perplexed, / abandoned again’. It is like Plato’s Cave, backwards. And was the ephemeral revelation worth the while? Johnston leaves us wondering.
There are other losses too. Lost family, lost counties, stories that recede into myth. ‘Afghanistan’ is an elegy to a nation in tatters:
‘Someone will come for Afghanistan
gate blown through a gate,
shards that were only yesterday.’
turn into a blizzard. My head
filled with rain.
I hunched my way down the mountain’
She didn’t know what any of it meant’.