The Marks on the Map
Brian Johnstone ARC Publications Ltd.
Brian Johnstone has been a pillar of the Scottish Poetry scene for the last thirty years – founder of Edinburgh’s Shore Poets, and the wonderful Platform at the Off the Rails Arthouse in Ladybank, and President of StAnza, his years of dedication have made an enormous contribution to putting poetry firmly on the cultural map of Scotland.
Sometimes the organisers of big events can find their admin roles overshadow their poetry, but here we have a chance to redress the balance in Johnstone’s latest collection, The Marks on the Map.
Maps are a record of landscapes at specific times, representations of what a place may mean to the mapmaker, and we see Johnstone discover lost crofts, overgrown pathways, an ‘archaeology of home’ (Primrose). In the title poem, a tramp maps the houses and farms he visits by the welcome – or lack of one – he receives there, we consider trees planted by a long-dead neighbour to mark a boundary (Policies), we observe the erratic stone left to provide a resting place for a coffin as it is brought to the graveyard (Coffin Road). The opening poem, A Back Street in Leith 1911, talks of ‘the fresh breeze of an age/that’s barely past‘ and Johnstone’s poems range from Edinburgh to Fife and to Crete, a place with which he has had a long connection, and through history, from the Arthur’s Seat coffins discovered in 1836, (The Arthur’s Seat Coffins) Robert Louis Stephenson’s map for Treasure Island (The Treasure Island Map) to the coal mines of Central Scotland which closed in the eighties (Coal Tattoo).
There are less sombre poems – there is the light-hearted A Declaration, which muses on the outcome of a piece of graffiti on a wall, and the robust assertion of the value of Sabbath-keeping in A Day of Rest, or of binmen in Man of Dust, and the joyous Handel Composes ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’. However, the overwhelming tone of the collection is the impermanence of our knowledge – many of the poems speak of erasure, loss or abandonment. Outfield discusses a croft ploughed over by a neighbour, obliterating the disused footpaths and last stones of buildings shown on earlier maps and missing in later ones as the buildings fall into decay and are lost:
A slow collapse
to dereliction – flagged as ‘ruin’ there,
in brackets, on the map – then nothing
on the later OS sheets.
And in the final poem Meaning, we wonder if all human life is as ephemeral as the drawings a child makes in the condensation on a windowpane:
Only there when viewed at a slant
but lost with the swab of a hand.
Death overshadows the collection – in war in Resistant, Orcadian Gothic, most powerfully in Detail, a poem which will remain with me a long time:
They called a scare, a scare; a shock, a shock;
endurance indispensable. His to yomp away
into the future, that face ever there: a friend
who never said to him, Don’t bury me, but says it
every waking hour in all the trenches of his brain.
but most movingly in A Lock of Fleece
A lock of fleece
held tightly in the hand
when laid between the boards
enough to say this man
was never one to turn his face
away from God, say –
Look, a shepherd comes
to hills he only could imagine.
Now let him pass.
This book is a moving map of a personal as well as a poetic landscape.