Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1984, 65pp.
Regular visitors to this site will know that these “Rereadings” are my excuse to look again at books which have meant a lot to me in the past but which, for one reason or another, I haven’t written about. I have long been wanting to revisit Martin Johnston’s last collection of poems, not because I feel that after thirty years it would be interesting to see whether his reputation has grown, plateaued or declined but because there are a number of very difficult poems in the book – especially those of the large, final sequence, “To the Innate Island” – that I might understand better if I could devote some serious time to them. Entirely coincidentally, 2020 saw the release of Johnston’s selected poems in a volume, Beautiful Objects, edited (with an excellent biographical introduction) by Nadia Wheatley, designed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Johnston’s death. This volume, together with John Tranter’s Martin Johnston: Selected Poems and Prose, published in 1993, is a sign that readers of Australian poetry might be less prepared, in Johnston’s case, to let his memory slide into oblivion than they are in the case of other poets born after the war.
Johnston himself was a fascinating and very complex character. For a writer he started life with a host of advantages. Both parents, George Johnston and Charmian Clift were writers and he grew up in both Australia and Greece and was completely bilingual. This also meant that he inherited two, very different cultures and, perhaps more importantly, two very different poetic cultures. But it was also a tragic life in that his mother committed suicide in 1969 and his father died a year later of a chronic lung problem exacerbated by alcohol. His younger sister committed suicide in 1974. A half-sister, Gae Johnston died of a drug overdose in 1988 and Johnston himself died after a heart attack resulting from alcoholism in 1990. This seems to an outsider a pattern to be explained either in terms of inherited genes or a curse on the House of Johnston but it isn’t right for an outsider to pontificate on these matters. A saner approach may be to point out that there is a very old Greek sense (classical Greek rather than Byzantine Greek) of the gods withholding something subtle but vital from the gifted – just to make sure that humans don’t become hubristic. They might, as in the case of Ajax, give you great physical strength and glory in battle but withhold a certain mental balance, or they might, as with Cassandra, give you powers of prophecy but withhold the ability to make your prophesies into effective warnings. Trying to define exactly what was withheld from Johnston is difficult, of course. You could suggest simple things like freedom from the addictions of alcohol and nicotine or rather more complex things like stamina or a singleminded obsession that harnesses stamina. As Tranter’s book makes clear, Johnston’s writing career is littered with uncompleted projects ranging from biographies of his parents to an overview of genre science-fiction to a life of General Makriyannis.
Trying to locate and define what kind of poet Johnston was is a difficult task, even with the perspective of more than thirty years. One might start with the notion of intellectual-poet. Although it seems an obvious enough category – Christopher Brennan as opposed to John Shaw Neilson, for example – like a lot of such categories it tends to crumble if used too much. At the beginning of the sixties of last century (when Johnston was a teenager on the island of Hydra) Vincent Buckley took over from Douglas Stewart at The Bulletin largely with a policy of making the poetry more intellectually sophisticated than had been the case. Buckley, together with Hope and McAuley, are thus obvious candidates as “intellectual” poets, though we usually use the more derogatory term, “academic”. Whatever the case, and the radical differences between them, they are more like each other than they are like Johnston or, for example, John Forbes. The difference, I think, lies in the relationship with the ideas that are tumbling through the head. In Johnston’s case, this is a stand-alone pleasure: whereas other intellectual poets might be noted for the sophistication of the mental apparatus that they bring to issues, they are still referring to equipment rather than to the ideas themselves. Reading Johnston’s interviews, it is quite clear that he both registered, and mildly worried about, his tendency to delight in the play of ideas that might have no particular relevance to the living of lives. He frequently makes comparisons with chess, a game of staggering potential complexity but of no immediate cultural or political effect. As he says to John Tranter in the interview in Makar (republished in A Possible Contemporary Poetry):
Elsewhere I think you’ve brought me to task for my obsession with chess; as you say, “a beautiful but useless game”. I tend to think of poetry, I must admit, substantially in terms of beautiful but useless objects. I’m not clear exactly what poetry is meant to do. A game of chess is an intensely dynamic, intensely kinetic object within a static set of parameters, a fixed set of rules. The same, I think, in a much more complicated way, applies to the way language works in poetry . . .
