Book Review

Of the major Australian poets writing in the final decades of the twentieth century, Martin Johnston (1947-1990) bequeathed readers the slimmest oeuvre. Johnston’s reputation rests on his latter two collections and sixteen late lyrics, almost all of which are preserved in Beautiful Objects, a new selection of Johnston’s poetry.

Johnston’s work is characterized by erudition and formal variety, and owes a great deal to his childhood in London and on the Greek island of Hydra, where his literary parents were part of an expatriate community of artists. In the Elizabethan sonnet “Grief” a memorable opening line is repeated in the poem’s resolution. The effect bears a family resemblance to Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving, but Drowning” and the refrain has a similar force, suggesting circularity rather than closure:

Your paintings have been swapped for cheap engravings,
all trace of colour has been washed away,
it’s 3 a.m. although you know it’s day,
the bank’s engrossed your past and future savings.

      Love is the subject and love’s loss the text.
      Grief breaks the heart and yet the grief comes next.

The six “Cyclops Songs” are only sonnets in a contemporary sense; they are fourteen lines long, but the line lengths vary, none of them employ a rhyme scheme, and the volta, where they occur, are unconventional:

Good manners, sir, are an infernal machine,
and unjuicing your companions a problem in tact
“at the meeting of two value-systems.” If
you complain, so may I. Sir, I am an ogre
not a structural linguist. Even so I understood,
of course, your ridiculous alias, and I knew
perfectly well what “Noman is hurting me” meant,
but I played by the rules. So now my face feels like
looks like it too, I imagine.

Johnston uses the farcicality of Homer’s original to construct lyrics of anachronistic artifice: the Cyclops references Borges (“the blind librarian”), and that doyenne of modern etiquette, Emily Post. Since at least the time of Aeschylus, the morals of mythic heroes and the gods have been called into question. Odysseus is a liar and a self-serving pleasure-seeker, according to the Cyclops, who, in contrast, presents himself as a humble shepherd—though one sophisticated enough to understand that he lives “inside a pastoral / convention.” “Manners,” the Cyclops asserts, are not natural but “an infernal machine,” obscuring the content of character. To be “no man” is to be a beast, which is, of course, a highly ironic accusation coming from a Cyclops. The theme is developed in “The Recidivist,” which cites Odysseus’ philandering with Circe and Calypso (“Eight years of gluey fucking, interspersed / with the occasional peeved Please miss I wanna go home”) and his massacre of Penelope’s suitors: “gunning down / every younger better-looking bloke for miles around.”

Erudite poets often run the risk of engaging the mind at the expense of the senses. Johnston avoids this pitfall through compelling imagery, as in the tactile adjective “gluey,” the gustatory-tactile verb “unjuicing” and the image of pork-crackling, which we read as a compound noun but might hear also as a verb. Such arresting imagery is common: the smell of “caique-decks tar and goat and onions in milky dawn winds,” or the flock that “trails tapestries of brass bells”—an effect which is amplified by the Cyclops’ blindness, or “the lobster-scamper down seaweed-stinking alleys.” The sequence ends with a moving evocation of the Cyclops’ blindness and the fusion of the mythic creature with the author:

                    blind as I am, and a hostage
to your stiff-twined cordon of darkness, I
am still the one who writes the poems.

The reversal of a classic tale is a common trope but few have done it so adroitly as Johnston.

The title poem from Johnston’s final collection stretches an unlikely pairing into an improbable conceit:

The Typewriter, Considered as a Bee-Trap

is no doubt less than perfectly adapted
to its function, just as a bee-trap,
if there are such things, would hardly be the ideal contrivance
for the writing of semi-aleatory poems about
bee-traps and typewriters.

After questioning the device’s practicality, and so the conceit’s productiveness, the speaker reflects:

                 But there are times, like today,
when bees hover about the typewriter
more frequently than poems, surely knowing best
what best attracts them. And certainly at such times,
considered in terms of function and structure,
the contraption could be argued to be
anything but a typewriter,
the term “anything” being considered
as including, among all else, bee-traps,
softly multiplying in an ideal world.

The mechanical typewriter and the bee-trap—an object we can only guess at—contrast to the organic nature of the bee. The terms “function,” “structure,” and “ideal,” as well as the connectives, parody formal philosophy, but the language is also conversational: pub-talk after the seminar, rather than the lecture itself, and this chattiness works against the subject’s complexity. Phrases such as “is no doubt,” “would be hardly,” “surely knowing,” and “considered in terms of” build an increasingly unstable foundation for an argument that belies the confidence of the world-wise speaking voice. The adverb “softly,” because unexpected in the context of the mechanical, is particularly deft.

Three long sequences: “The Blood Aquarium,” “Microclimatology,” and “To the Innate Island,” are central to Johnston’s achievement. The latter, a twelve-part poem set in Greece, marries the sensual—”The blue gloom offers a lacquered screen, walnut and pear-wood”—with the surreal—“Slow moon-burnished fish carry the island away on their backs into night.” The meters vary between this sort of Poundian line, iambic pentameter, and irregular free verse. The imagery ranges from the bucolic to the visionary, via the Apocalypse of Saint John:

The sky was thick with hermits on eagleback,

Tiepolo thrones in the verdigris mist, pale blue and gold; far below
an ochre scarab crawled through the clouds’ carillon . . .

T.S. Eliot’s influence is present and there are traces of the New York School in the disjunctive shifts and self-referential tone, but these influences are rarely intrusive:

Moldavia, hill-villages of smoke and dung, into worlds of grass,
over snow and lava, paying out

the luminous eel of lies, shining over the horizons

from Mani to Vladivostok, littering the hoarfrost
with lives of saints, fiddlesticks and fake-amber worry beads;
“they move on dark nights in long lines”; “only
antinomian, not free”.)

                                          At sunset the tangerine chairs
paint the electroplating on the tape-recorder.

There is an easy commerce between word and image, thought and the senses in the first six-and-a-half lines. The music of place-names is beautifully intermingled with the elements. But the transition roughens the eloquence with a deliberately garish image and a fast shift in diction, setting a reader on a different track.

Johnston’s work is imbued with self-conscious nostalgia and the poem is, in some ways, an elegy for a childhood that was intimately bound up with the poet’s Greek identity. But he will not let himself get away with a simple sentimentalism, hence the “script” in the following passage:

This is the point where the script indicates: acceptance:
do you like it? do you row off
with your cracked oars and unstopped bunghole? do you
            look back?
                        The palaces have been swallowed: do you regret them?
The statues looted: will you put up new ones?
You never return to the place you started from.
Since then earth’s moved, and sun, and you find
blank untwinkling stars . . .

The speaker cannot reverse time, and the country of his childhood, like a lost civilization, is unrecoverable. The poem moves from stanza to stanza by its own associative logic as connections emerge and dissolve, but even in ignorance a reader is invariably beguiled by the glorious rush of the language.

Since his death, Johnston has been generously represented in Australian anthologies, in contrast to those compiled during his lifetime. Indeed, few of Johnston’s contemporaries can match his formal range, his erudition and luminous wit, or his gifts for phrase-making. This elegant new selection, which brings Johnston’s work back into print, is likely to gain him a new generation of admirers in Australia and beyond.

About the Reviewer

Aidan Coleman is the author of three collections of poetry, which have been shortlisted for national book awards in Australia. His latest volume is Mount Sumptuous (Wakefield Press, 2020).