Almanac Poetry: ‘In Memoriam’ by Martin Johnston

Martin Johnston (1947 – 1990),  the son of authors George Johnston and Charmian Clift, is another Australian poet who died far too young. ‘Beautiful Objects’, a new release of Martin Johnston’s poetry, was launched on Sunday.





In Memoriam

For John Forbes


A painting would have been the best way to get things over
but my father’s old Winsor & Newtons still sit in their tin box
unused for three years except for when I painted
a shoddy flamboyant number on our front door.
They have hardened and cracked like introverted poets.


Coloured inks will soak through the best bond paper
in a soft fuzz of amoebas, a sunset blur
of fruit-coloured clouds, a weak ambiguous vision.
I could never use chalk or charcoal.
The poem must stalk on its own thin mantis legs.


We become, in any case, too attached to colour.
Graphite and lignite, slate and marble
that make cliff-faces, monuments, holes in the ground
have a greater permanence in their crumbling way
but aren’t what we like to look at


or not in themselves. Ever since we learned about emblems
and correspondences, we have mirrored ourselves in the sea
and the rock; and the subtle shadowed faces
of our friends and rivals, as the light changes, reflect
the obliquities of our shadows, our syntax, our blood.


O’Hara, Berryman, Seferis, Pound
have a lot in common. Not only are they all dead poets
but they make up a metrically perfect line
running on iambic sleepers to whatever personal
ameliorations I think, for me, they’re good for.


And that’s the way the game goes. Reading the Saturday papers
and the cultured magazines, I find my nightmares visited
by a terrible vision of contemporaries writing elegies
notebooked and rainslicked at the graveside
or serial as Magritte’s windows or Dunne’s time


in a recession of identical rooms.
Whether there is particular grief in the deaths of poets is a question that much engages us,
that we answer always in the affirmative,
a priori, because it’s very useful to us to do so.


Pale watercolour lovers in the pastel sun
we can rape and chomp our friends’ corpses at midnight,
hunch and sidle in the morgue, our eyes
a tracery of red veins in the Gothick crypt, and the tourist maps
show Transylvania’s regular trains, its ordered roads.


Because it does come down to rape, this invasion
of one’s substance by that of another
without connivance. And not the strongest or fiercest
can fight it, but must lie back and open
up to the slime and spawn.


Death and rebirth myths are made by poets, and no wonder:
one Dransfield can feed dozens of us for a month,
a Webb for years. And they’re fair game, we can plead continuance,
no poet ever died a poet: as the salt muck filled Shelley
the empyrean gave way to the nibbling fish and the cold.


I should have hauled out the oils and tried to do a townscape
after all, a grey square with stoas and colonnades
toothed with eroding busts, their long shadows staining
each other and the foreshortened watchers’
death-watch beetle-scuttle across clattering bleached stone.


For the fan of letters opens and shuts and the wind blows
errant zig-zags of light and night through the phrases,
chops, remoulds, effaces. Theologians
have always found dismembered cannibals tough.
The whole thing becomes too tight, which is not at all


what’s needed, whatever sensualists may say.
Too like Zen archery, too painful somewhere around
what used to be called the heart. The parataxis
of time and light could have flowed around and through
these dead and living poets and myself.


That would have been a pretty nonsense. Instead the flicker—
flicker of a zoetrope. In this peepshow world
all styles come down to punctuation. O Mayakovsky,
Buckmaster, all of you, they’re circumventing Euclid.
They knew that parallel lines in curved space meet


eventually, somewhere: in the black hole between spaces,
the full stop with no sentence on either side,
between the moving magic-lantern slides.
Not that you wouldn’t have gone there yourselves willingly:
where the blood pours out the dead come to the feast.



Nadia Wheatley is the literary executor of Martin Johnston’s estate. Read her account in The Sydney Morning Herald of the background to  publishing fifteen previously unpublished poems by Martin Johnston HERE.


A website that has been set up to commemorate the life and times of Martin Johnston HERE


Read more stories from Almanac Poetry HERE


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