The play of ideas as a self-contained activity, capable of being expressed (or “captured” or “developed”) seems close to the core of Johnston’s practice, though as I’ll say later, one wouldn’t want to assume that this is at the expense of the ability to write about “human” things like the agonies of loss, or a sense of permanently being “in transit” between countries and cultures. But the “play of ideas” leads towards figures like Borges who is, I’m convinced after revisiting the issue, the figure whom Johnston relates to most intensely. And so I want to begin this look at Johnston’s poetry with the figure of the “blind librarian”.
In Borges’s fictions the essential idea that all attempts to understand reality are constructs imposed on reality is developed into a rich range of results. Johnston’s early essay on Borges follows these through, looking at repeated Borgesian symbols – the knife, the tiger, the library, the labyrinth – as well as themes. It leads to a very sophisticated (and suitably vertiginous) reading of “The Garden of Forking Paths”. Borges’s essentially idealist position simultaneously raises the play of ideas and possibilities in a creative individual’s mind to the highest of creative levels – approximating the activities of the slightly shameful creator-deity of the gnostic universe that bulks large in Borges’s references – while at the same time reducing it to the level of a pointless, even predictable, repetitive and unoriginal, activity: beautiful but useless. But such uncreative creativity, whereby the only possible perspective is one of continuous irony, is not devoid of emotional intensity. Early in Johnston’s essay he quotes Borges’s response to the challenge that his work comes across to some as “cold, impersonal”:
If that has happened, it is out of mere clumsiness. Because I have felt them very deeply. I have felt them so deeply that I have told them, well, using strange symbols so that people might not find out that they were all more or less autobiographical. The stories were all about myself, my personal experiences . . .
Of course, this is said ironically because the Borgesian conception of authorship is one in which all authors are related or, rather, essentially the same author. “Autobiographical” which to us (and a naïve interviewer) implies the stamp of absolutely unique personal experiences, to Borges means something infinitely wider. This aside, however, it’s important to register the extent to which Johnston is more than a poet tossing around ideas. There may be a tendency (to quote Borges again) to “evaluate religious or philosophical ideas on the basis of their aesthetic worth and even for what is singular or marvellous about them” but there is also a powerful human component. Although the beautiful objects will be beautiful not for language or metaphoric richnesses but because of the shapely beauty of the ideas they bring together and allow to interact, they don’t do so in an emotional vacuum.
This pole of Johnston’s creativity is well represented in the title poem of the collection I am focussing on:
The Typewriter Considered as a Bee-Trap,
is no doubt less than perfectly adapted
to its function, just as a bee-trap,
if there are such things, would hardly be the ideal contrivance
for the writing of semi-aleatory poems about
bee-traps and typewriters. Why, in any case,
you are entitled to ask, should I
want to trap bees at all? What do with them
if caught? But there are times, like today,
when bees hover about the typewriter
more frequently than poems, surely knowing best
what best attracts them. And certainly at such times,
considered in terms of function and structure,
the contraption could be argued to be
anything but a typewriter,
the term “anything” being considered
as including, among all else, bee-traps,
softly multiplying in an ideal world.
For all its lightness of touch, this is a complex poem. At a simple level it borrows the cliched simile for ideas – “bees in one’s bonnet” – and describes the act of writing as a way of trapping such ideas, “getting them down” onto the page. The only real relevance at this level to what I have been saying is that the raw material is, in Johnston’s case, ideas rather than emotions or reality. The first of its little labyrinths is the not uncommon one of its being a poem about the writing of a poem – like his early, semi-comic poem, “Gradus ad Parnassum” or John Tranter’s “Ode to Col Joye”. In this mode, though we only have two levels, there is always the sense (especially if one has the obsessions of Borges in mind) that there is an infinite set of levels below: there might be poems which are about poems which are about writing poems and so on ad infinitum.
