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Martin Johnston

Five Late poems

This file is about five printed pages long.

For the Birds: The Life of Paolo Uccello

Uccello once fancied he was turning into cheese,
still, lived “to a disgruntled eighty-three”,
according to the censorious Vasari.
He was the fanatical type, like Spinoza.
He loved pictures of animals and birds,
being unable to afford the creatures themselves
or, like Leonardo, to buy and free them.
When his friend Donatello made fun of him
he stopped painting, saw no one, spent his last years
“solitary, eccentric, melancholy and poor”,
working on intricate technical problems.
His wife said he’d refuse to come to bed,
saying “Oh, what a lovely thing is this perspective!”
He seems to me to have been a happy man.

Tabula Rasa

The hoopla! clang and return of the typewriter carriage
invests each line with a finally spurious authority.
The same is true of the genre of “nature poems”.
Birdlife regarded as historically portentous
or the cypresses as spelling out something in Umbrian
have all the easy felicity of soap.
The marquetry of incandescent cumulus over the hilltops
is an exercise in mere rococo; while in the village,
pointlessly, the Christian Democrats are dancing.
Rain sweeps in from Lago Trasimene
in this season of mauve flowers after the season of yellow.
I would hold, in point of making a statement,
against the nightingale’s obstinate aria
the lit and utter silence of fireflies.

Biennale, After Magritte

Consciousness regarded as an empty window
interrupted by the distant flight of a bird
or a cloud in tempera on eggshell-blue gesso
offers a crossroads of possibilities
you can always call internalised,
at least if you’re writing a poem.
And if you’re not
you can draw on garbled memories of King Kong and Godzilla,
the hunter-observer snug in his hide
in the fork of the tree by the swamp
while low in the corner of the flickering screen
the horrible thing rises and reaches out,
all the more terrifying
for being, really, so shoddily put together.

Gorey at the Biennale

The vaporetto founders in green slush,
wickerwork masks are hanging in the trees
aslant, with half-glimpsed smiles. A vague unease
seems to be centred on a certain bush.
Those little birds seem not quite right for birds,
these beetles have an odd seductive air.
Who ever heard of willow trees with hair?
Words keep suggesting other unwanted words.
It’s not that it’s not pretty in the park,
not that you feel there’s anything afoot,
but when you hear the little steamer’s toot
you hurry to get out before it’s dark.
Of course the gate is locked; of course you knew
the star attraction of the show was you.


                    for Roseanne

Grief breaks the heart and yet the grief comes next.
Some lemon morning in a wash of rain
a brand-new horror comes to call again
and write a footnote to expunge the text.

The gall slips down and hardly hurts at all;
your scholarly rescensions of the past
prove to your satisfaction that at last
time counterloops and paradoxes pall.

Your paintings have been swapped for cheap engravings,
all trace of colour has been washed away,
it’s 3 a.m. although you know it’s day,
the bank’s engrossed your past and future savings.

          Love is the subject and love’s loss the text.
          Grief breaks the heart and yet the grief comes next.

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