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The headlights beam into the dark,

illuminating silence the vehicle moves into,


distant till it Dopplers past, a fan of light

that breaks upon a sky so full of stars


it’s nothing but the swipe of us

intruding for a moment on the pitch of night



                 from One For The Road by Brian Johnstone







Concrete Poem

Surfin’ Safari for a Small Town Boy

Tokens of Admission

How Well It Burns

Tree Surgeons

One for the Road


After Mallory

A Reading of Bark

The Book of Belongings




1 – BIOGRAPHY:  Brian Johnstone


Brian Johnstone is a poet, writer and performer from Fife. His poems are ‘fields of force, in which every word plays a precisely calculated part' (Manchester Review) while being ‘a calm meditation on the tenuousness of surfaces' (NorthwordsNow). His work has appeared throughout Scotland, in the UK, North America and various European countries. He has published six collections to date, his latest being Dry Stone Work (Arc, 2014). Translated into over a dozen languages, Terra Incognita (L’Officina, Vicenza) a chapbook in Italian translation appeared in 2009. In 2015 his work appeared on the UK’s Poetry Archive website. He has frequently collaborated with artists in other media, and is well known for his poetry & jazz performances with Trio Verso. A founder and former Festival Director of StAnza, he has appeared at international poetry festivals from Macedonia to Nicaragua, as well as at many festivals and poetry venues across the UK.







Concrete Poem


The ghosts of men who haunt this track

won’t fade the way their footprints in the dust

are driven off by wind or rain. For men


it surely was, whose urgent need

to get to fields and flocks, trumped every sign

for drying concrete, drove their boots and trucks


across the still-to-set but hardening surface

of the past. A past where traces

of a shovel or a rake are secrets held in stasis


a roadman might detect, while others

see just shadows, creases in the finish of the road;

unlike those flagrant tyre tracks scrawled


from gate to gate. Or these deep scores that tell

of grasping far too late that one man’s truck

had sunk up to its axle in the stuff,


sloughed in the footprints of his rescuers;

and this past, this one deed imprinted in the place

as clear as time will print its passing in a face.


Surfin’ Safari for a Small Town Boy

The best pop is like a rush of lust         Alastair McKay


The deuce coupe threads the dunes, back of the sands:

her daddy's car, but he will understand


that parties must be seized, she says, like days,

thrown as hand-made pots, agreed the way


they've signed their surfboards, waxed them down

like documents.  In this grey town


the sounds of doo-wop only surface from the drains

that overflow, the malice of late summer rains


determined in their pock-marked progress

over sands and shallows, all that acned skin, to mess


up every wrung out joy that they display,

gleaming in convertibles: the Wilsons, Jardine, Love, gay


in some forgotten sense.  The discs stack up,

the portable Dansette slaps platter on to platter, enough


to wind the Provost up, his bike a solitary patrol

against the shameless pleasure of it all.


Awful in his cycle clips, flat cap, he gets around, his face

a sucked in breath of disapproval.  Go on, chase


the blues away before he gets on to your back.

The surf is up.  The wind is from the north.  But fuck,


all summer long this is as good as it will get.  The needle

hits the groove.  Love's voice.  You paddle


out beyond the waves, youth tied on with a cord.

She watches you, God only knows, holds your reward


in supple limbs.  You feel the surge.  You sing it.  Sea

rips at your board.  She says: sing it one more time for me.


Tokens of Admission


Bound in, the way the foundlings were for permanence,

each strip of cloth is both their future and their past

cut so with blades that one will match the other


should the latter change, the mother find the wherewithal

to make the journey back.  Few did, so few that even

one page in a score of scores matched up is rare;


while pattern after pattern, warp and weft, pins

every child nameless to its place, to noted features,

measurements and dates, each mother more than absence:


twill or damask, linen, silk or lace, a sliver of the clothes

the infant wore when circumstance reduced them

to a bundle, a parcel passed on unaddressed.


How Well It Burns


How well it burns, the sugar that your parting hands

would throw frustrated on a sulking fire,

its blue flames urging each reluctant coal to life.


You’d gaze at it back then, a world you’d changed

with just one act, drawn into the smoke

that raced towards the sky like all your dreams.


What shape they took, bar flight, you scarce recall,

eyes fixed on dials or peering out at night,

your target not too distant, not too exposed to flak.


The coast is clear. No moon but still the water far below

glistens like molasses, the islands blacker yet

against the estuary you creep up like some sneak.


The turn to east-north-east is unmistakeable, drilled

in maps, in night-flight training as you are;

and there it is. You ease the joy-stick, take her round.


Below, co-ordinates ring true. The oblong of the dock

betrays the sheds, the streets behind them

full of families you must banish from your mind.


How well it burns and will do if you have your way.

The bomb doors disengage like parting hands.

This whole town of sugar must see flame tonight.

