Angela Graham reviews My Speaking Tongue, the debut collection from Cardiff-based poet Will Johnson, a profound and panoramic collection.
My Speaking Tongue is Will Johnson’s first collection. He is a former Indologist. He has published several verse translations from the Sanskrit in the Oxford World’s Classics series, including ‘The Bhagavad Gita’ and his own poems have appeared in numerous magazines. The Indian note can be heard in the collection but does not predominate.
The book is addressed to its dedicatee as ‘a message in a paper bottle’. This is an image of a poet marooned but Will Johnson has not, despite that, dispatched a cry for rescue. In these twenty poems he looks with clear sight at his experience of motor neurone disease, at what it is doing to his body and to his voice, actual and artistic.
My Speaking Tongue is an impressively coherent book. It is markedly dispassionate in its examination of suffering. It is not that passion is lacking but it has been lived through so thoroughly that what is shared is a disciplined, self-respecting determination to take responsibility for emotion. Here is a poet who feels, reacts, and then selects, as an artist, what will best serve the task of communicating life at an extreme. The message goes into the bottle and is sent out. In finding and reading it, we are taken inside circumstances none of us hopes to share but we find there very particular perspectives on how life looks from its edge. Will Johnson is doing what a poet should do, opening our eyes.
A striking type of layered point of view characterises this poet. A scene is presented but suddenly the lens is adjusted and one perceives another scenario through and beyond the first. The second poem, ‘Nature Morte’ exemplifies this. It begins:
after he left
he saw the table set
the room empty
the sill unswept
Given that the seeing has happened ‘after’ having left a room, an immediate strangeness of perspective is established. The poem continues:
a calm of light
on its shore
a chair undrawn
with a little yearning
back to that mantle
which at his touch
or at the quiver
of a pane of glass
he’d be pressed
through the frame
into the silence
of his own
a loss made good
Here are several kinds of looking back: ‘like Orpheus’, that emblematic visitor to the Kingdom of the Dead, with his fatal backward look born of human desire; a looking back into a vacated room; and a looking through glass covering a painting, with so intense a gaze that it takes the person through into another realm; a kind of return to a life lost forever. Perhaps each of us has at some point tried to imagine what the world – our particular world – would be like without us in it.
We may also have wondered what will be left in our wake; what will ‘make good’ our life once we have left it. There is admirable subtlety in the allusion to another myth of a woman held in the Underworld, Persephone, whose half-yearly stays there are ‘made good’ in fruitfulness experienced on the earth. The art under consideration in this poem is nature morte, ‘still life’, with all that that suggests of representational accuracy, inanimation and permanence. The very short lines oblige a measured pace, a step-by-step meditation on a few elements.
Elsewhere Will Johnson uses a longer line, for example, in ‘Life At Sea’, where he shows he can deliver a factual narrative. This poem exploits the relation between metaphorical and actual journeying:
Instruction to myself is slowing down,
adrift beyond the thought and care of land.
Here, a metaphor – but there, at twenty-one
just me, the cargo, and a crew,
shuddering out from Turku for Gravesend …
But now, I find myself cast off anew –
… the metaphor, still biliously alive,
the reckoning – as it must be – dead.
There is no life to come, beyond this life at sea.
The vividly physical account we are given of the young man’s claustrophobic, isolated life on ship, ‘with all my life to come, unplotted and postponed.’ is ballast to the metaphorical drift of the mature man’s.
‘Summer In The Hospital’ demonstrates this poet’s ability for humour, a wry appreciation of the gaps between our longings and our circumstances. The epigraph references the Gospel story of the healing of a cripple at a miraculous pool. It is August, and the doctors are on annual leave, leaving the patients to wait and to wonder in their absence whether there are other sources of help. Should this patient refer his case to ‘specialists below, consult / in confidence – who knows / at what remove? – with death.’
Without the rain and concrete piles.
from the fifth floor, I might see the coast,
and through its haze, the continent –
its spas of health and youth and love,
its pools in which the doctors swim.
But the little lake near the concourse remains undisturbed by an angel.
Will autumn bring the doctors home,
tanned, renewed, recharged with second sight?
The angel takes a backward step,
the fractious ill fall quiet.
That final line encapsulates a patient’s exhausting dilemma: how responsible is one for one’s own healing? And how much in healing is down to intuition or to expertise?
These poems place before us profound yet bearable considerations of life and death expressed with consistent simplicity of means. To have achieved this is evidence that this poet has done the work without which no poetry of calibre will result. He has plumbed his experience and honoured his own challenging circumstances with acute attention, and then:
Before I leave I’ll wake and speak:
This opening line from the collection’s final poem, ‘Resolution Ending In A Line By Thomas Traherne’ leads into a statement of intent:
‘each word shall, as it’s sung,
be reconciled to one – just one –
Where was, in what abyss, my speaking tongue?’
Traherne’s poem is an awed contemplation of fact of existence: where were we before we came to the existence we know? This is a suitably panoramic ending to a collection that will broaden and deepen in the reader’s mind.
My Speaking Tongue by Will Johnson is available now from Eyewear Publishing
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Angela Graham is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.