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Review: The Book of Belongings, by Brian Johnstone

Stephen Lackaye, Edinburgh Review, Autumn 2010

As someone who reads books of poetry as often as he's able, for me Brian Johnstone's The Book of Belongings came as a revelation. These poems are full of technical refinement, fascinating perspectives and provocative expressions. What one notices almost immediately is the control exhibited in these poems, the feeling that they are not spontaneous and unformed nor that they draw undue attention to the artifice of their creation. They are quietly, but markedly well-made things. Within the first few pages this becomes apparent, whether in the seemingly incidental pervasion of iambs, the complicated, embedded sound system of a poem like Bringing Home the Saints, or in the carefully measured lines and stanzas of Incendiary. Each stanza, in this poem and others, manages to act as a distinct unit of the poem's narrative process. There is not, as is often the case in contemporary poetry, the feeling that the stanza shapes are arbitrarily assigned. As a result of this shaping - of line, of stanza, of the poem as a whole - Johnstone has a firm hand on the pace and tone of his entire collection.

Here, too, The Book of Belongings impresses: as a series (or several series) of poems, the collection feels crafted, starting with investigations of things lost or in dereliction; objects and places left behind. The Book of Belongings progresses through poems that explore comprehension, making attempts to decode history and language alike; to define space (temporal and geographical) through mapping and memory. In these poems, Johnstone examines the impetuses of recollection in delightful ways. It is perhaps not surprising to find a poem titled Amber, but though the symbol itself is not unexpected, the opening metaphor is refreshing:

This stuff could be the memory of time,
the sleep it rubbed out of its eyes
to catch a flake of skin, an eyelash
hundreds of millennia ago.

Script goes in a more macabre direction, conflating a young boy's physical apprehension of small animals with his apprehension of knowledge.

Ultimately, Johnstone shows us, comprehension cannot lead us to a blithe, unnuanced view of the world. This is not to say that The Book of Belongings ends dismally, but it achieves what might be called a realistically informed outlook. Johnstone surprises by closing with the poem that lends its title to the book. Against our likely preconceptions, the Book within the poem does not catalogue what is held, but what was. One gets the sense that the whole collection has been consciously leading us to this point, and I am wholly convinced. It's powerfully done, a book to read end-to-end.