The Greenock Blitz, 6th May 1941



Tree Surgeons


They range amongst the upper limbs

like primates encumbered with care,


find parts of trees we'd recognise

as human gestures on the level,


pass rope through crooks of elbows,

bends of knees, and anchor on


to laterals that bear the strain,

the dead weight of the saw


to make their surgery complete. 

Down here, we're squinting at the sun


and, grounded by our lack of skill,

point out the deft incisions we require


to lighten up our lives. They make it so,

disguise it in the cut and pay down


branches, green and dying, each

a stretcher's girth, a sleeper's weight.



One for the Road


The headlights beam into the dark,

illuminating silence the vehicle moves into,


distant till it Dopplers past, a fan of light

that breaks upon a sky so full of stars


it’s nothing but the swipe of us

intruding for a moment on the pitch of night


much as a match flares till it’s shaken out,

or as we try to make our mark


but stumble, spill its substance, light up

our surroundings only briefly, see


there’s nothing more than we’d steered into,

find we’re fumbling for the map.





Long gone, those derelict tenements,



a row of parlour walls stacked up

like sample cards


for someone's granny's wallpaper.  Their slivers,

flapping in the wind,


goodbyes.  Unlaid,

their fires all died, burned shadow


black into the grates that stamped each wall

with absence, empty


as some broken jug which stood once –

held the milk, some flowers, loose change


for the meter, warmed the baby's bottle – whole,

on each one of these mantleshelves,


in living rooms complete

with hearthrugs, tables, easy chairs,


the neighbours in to borrow tea, just

floating there.



After Mallory

It is not difficult for me to believe that George's spirit

was ready for another life,                   Ruth Mallory


Strung out like votives on an icon, below

the yellow band, they search the mountain


like a crime-scene, for a clue. A half hour

from the highest of the camps, they find it,


face in prayer, buried in the shale, fingers

clawing at the gravel with the vengeance


he would never have: the English corpse.

Name tag stitched on what the weather left,


fibres winnowed from the shirt are proof

enough. Like breath, the question hangs


condensing  in the chill.  Did this cadaver

make the summit, focus, take the shot? 


The search picks wool from layers, rope

from rough abrasions on the waist. It finds


no camera to bring him back. In thin air,

something close to hope evaporates.


Some tokens from the jacket's folds

are all they take, then lift a cairn to lay


upon the desiccated flesh that slid off,

caught and held.  What's left they give


the mountain with a psalm.  Unproven,

this is just remains again, a bag of bones


until, ten thousand feet below, hands

receive each object, turn it to the light:


a box of matches, faded Swans; his knife;

his altimeter, smashed and dumb; papers


in a wad he carted, absent-minded to the top:

a letter in his brother's hand, a bill deferred


till his return. And this is when the breath

seeps back, the bones unite again, the man


steps from the photographs, flesh whole. 

From faded cuttings, dotted maps of routes,


he picks his way through rocks, crevasses,

glacial moraine, making for the tent.


A Reading of Bark


This is a script to hazard a guess at,

a language of skin and growth

shifting before the eyes, unobserved.


The little we read

from knife cuts, twists of wire,

the necessary nail hammered home,


translates to a human scale,

preferring years

to the centuries bark has sheathed each tree.


Behind this ring a rope burn has left, is time

for the washing to dry,

the garments to fade, be passed on


beyond derivation. Which is there

for the taking alone

in these nicks, intrusions in bark


these laughter lines, birth marks, scars,

like this set of initials, thickening with age,

rehearsing a future in stone. 



The Book of Belongings


The book of belongings of those found dead

lies open across my lap.  I cradle it and look and look

not knowing what I must find, half hoping to recognise nothing.


Photograph after photograph, page after page

of someone's jacket, trousers, shirt: I'm searching the fabric

for stitches my hand has known, for threads my thumb has pulled. 


This book is heavy with more than belongings:

with gestures an arm has left in a sleeve,

with breath filling the breast of a shirt. 


I place a plate on a table surrounded by empty chairs. 

Each speaks to me in the voice of a husband, a son.

Those found dead are a handful.  I sweep away the crumbs.




Concrete Poem

Surfin’ Safari for a Small Town Boy

Tokens of Admission

How Well It Burns

Tree Surgeons

One for the Road

All above from Dry Stone Work (Arc Publications, 2009)


Journal Publication

How Well It Burns – first published in Magma, 2012

Tree Surgeons – first published in New Writing Scotland, 2011

                            featured in Best Scottish Poems 2011, Scottish Poetry Library

One for the Road – first published in Gutter, 2010



After Mallory

A Reading of Bark

The Book of Belongings

All above from The Book of Belongings (Arc Publications, 2014)


Journal Publication

Gable – first published in Reactions, 2003

After Mallory – first published in Reactions, 2002

The Book of Belongings - first published in Smith’s Knoll, 2002



4 - Afterword

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We are looking for other poets to feature in this series, and are open to submissions.  Please send one poem and a short bio to - info@poetrykit.org

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