Fits & Starts by Andrew Johnston.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Janet Newman.
It is worth paying attention to the title of Andrew Johnston’s sixth poetry collection, Fits & Starts, because many of its poems resemble the definitions of these words printed on the back cover: “A section of a poem or song” and “A sudden burst of energy or activity; an outburst of emotion, madness, etc; a flight of humour. Also a sudden broken utterance or sound.” The majority of the poems are of ten lines, a succinct form Johnston fills with often cryptic and philosophical notions, aural language and humorous wordplay. The combination of linguistic playfulness and a heartfelt questioning of how the world is, encapsulated within a concise, structured form, make these intriguing poems a pleasure to read. They are aurally pleasing even when the meaning is elusive, and this equivocality makes them mysterious and attractive.
Of the collection’s three sections, the final ‘Do You Read Me?’ is the most playful and for this reason a review in reverse seems apt. Each poem’s title is a word from the radio alphabet, “Alpha,” “Bravo,” “Charlie” “Delta,” “Echo” and so on. Echo returns in subsequent poems as a character and, of course, as an echo, of the earlier title. Humour, which is often absent from poetry, is prevalent. “Golf” uses the game (a round) as a metaphor for life’s repetitions, a notion mimicked by the form of the poem, in which the second and final lines are the same. With a single, compelling end rhyme and the odd but jolting use of the phrase “family tree,” the short poem packs poignancy and humour:
Before you know it
you’re back where you started –
by the racecourse, by the camping ground,
where the small polluted stream
misremembers its name. You’re out there
with your family tree,
the receipt for your fee,
and then before you know it
you’re back where you started.
The collection’s middle section is also structured as a sequence; in this case the titles are taken from the books of the Old Testament, “Genesis,” “Exodus,” “Leviticus” and so forth. This section is titled “Echo in Limbo” and the character, Echo, appears in some, but not all, of the poems. In an interview with his publisher, Victoria University Press1, Johnston explains: “I thought I could use Echo to evoke the sense that something extremely important is missing from your life but you don’t quite know what it is (I tend to have this feeling most of the time, in spades). As a poet, it’s easy too, to have a sense that you’re condemned to repeat what others have said.”
As well as being the fifth word in the radio alphabet, Echo was a Greek nymph who was condemned to repeat only the last words said to her. She fell in love with Narcissus who only loved himself, and pined away until all that was left was her voice. Johnston’s “Deuteronomy” merges the myth with the image of a plane landing at Auckland airport (because of the mudflats), creating the superb image of a modern-day Echo imagining being kissed by the mythological subject of her unrequited love:
South of the past,
dreaming she was still alive,
Echo came in low, under the dateline,
over the mudflats, mirroring.
To see the plane kiss its shadow
she would have to be somewhere else
but she sees it, she sees everything
kissing everything. She was the pool,
his face bending lovely, lips
The first section of the collection, ‘Half-Life’, is a mixture of short and longer poems, “Half-Life”, “Afghanistan” and “The Otorhinolaryngologist” (an ear, nose and throat specialist). These are musical and haunting reflections on the state of the planet, which shift between imagination and reality, knowledge and delusion. The portentous “Half-Life” plays repeatedly with the notion of decay as a metaphor for uncertainty despite science. Yet even in this poem filled with anxiety, Johnston tips language up to give the reader a small ‘start’:
Molecules break down for you, reliably unstable.
Breakfast is served at the periodic table (41-2)
After living and working in France for 25 years, first as an editor and now as a consultant for the United Nations and other non-government groups, Johnston says in the VUP interview that “the experience of migration is more often one of realising how much you have been formed by the place you came from – and the language you came from. So being in France has pushed me deeper into English, paradoxically.” This elegant collection uses the title to adorn its stylish cover, splitting “Start” over two lines to create another word – star. Both funny and thoughtful, this linguistically star-studded collection is thoroughly enjoyable.
Janet Newman has completed a Master of Creative Writing at Massey University. Her short stories, poems and essays have been published in New Zealand journals. Her poem, “Biking to the Manawatu River”, won the 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition. “beach . river . always” was runner-up in the 2014 International Writers’ Workshop Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems.
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