In Fits & Starts, people are more or less on their own; sometimes they’re trying to find their way back to an approximation of intimacy they once knew. More often, they are coming to terms with life alone: ‘Sometimes the wind carries her voice;/sometimes she has to carry it herself.’ (From the poem Judges)
Throughout the Echo in Limbo poems, the character Echo wanders a landscape trying to recognise herself in its changes:
But you were always hunting
for something that wasn’t there.
Grace, a trace,
mettle, an element.
The poem Numbers also illustrates Johnston’s language play – his surprising rhymes, homonyms, incongruous nursery-rhyme rhythms – which adds light to the bleakness. There is also a pick-up-sticks game of references throughout the Echo in Limbo poems: they are named after the books of the Old Testament, but their content is classical myth, evolution, ravaged forests and fluorescent lights.
Echo returns in the final section of poems, Do You Read Me?, which are named – as she is – after the radio alphabet. They are placed in the man-made world rather than the natural one, and they are lighter, more playful, while exploring similar themes. In the poem Lima there ‘Comes a day – hey hey – you know you’ll never go/some places in your life and one is Lima.’ But for me these poems aren’t as successful. Sometimes their playfulness strikes me as silly (‘I left myself in the lurch//from yackety-yack to yada yada/from roughly something to simply nada’) rather than illuminating, but perhaps I’m more compelled to angst than absurdity.
But there’s plenty of angst to please me. Throughout the book we are shown the constancy of life, where that constancy is a world which finds ways to keep destroying itself over and over. Johnston portrays a world like that paradoxical river: always flowing, but never the same. In one of the stand-out poems for me, he turns this on its head, showing human history as an ebb and flow the land has long accepted:
I remember this,
said the river:
The snow will melt,
the poppies will grow,
the opium will be harvested.
The foreigners will come,
the foreigners will go.
It will begin to snow.
For me, the book explores how destructive (how inevitably, unavoidably destructive) life is, on an individual human scale as well as a geographic and historical one. There are some beautiful, brutal metaphors here:
… when one glass is full
and one glass empty, the hand will
take the empty glass and smash it.
At the same time the poems insist that we just accept it and get on with things – with the inconsequential human stuff; with living. To live, and to know ourselves, we must exist on the baseline of futility.
Reviewed by Jane Arthur
Fits & Starts
by Andrew Johnston
Published by Victoria University Press