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).

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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Nothing depends on this fruit any more,
these oranges someone has hung on a wire
to keep them from mice

long dead. So many summers
have been and gone, all that was flesh has dried
to these six russet pods slung from a beam

slowly rotting to dust. One touch of the hand
and the rafters part company, shift,
the way all the ghosts that left here

this bag of herbs forgotten on a nail,
that oil can shrouded in rust, this bulb of garlic,
hollow, withered to a husk, just

wandered off. In this house, no more
than two rooms and a yard, flakes of plaster
have dropped, spread like petals

over a mattress that rots on a bed
no-one has slept in for years, laid out,
wreathed in blossom, the scent of neglect.

Anatolí, Crete
from The Book of Belongings (Arc, 2009)


The jar will long retain the fragrance
of what it was steeped in when new.

They’re there in every shipwreck,
every trench,
stacked in serried ranks or shattered

by some trauma in the past
that whispers in the ear,
the way the thumb prints round the rim

speak volumes lost
but surely close at hand;
like accident, ill fortune, clumsiness

all waiting round the corner,
hiding in a section under soil
the trowel has failed to pick away, the eye

has overlooked; as with this ship – caught out
upon a reef
low tide exposed so briefly

none had made the shout
in time – that foundered, took in water, sank
to lay upon these silted rocks

some planks, a larder, corked and sealed,
the commonplace,
the musk of honey, reek of resin, wine.

from The Book of Belongings (Arc, 2009)


for Andy Goldsworthy

These stupa-like cairns that punctuate the gorge
are Goldsworthy’s in spirit, if not
in name. We add to them

a stone, a pebble, waymarking the route
to lead those coming autumn will permit
the better down the course

of what will be a river come November
with the start of winter rain,
a torrent from the snow-melt in the spring.

The permanence of what resemble Henry Moores
in all their form and bulk,
shore up every fly-by-night route marker

stacked upon these eddy-sculpted rocks
but subject to the coming wash
of water Goldsworthy might welcome, were he here

in more than spirit, when the force
now dormant in the gorge sweeps all
direction, art, intention before it in the flood.

Diktamos Gorge, Crete
first published in Gutter magazine, 2011


Something persuades the bitter fruits
that sweetness must be bought
with more than tears,

more than patience in the tending
of their needs, more than tasks
as endless as the seasons

still demand of those
who cut the stem to grow the shoot,
who risk the thorn

that worms into the flesh,
the gout of blood
that berries on the surface of the skin,

who cradle in the hollow of their palm
the thought of ripening,
something provable with time,

a certain knowledge
of vitality, of zest.

first published in Gutter magazine, 2011


That’s what we thought it was, but we were wrong
as Greeks proved, running from their island homes
dishevelled to the street, the sign that this

was dry land, that the ground beneath the legs
of café chairs, of tables – yes – had moved,
had shivered, shaken slightly, just enough

to register alarm. Which we did not,
ascribing this to somewhere else our minds
rewound us to. And that mistake was all

that kept us in our seats, our coffee cups
still rattling in their saucers, proof enough.
Enough to think the ship we were not on, but felt

we were, had ground against the pier too long.
That’s what we thought it was,
but we were wrong.

Skopelos, Sporades
first published in Poetry Scotland, 2003


Rolled and stowed in the crooks of trees
since autumn, they find their purpose now:

a membrane stitched to terrace floors,
the sutures of this harvest. Meshed the way

that hands have plied this one particular trade –
the loose weave cloth, the canvas netting

of their fathers’ day – they take the ground
and pepper it with light, which flows

in plastic form, down hillsides cut to steps
beyond recorded time. We measure it –

our portion – spread upon the earth
and count its minutes in the steady thwock

of olives, dropping as we watch,
on nets held open, wanting
like a palm.

Paleochora, Crete
first published in Poetry Scotland, 2003

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