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Review: The Book of Belongings, by Brian Johnstone

A C Clarke, Markings, 2010

Regulars at the StAnza poetry festival will be familiar with the genial figure of Brian Johnstone, its outgoing Director. Not all will know he himself is a poet of considerable distinction. Until I had the pleasure of sharing a reading with him I confess I was unaware of his poetry - my loss.

This latest collection ends with the title poem: the Book of Belongings is an album with photographs of the belongings 'of those found dead' in mass graves during the Bosnian conflict. If this sounds like a grim subject it is handled with the restrained delicacy characteristic of all these poems, which chart themes of loss and survival in taut rhythms and language of remarkable exactness.

There is a tension in these poems between the tentative - crumbs, flakes, wisps - and a constant undertow of violence. This is a world in which a bundle of bones testifies to human sacrifice, a boot dislodged from a chimney evokes a child chimney-sweep desperately scrambling Into the stack, his knuckles raw. A deep pleasure is the observation of detail. Past fires have burned shadow / black into the grates that stamped each wall / with absence (Gable); an uneven table-top reveals a drift of salt, the crystals poised / against the bread crumbs, flakes of rind / that war for space upon this surface (Snagged).

This unerring truth to everyday experience beguiles but is never the heart of the poem. Gable catalogues lost possessions to conjure up the image of the neighbours in to borrow tea, just / floating there; Snagged uses the table top as a way of talking about our search for some deeper, richer grain. In Trace the seemingly casual detail of a duvet, rolled up on the floor opens out into a meditation on a father's death and the feel of his absence, the impress / of a word in pencil someone's accidentally erased. Occasionally I felt that the subject of a poem was being pressed into weightier meaning than it deserved - the brilliantly truthful evocation of making fire in Incendiary declines into the mundanity of a garden flame-thrower, a crow nailed to a fence becomes a rather forced image of Christ crucified.

But the poems are for the most part finely poised, not a word out of place. Johnstone's favoured three-line stanza is a precision instrument. He uses other verseforms too but even where he seems to break out into freer rhythms, as in A Condition of The Skin, the same tight control is kept. These poems impose a quiet attention, reward careful reading. Low key, they are highly charged.