Brian Johnstone

Brian Johnstone

Brian Johnstone is a Scottish poet whose work has appeared throughout Scotland, in the UK, in America and in various European countries. He has published five collections to date, his latest being The Book of Belongings (Arc, 2009). His poems have been translated into more than 10 different languages and in 2009 Terra Incognita, a small collection of his poems in Italian translation, was published by L’Officina (Vicenza). His next collection Dry Stone Work will be appearing in 2014.

A founder and former Festival Director of StAnza: Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, Brian Johnstone has appeared at numerous international poetry festivals from Macedonia to Nicaragua, and at major venues across the UK.

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There should be no sound
but the thrum of machinery stitches her
to the nap of the lagoon.

Piles tack each hem
like common pins,
as the keel shears the channel apart.

Everywhere poles beyond count
fade to the edge
as she shimmers past,

ripping this sheen of silk brocade,
material to both
the water and the dusk.

If this were hand stitched
she’d be oared along,
the twist of shaft in shallows

ruffling sediments
unbroached for years, a velvet darkness
mimicked in the surface

blades are cutting now
to take her where the needle’s
steady prick and pull will not go again.

The Burano ferry, Venice
from The Book of Belongings (Arc, 2009)


It is as if the thoughts you measure, try to grasp,
the words you think
you have held on to, are not there

but hover somewhere out of reach;
the way those constellations
that your eye can only focus on for seconds

vanish then,
until you catch them unawares
through sidelong glances, furtive snatches at the dark

that gives them back for moments:
as the mind does,
almost without prompting,

chancing on a place as tentative, as unknown
as the night sky that I gaze upon,
proportioned by the moon.

Paleochora, Crete
from Homing (The Lobby Press, 2004)


The house is dreaming of olive trees
and harvests, meals on the old brick terrace
under the knotted ropes of the vine,

while we listen to Spring chime in
in church bells, in the distant clatter
of sheep flocks, passing now.

The door creaks. Dogs bark
out in the distance. Sunlight floods
the wild flowers in the grass.

What passes is time
and with it the purring of engines
as soil turns over soil and seeds take

ready for the rain which,
falling somewhere in the mountains,
finds lakes and river beds; and growth again.

La Granja, Andalucia


This small Berlin has no wish to be whole,
entrenched in bleak resentment of its fate.
Pictures proclaim the justice of each role.

All that remains where bullets took their toll
are pock marked walls whose slogans scream of hate.
This small Berlin has no wish to be whole.

But cross the line and pass the police control:
in no-man’s land white roses link the gates
where pictures claim there’s justice in each role.

Behind, the blue and white flies on its pole;
and only there can peace accumulate:
this small Berlin has no wish to be whole.

Ahead, the crescent mounts its own patrol
insistent on an end to all debate,
for pictures show the justice of their role.

The flowers in no-man’s land cannot console
the hardened hearts, the policies that state:

This small Berlin on our terms will be whole;
our pictures prove the justice of our role.

Nicosea, Cyprus
first published in Fife Lines magazine


My shadow is a pool about my feet,
the murky black of bruises on the thigh.
I sweat into my shirt. My bones reply,
to unaccustomed effort in the heat,
with disbelief. I press on.
This track leads
through olive groves and up onto the ridge,
along by rocks and thorns and to the edge,
where yet another climb awaits which needs
another effort, further strain.
And still
the view remains. It draws me up and on.
The straggle of the village, white and sloped
below, the castle fisted on the hill.
Out there, beyond the bay, a ship is gone.
The land has moored my feet, this track its rope.

Kapsali, Kythira, Greece
first published in Island magazine


after Weldon Kees


Two weeks in and the mind is lightening.

Robinson has begun to read again.
He has acquired a small library.
army surplus mostly.
Amongst them an ancient Baedekker,
maps, a restaurant guide.

Robinson in extremis, planning an excursion,
surprises himself.


Slotting a Spanish coin into a telescope,
tourist Robinson
gazes across the straits.

Beyond him,
concrete, a rainwater trap.

A small boy, scientist by nature,
begins an experiment.
Sweating slightly,
Robinson follows the arc of each stone
to where it meets concrete.

Through the lens,
Robinson stares at the trap.
The gully at its foot
seems to him
no bigger than a man’s hand.

His money spent,
the lens darkens.

With reflection,
Robinson’s time has run out.


Booking was always a problem,
requiring fortitude.

Almost too much to bear
for Robinson, the choice of destinations.
He ponders,
savouring the act of pondering, at least.

The agencies welcome him.
It is his money they are after. Robinson
knows this.
It does not trouble him at all.

So, Robinson


On the waves a boat moves,
cutting the Mediterranean, the middle sea.
And Robinson at the bows,
breathing deeply.

A week gone by, a pattern becomes apparent.

Robinson intently studying the map.
Robinson asleep in a deck chair,
the missing moments.

At dinner
honoured Robinson seated
at the captain’s table, glass in hand.

Days find Robinson at the rail.
He regrets
his lack of camera,
buys a series of cheap postcards
from the quayside vendors.

Robinson finds himself waking early.

There is little to do, thinks Robinson
heading east,
rounding the world.

from Robinson: A Journey (Akros, 2000)

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Poetry in this post: © Brian Johnstone
Published with the permission of Brian Johnstone