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Review: Sol, by Andrew Johnston

Helen Dennis, The Warwick Review Vol.11 No.4, December 2008

Turning to Andrew Johnston's Sol, one finds a sense of a specific and diverse earthly world, which the poet works to make sense of through emotion, through sustained wit and humour, through analysis and commentary, and through a nuanced and sympathetic rebuttal of earlier heavenly philosophies and religions, whether those be the beliefs of the Cathars or of his deceased father. The volume has an aesthetically pleasing thematic and conceptual design, announced in the first poem, Sol:

Solitude, solace, consolation -
sun in its onlyness

shines on us here,
cups the heart in a deep blue bowl.

The poet eschews religious dogma, while alluding to the consolation of the Cathars, and the solace of conventional religious belief. The image of the sun recurs throughout the volume, and also transforms into the post-modern 'Roundabout' and the elegiac sunflower. Johnston's range is impressive and his poetic craft is excellent. I found myself laughing out loud in recognition at the French hypermarket experience, amongst other accurate pinpointings of the absurdity of contemporary civilisation. But I was also deeply moved by the second section of the volume, which contains a sustained elegy for his father: The Sunflower / for Stuart Johnston, 1931 - 2004. In this poem the sunflower is used intricately to meditate on his father's beliefs and silences, on loss, and on the poet's own existential position, which flirts with agnosticism from desire rather than from conviction:

of wonder, flower of might: if I see thee
on the other side, when I am dead,
I'll know there is an other
side. Till then, while we have breath,
our burgeoning work is not done:
what we have been given is a rich, difficult day
that could go on without us, nevertheless, all day,
whistling a cryptic tune.

The Christian star is transmuted into a sunflower in a jar: there is no salvation, there is just a life of worldly tasks and then metonymically seeds rain from the sunflower. Poetic articulation is strong; it includes the appropriate use of the archaic thee to address his dead father. It sustains an enlightened resistance to the lures of false solace and consolation, making this elegy an important poem, where the merely personal is transformed into representative expression.

Equally personal is Les Baillessats / for Emile - the poet's sixteen-month-old son. Yet the poem moves through domestic detail and the particulars of family life, to consider the formation and function of human memory, and to reflect on the otherworldly religion of the Cathars. It expresses an alternative ontology that finds consolation in the immediate and in our continuity with the reptilian, avian and animal world, not in contradistinction f humans from all other beings that inhabit this globe. This is achieved in a poem of address that combines vivid recording of images and details with some erudition that is used in an allusive, light-touch fashion.

Johnston's depiction of Paris is more cosmopolitan and less obvious (than Smither's), is more playful and has an eye for specific absurdities, as in Made in Paris:

Paris goes to the movies to see Paris:
the golden zones, a Porsche on the cobbles,

a certain idea containing all others
while 'Made in Paris',

made in China,
gleams in the rain behind the scenes?

He can comment through word play, through found poetry, and through other types of poetic allusion, on the absurdities of twenty-first century global virtual-reality. He also expresses more lyrical emotions in relation to the specificities of family history and family life. His volume as a whole leaves the reader with a diorama of impressions: even the simple lyric utterance of a husband solicitous for his pregnant wife takes place in an arena of hyper-reality, which, like it or not, even poets inhabit these days.