Why this allegory should be considered “semi-aleatory” I am not entirely sure. One possibility is that poems about ideas – at least the poems about ideas that Johnston is talking about rather than solemn expositions of some theory or other – always have a random quality because they do not originate in the need of something like an emotion or a theory to be expressed. They have no obligations and hence a greater freedom although they also have to face the challenge that they may be considered to be merely aimlessly playful. At any rate the end of the poem, specifically its second last word, requires us to read it in a Borgesian way. The “ideal world” is not necessarily the “perfect” world, it is a world in which ideas have a reality as they do in Tlön in Borges’s great short story. So the typewriter can be a contraption whereby ideas enter and proliferate into the “real” world. My own inclination is to read this situation as paradoxical (and hence labyrinthine) since the word “typewriter” suggests a “writer of types” an imposer of patterns on a vast reality which is impossible to describe without reduction. Borges, Johnston says in his essay,
starts by questioning all the constructs and interpretations we impose upon reality: language, modes of perception, modes of thought. All, to him, are more or less formalised, which is to say ritualised orderings of a reality which may have no order at all, or an order which is simply not accessible to us, or which corresponds only accidentally, or never, with our versions of it; we do not and cannot know.
The paradox, if that is what it is in this poem, is that the “writer” of such imposed types is also the vehicle by which the imagined object, the otherwise non-existent (or yet to be invented) device for trapping bees, can exist and proliferate. The reminder that “ideal” is being used in this specific, philosophical sense, then goes back to infect the word when it appeared, apparently innocently, at the end of the third line: it’s not that the bee-trap is an imperfect device for accumulating ideas and writing poems, it is saying that in the world of ideas a bee-trap may not as yet exist. Moving on from this, it is possible to read the poem as a device for establishing bee-traps as existing things, just as the hrönir of Tlön came into existence. This is all a vertiginous reading – and I am confident that its author expected that a proper reading would be, on the model of his own reading of “The Garden of Forking Paths” – and there may well be other ways of approaching it (the disjunction between its light tone and its explorations, for example, or the nature of the largely unidentified emotional bond between writer and poem, or the way in which its title is part of the poem forming an additional line to the required number for a sonnet and perhaps reflecting the Borgesian view that a poem is not an understanding of reality but an addition to reality) but I’ll stop there as there is much more to be said about the other pole of Johnston’s poetry, best represented by the extended sequence, “To the Innate Island”.
“To the Innate Island” is not an easy work to get to feel comfortable with. It comes, interestingly, accompanied by an extensive set of notes which, like those of Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (a poem which stands behind much of Johnston’s drive towards longer, multi-part poems) simultaneously clarify and obscure. The notes connect this sequence with an earlier one, “Microclimatology”, and the two poems are clearly connected in that they have a more diary-like structure and carefully note the sites that individual poems refer to. It’s a specific sort of diary though and far from conventional. It records, above all, time spent in Greece but not as a visitor, rather as someone treading an extraordinarily dense and specific cultural and historical reality – treading, that is, the atheist’s equivalent of holy ground, a secular pilgrimage. It is also, in complex ways, a visiting of an interior landscape and this, it seems to me, after much cogitation over the matter in the last thirty-odd years, is the meaning of the title. (Significantly its first word contains a crucial ambiguity: it is both a voyage to an innate island and a dedication to that island.)
The first poem, “The Shadow Screen”, is also one of the most challenging. Its title refers to the Greek puppet theatre, it is set in the town of Paralion Astros on the Argolic Gulf (literally in Arcadia) and the conclusion of the note devoted to it says, cryptically, “For the village, the sea and the cat, see ‘Microclimatology’”:
The small grey cat in the yard has a knack for the punctuational.
Confronted with unfamiliar yoghurt, it curls
bristling into a fluid query, later ingratiates
itself into tactful receding aposiopesis towards the garbage bag,
illuminated exclamation over the yellow light
of a butterfly to be slapped and broken, lays out evenings
in commas at the window, sentences from Proust
lapping to night where all cats are grey.
