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NEW POEMS: Brian Johnstone – Scottish Review of Books
by Brian Johnstone

NEW POEMS: Brian Johnstone

June 2, 2018 | by Brian Johnstone

Treading the Boards

The air of 1960 holds him still
in mid-dive, arms extended, legs aligned:

the ten year old who took the top board
in his stride, took this year younger kid,

every bit a show-off, up as far as second top
to execute the flop that still stings

in recall. He hangs there yet, the older boy,
the grace of one brief moment caught

as if it hadn’t ended, never could; his hands
had never split the surface of the pool,

his body hadn’t slipped into the space
below the board he’d sprung from, to rise up

through the water shaking drops out of his hair,
grin as broad as Portobello Sands

spread across his face. Just enough to tempt
this one admiring friend to climb

up time and time again, until each board
was taken – save the top. From that

a jump alone had to suffice, a step out
into air I’m surely treading still, almost afloat.

The Marks on the Map

You number them off on a tramp – the big house,
the lodge, the manse – each good for a cup of tea
in your hand, a piece on jam, some bacon clapped
in a bap. It’s the back door ever, a knock, the wait:
Any odd jobs needing done? Some kindling to chop,
a shoe on a last to tack back to shape, some dreels
to dig over or weed. And, maybe a barn to doss in
if the farmer’s a man with a kindly heart; the back
of a dyke if he’s not. Old coats and jackets: things
that you need, or boots that have seen better days;
the minister’s breeks once, threadbare at the knee,
nothing a needle and yarn couldn’t save. And you
number them off on the map in your head – a flea
in your ear, long stand in the cold, a rare welcome
that warm by a Rayburn door – each one a species
of kindness or scorn, a foot put in front of another.


Just as rubbings have taken
the words we wrote as infants,

chalk dust the letters on slates
our grandparents laboured to shape,

so the lessening chill of the day,
the weakling sun of winter,

has warmed this pane just enough
to erase the message a child has left

for someone coming in on his wake
to stare through this window

at snow that’s beginning to melt;
the meaning he tried to impart

vanished, but for the ghost of a script
caught in the sheen of the glass,

only there when viewed at a slant,
but lost with the swab of a hand.


for Will Maclean

You return to the township your family had dwelt in
for years. Years that brought changes
none would have imagined

even as house after house was closed up, doors locked,
keys trusted to neighbours who, in their turn,
did the same. So few left now

the language has withered away, the stories they told
have dissolved; there’s nothing to grasp
but the map, the web of relations

who lived in this place, gave some meaning and sense
to the stones. For that’s what remains:
four walls, if you’re lucky,

some rafters, a rotting of mortar and thatch, thresholds
you tread on, remembering those
that had dwelt here, and all

they recounted lifetimes ago, when you listened, a boy,
laid in store what no-one can take from you,
none can bring back to these stones.

The Weight

She carries within her a weight
neither large nor small, just
exactly the size of itself;

the size of a childhood spent
in his steps, shoes that bit bigger,
height a span more;

the size of a brother, first
to that risk, that chancy return,
first to make ways for himself;

and knows that the mention
of merely his name, the date
of his name day, the night

that he crashed is enough
to dredge depths of her grief
she will recognise, even if not

plumbed before; knows that
for her Anastasi always is soured:
a locked door, a shut window,

an unbroken loaf; knows that
the last words he heard, someone’s
chronia polla! only deepen

her hurt, a stone in the grain sack
to bolster the weight; flour
cut with chalk, ever bitter to taste.
* * *
Anastasi: Resurrection ie Easter Sunday (Greek Orthodox)
chronia polla!: Greek Easter greeting (literally ‘many years’)

Day of Rest

They speak of those Sabbaths as lost,
the forbearance changes simply forgot,
doors closed, the good book, no catches

unlatched. For the brazen, maybe a walk,
just ten minutes down to the shore, lest
someone should see, turn disapproval

to censure, at best to a pursing of lips,
an intake of breath at their gall. Those
that wouldn’t lift peat from the stack,

wash any dishes from morning till night,
or open a window to freshen the air;
those perhaps the most driven in life,

the ones who took work at a pace, let it
measure their years like a pendulum
shifting in space. To them give the rest,

give one day in the week when nothing
was something, the graft of the present
was simply laid down, left till the dawn.

From this Issue


by Harry Ritchie


by Brian Morton


by Alasdair McKillop


by Rosemary Goring

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