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Review: The Book of Belongings, by Brian Johnstone

Jon Miller, Northwords Now, Issue 13, August 2009

The sense of absence inhabiting what remains left lying around us is what permeates this latest collection by Brian Johnstone. Johnstone has been involved with various aspects of the poetry world for some considerable time, perhaps most significantly as the director of the renowned StAnza poetry festival.

The choice of cover image for the collection is apt: The Archeology of Childhood by Will Maclean, a piece which itself deals with that which has been lost and yet remains in images which resonate deep in the cultural and personal subconscious, a history and geology of remembering. For Johnstone, archeology is not just found in the ruins of churches or old civilizations but in the everyday objects that lie around us. Consequently, poems meditate on old photographs, the gable end of tenement blocks (grates that stamped each wall / with absence), jars, maps, the surface of a table and take them as instances of loss, memory, time : how we are surrounded by sudden plummetings through time by the objects, people and places around us.

Often his poems come from a calm meditation on the tenuousness of surfaces and the vacancy and displacement that unsettles us when we contemplate them. In Snagged - a poem about the everyday act of clearing the dinner table - the narrator looks through all the surfaces we polish, searching for / our faces, for some deeper richer grain. In poems such as Trace - about the death of his father, where the poet feels only absence, the impress / of a word in pencil someone's accidentally erased - names are slowly elided by time, the slow erasure of the personal. This image is picked up again in Place of Graves where an émigré returning home reads her family's name on the grave. She covers it in snow so that It reads again, a white script / ghosted by her fingers into stone. This sense of the past's faint presence on the present runs throughout this collection as Johnstone examines these ideas in a variety of guises and voices.

Significantly placed towards the end of the collection are poems such as Contours of the Mind, The Archeology of Mesa-America and The Experiments of Dr Beaurieux. These find his subjects attempting to investigate in the early days of a crude medical science or through mere curiosity, the secrets of being human, laying bare the contents of our heads to discover the mysteries, the raw material that forms our contemplations and which might reveal to us some answer, which like the past, is so close: the hollow of his skull, sliced through / we see, to taste the substance of his thought; or rubber paste poured into every crevice of the skull... as if to find a trace of final thoughts.

Notably, there are no answers - Something has left - and we are left with vacancy and silence. Johnstone frequently takes us to the rim of this silence and lets us peer in, reach, in our hand only for it to return empty. This is not a pessimistic collection however - the humanity implicit in the poems' voices resonates strongly throughout the collection.

These are well-crafted lyrics from an assured poet; the voice compassionate, human and humane, themes intriguing and powerful. Some of the weaker poems, however, run merely on the engine of their own metaphor; elsewhere the poems might have been pushed beyond evocation and into a harder truth or revelation. But this is to nit-pick - these are confident poems that can be returned to repeatedly to further unearth and re-discover their inner archeology, their resonance and pleasures.