Spreads its net of signs, assumes
the harbour and the lights folded into the hills, and we see
suddenly from within the cat’s eye; itself
or a merely perceiving Maxwell’s demon, see eye and world
and shifting waterline between them, uneasy
that over the sea fauve stripes flow, our old paintings
of a felt jungle pulling back
the keen small mind of a cat, retracting its claws
temporary, promissory, conditional
upon a saucer of milk – yet do they see colours at all?
“Caught while attempting escape”:
a tinge of sun
slid away past a lost flash of thought, apt cat’s eye,
fastened onto the suggestion of a web
of just such salmon-silver scales as just then the harbour
flaunting when the white daze of streetlamps snapped along the mole
dropped into place to the acetylene
fishing-boats’ drumbeat in a slick of rain
scattered over the twisting blue scarf of the beach.
As I’ve said, this is both diary (“here we are staying for a while in Paralion Astros and the lights of the fishing boats are very beautiful in the evening”) and non-diary; a celebration of a place and an investigation of issues that arise from one of the inhabitants of that place, “the cat”.
Despite the note, the cat in “Microclimatology” is a pretty minor figure in that poem but an interesting cat appears in an early, equally complex poem, “Sequestrum”:
There’s a special sort of madness in the colours
beyond the spectrum: not infra-red
but the colours of shapes around the corners
of fogged-up glasses when, in the evening,
trees are faint white networks through the sky.
Perhaps the cat, at least knows them,
Not our cat, of course, but some impossible
Osiris sun-cat with convolvulus ears . . .
. . . . .
But the cat makes passes, feints
at those pale fruit like fishbowls, or the curlew
chimes on the belltower, rattles at the window.
Birdlime and aspic, golden nets to catch the time:
here is no inland sea.
In both this poem and “The Shadow Screen” we are in the world of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus where 6.341 speaks of networks cast over the real in order to provide a system for understanding it. It is only a short step from there to Borges’s position that all such interpretive networks are “wrong” in the most demanding sense but right in that they can be enjoyed for their occasional aesthetic graces.
All of this seems to belong to the same matrix as “Microclimatology” and “To the Innate Island” and it’s possible that its odd title (a “sequestrum” is a piece of dead bone that breaks off) indicates that this poem is a mere free-standing (though humbly necrotic) offshoot of a larger project. My initial reading was to see the cat as a homelier, more modest version of Borges’s tiger. The tiger is, in itself of course, a complex symbol but Johnston provides a description of what he, at least, thinks it is in his essay on Borges when he says that is “the nearest approach to something that is ineluctably there, as the concrete embodiment of pure energy . . . . . [it is] self-seeking, self-defining, dependent upon no-one, it is metaphoric of the Ding-an-sich (und fur-sich) the impossible thing-in-itself of Kant . . .” On reflection, however, I’m inclined to read the cat as emblematic not of an unapproachable reality but of the way literature throws its own net over reality – perhaps the cat as failed tiger. In the opening stanza the postures of the cat are continuously aligned to written language and the quoted phrase “caught while attempting escape” can be read as a reference to the paradox that, in attempting to “catch” unmediated reality in words, language throws another net over the whole thing.
One of the crucial “pilgrimage” sites of “To the Innate Island” is Yannina the major city of north-western Greece and the capital, in Byron’s time, of Ali Pasha. Yannina is interesting in that it contains a lake and the lake contains an island so that geographically we are in the world of possible infinite regressions. “Finding Islands”, the second poem, is, if anything, more complex than “The Shadow Screen” and its structure seems to be to move inward (towards the essential, innate, island in the lake at Yannina?) while at the same time celebrating the unstoppable movement outward of Greek culture – not “classical” Greek culture but the medieval culture of hermits imagined to be founding the great eyrie-like monasteries and shepherds and painters moving northwestwards:
. . . . .
while new-moon bindlestaffs
fringed and striped, drift up through Wallachia,
Moldavia, hill-villages of smoke and dung, into worlds of grass,
over snow and lava, paying out
the luminous eel of lies, shining over the horizons
from Mani to Vladivostok, littering the hoarfrost
with lives of saints, fiddlesticks and fake-amber worry beads . . .
