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Review: The Book of Belongings, by Brian Johnstone

Edmund Prestwich, The Manchester Review

The Book of Belongings contrasts sharply with Yelp in style, sensibility and world - as one might guess from the two titles alone. A dominant theme is loss. The language is restrained, even subdued, practising a taut economy that gives every word weight, and the poems are carefully considered and shaped, both as metrical and stanzaic structures and as fields of force, in which in which every word plays a precisely calculated part. This gives all the most successful poems great power and sharpness of focus, together with a strong sense that what you are reading is not a momentary impulse, however illuminating, but the fruit of distilled meditation, with a weight of experience and thought behind it.

The economy and integration of the poems makes it difficult to illustrate their qualities by quotation. One of the most impressive, to my mind, is the title poem, in which Johnstone imagines a Bosnian survivor looking through a Red Cross album showing items found with the dead in mass graves, to see if she can identify any of her own relatives. This, the last poem, is both a natural culmination of the whole volume, and one that quietly but profoundly modifies and deepens its perspectives. It typifies the procedure of many others, in which lost lives are evoked by the objects or other traces that survive them. As you start to read it, it seems a simple continuation of these others, until the identity of the speaker gradually sinks in. As in many of the poems, the subtlety and precision with which it is orchestrated and the restraint of the language suggest the tact with which the poet approaches other people's lives and emotions, and the dignity with which he invests them. It seems to me a gesture of very beautiful modesty, and a manifestation of a beautiful sense of human proportion, that Johnstone has made this poem his climax. As title poem it speaks for the whole collection with its elegiac meditations on belongings that have become relics, and therefore its meditation on the transience of possession. It is the epitome of loss. At the same time, because the losses it evokes are those caused by a traumatic and appalling war, we are tacitly asked to reflect on how much worse such violent losses are than those that have been meditated on elsewhere in the book. Johnstone shows himself a strong finisher in poem after poem, but nowhere more so than here.