It’s another net but a culturally potent one.
The whole twelve poem sequence concludes with two poems the first of which, “Water Garden Snapshots”, reintroduces the cat (it, like the first, is set in Paralion Astros) and the second, “The Whistlers of Phaistos” introduces the Phaistos Disc, a rare example of the Linear A script, which has remained uninterpretable since its discovery at the beginning of the twentieth century.
“Water Garden Snapshots” seems to me one of the most intriguing sections of “To the Innate Island”. It begins and ends with references to “the inner garden which we never visit” which I read (not in a Borgesian way for once) as a symbol of the self’s registering and structuring faculties. Since these are largely unconscious, it is a place we never visit. It is a place where insects ”proceed quietly / about their unlearned webwork of small occasions” – another network reference – and the cat is “a cloud behind the bay-branches”: an everpresent though slightly camouflaged phenomenon. The most difficult part of the poem involves the transition that follows this establishment of an image of an inner garden to the repeated image of a boat tentatively entering “the bay”. Can these be reconciled? What is the physical point of view of the narrator? It’s tempting to separate the two and imagine someone watching a boat while occasionally checking on what was happening in their inner garden, but the poem resists this since, as the boat makes its approach, “the cat withdraws behind the bay-tree”.
At any rate, the poem wants to explore the continuous and slightly varied approaches made by the boat. This must be an image, coming close to the climax of the sequence, of what someone like the poet is to make of the freight of his experience of Greece. A realistic, snapshot of contemporary life is suggested:
. . . . .
Or land at last and view the conventional scene:
oil-slicks and oil-logged gulls, fist-sized lumps of tar,
aerosols, beer-cans and blue plastic bags. And mosquitoes,
midges, caddis larvae, fat spiders, culture and nature.
This is the point where the script indicates: acceptance . . .
Another approach is to “row off / with your cracked oars and unstopped bunghole” though perhaps this is no more than suicidal reaction to the sordidness of a contemporary Greek coastal scene. Another arriving boat scenario imagines the boat having come to the wrong continent entirely – “’Lemurs in the leaves! Is this a joke? / This is Madagascar!” – at which point, significantly, “the cat takes its mask off”. The final image of the boat seems to me to be Johnston’s description of his own living/writing/psychological apparatus:
The boat is loaded
with a second-hand phrenological head,
a smuggled ikon of the Last Judgement,
an insufficient supply of hardtack,
a postcard of the Disc of Phaistos, gold on blue . . .
In other words, a poet with an interest in psychology but only out-of-date theories of it, a remnant of religious belief acting as a good luck charm and, as always with poets like Johnston, not really enough of money and other necessities for survival.
The last object on the boat of the self, the Phaistos Disc, serves as a segue to the final poem, “The Whistlers of Phaistos”. Obviously, the disc acts as a metonymic symbol of the unrecoverability and, of more practical significance, the indecipherability of the past, but its function in this last poem is a bit less predictable than this. The disc is a remnant from an earthquake in the palace of Phaistos (perhaps even the eruption that destroyed the Minoan culture of Crete) and the poem wants to compare Arthur Evans’s lavishly reconstructed Knossos with Phaistos. Evans’s lurid reconstructions are a classic case of the spreading of interpretive nets and the whole first part of the poem brings us back to Borgesian descriptions of the possible meanings of the universe (such as that the Great Wall of China might be a “get-well card to Mars” or that the disc might be a “model of the Great Spiral Nebula”). Contrasted to the disc are the three “whistlers” – “an old man, / a young man, a brown wooden woman in black, / playing badly on tin-whistles to the lizards and tamarisks”. The poem introduces both Minoan flute playing (an antecedent of the whistlers) and ancient serpent worship before making its final statement about how an individual carries cultural complexities and indecipherable realities within:
A twittering of flutes on the transparent hill:
the palace is pulled away for a split-second
when we can’t help
by some particular last attachment, the call of a priest,
a bough breaking, sandal-strap
aflap on smooth paving-stone,
eye that sees the whole of it through time:
adjustment: and we see only
blind inner skin of our eyelids
and for so short a time we can’t draw the irrational inference
to think it to a world, rightly.
The ceremony. Bunting and bands
and three tin-whistles. The elect
passed through the gates: through time and words:
spinning, onto the Disc.
It’s a complex final statement and one that leaves me with a lot of interpretive problems still. The individual clings to arbitrary attachments in the culture which prevent him from seeing “the whole of it through time” but I’m unsure of Johnston’s attitude towards our tendency to make “a world” out of the little we see and how this relates to Borgesian idealism. At any rate, the sequence leaves us with the image of a hieratic procession of life and art into an unrecoverable past.
One of things that strikes one rereading The Typewriter Considered as a Bee-Trap is the contrast between the poems of “To the Innate Island” and most of the other poems in the book. These are sonnets, adequately designed for the kind of meditations I have described in the title poem. The sections of “To the Innate Island” are, by contrast, built on expansion, variation and development. In a sense they are a good deal shaggier than the other poems but they also have more room for explanation. Often the shorter poems overcome the limited nature of their “scanty plots” by being gathered into sequences. One such is the opening group of six devoted to the story of Odysseus and Polyphemous. On first reading, these seem little more than examples of a standard, late twentieth century tactic of narrating an event from the point of view opposite to the conventional one and discovering, to everyone’s entirely predictable surprise, that things look very different from that angle. At first the series looks as though its interest is in cultural clashes: Polyphemous, seen in The Odyssey as being an antisocial solitary and thus, in Greek terms, as having no culture at all, gets to ask, “But how would you have done / on my IQ tests?”. But as the poems progress it seems clear that the opposition between Odysseus and Polyphemous is an opposition within an individual mind conceived, perhaps, with an eye to Freudian and Jungian readings of Homer’s original. At the end of the final poem, it’s Polyphemous who gets to say:
But at least,
you bastard, blind as I am, and a hostage
to your stiff-twined cordon of darkness, I
am still the one who writes the poems.
Another sequence of sonnets is “In Transit: A Sonnet Square” – square because it is made up of fourteen fourteen-line poems. Anne Vickery has written well about these poems so I will only concentrate on two of their subjects (apart from pointing out that the title alludes to the changes between cultures that are an essential pert of Johnston’s life and poetry). The second poem is about biography, important to Johnston because his own biography, as I said at the beginning, was so distinctive and because so many of his abortive projects – from lives of his parents to a life of Makriyannis – were biographies. And the poem focusses on the psychological impasses faced by any biographer who wants to understand his or her subject. While people can be treated as free-standing entities, it’s usually possible to cobble together some sort of theory about the shapes of their lives, but as soon as the picture is widened to include genetic history, things become problematic:
. . . . .
Back past the sold houses in the lost domains
down in the midden-humus
glows the rotting trelliswork of “family”,
odd slug-coloured tubers wince at the touch
with feigned unanthropomorphic shyness . . .
The second subject is the issue of “poetic belonging” and is the material that the last of these poems is made out of. I began by trying to place Johnston as a poet and focussed on the distinctive intellectual cast of his mind. Another, more obvious way, might have been to locate him within the group of poets of his generation, those collected in John Tranter’s 1979 anthology, The New Australian Poetry. The poem is dedicated to four of the poets of this group – Laurie Duggan, John Forbes, Gig Ryan, John Tranter (as well as to MJ, Johnston himself). It’s a poem about being home after travelling – though, of course, the travelling has been to Athens and, as such, is a journey to what is really a very different, more complex “home”. It alludes to studies by Konrad Lorenz showing that baby greylag goslings fight as though they had fully grown and extended wings – a nice comment on poetry wars. But the poem’s final statement is that poets should “make love not imprintings”. That is, be members of a group by free choice based on admiration for the writings of its members rather than instinctively.