An Overtaking by Joan Johnston

Reviewed by Angela Topping

The poems in Joan Johnston’s An Overtaking are short and deft, puncturing the reader with the keen edge of words, the simplicity of things said in the best way she can find. Her work is understated but, on sinking in, the moment of realisation is bittersweet. For example, in ‘Lifer’, a prisoner loans the poet his watch, in a trusting, almost proud way, but his statement ‘it’s very accurate’ speaks worlds about how slowly each minute passes for him in his incarceration.

Johnston is very much a people poet. A running thread through this pamphlet featurespeople she has encountered in her writing workshops in prisons, day centres, and residential care facilities. A sequence of three, about care home residents, is full of compassion and noticing, without ever trying to hide painful truths. She sees the person behind the circumstances, such as Sally, the little girl old lady who wants to go home to her mother, but isn’t allowed out. The poem reverses itself to show the conversational loops that people with memory loss can get themselves into.

Johnston was one of the poets whose work was plagiarised by Sheree Mack. The poem ‘A Particular Blue II’ is a reworking of the stolen poem, which is included in full, but now it has a new coda in which Johnston reclaims her work. This was a deeply personal poem, an elegy for a friend who died in a flying accident. Johnston’s new section is very powerful:

This is my poem for him.
Years in the making. See how it stands
inviolate. Nothing changed.

You can have your hummingbird back.
It just doesn’t belong. Your fire,
your ruby, that naked flesh

− you can have them back too.
Look, I’ve reclaimed
my blackbird! Listen

to its song! How it repeats, still holds
my sleep, my dream,
my afternoon. The promise he made,

his last words to me − taking them away
is impossible. And that colour he saw, that blue beyond
azure, remains. Particular. Indelible.

What I love about this is its spell-like quality. It’s a binding charm, rejecting the changes made, which seem so garish compared to the blackbird, the restraint, the particular shade of blue serenity. I suspect much hurt has been processed into this unforgettable response, which utterly negates the theft and reasserts the original so exquisitely.

Johnston includes some tender elegies for her father, and an accepting poem about taking her widowed mother on holiday to Italy, where she buys a piece of Capo Di Monte. Again the incident is allowed to speak for itself. To Johnston, the fussy china figurine is not appealing, but the picture of the mother running her fingers over it with pleasure, perhaps thinking about her youth, when she and her husband were happy, is very touching.

Poems about Ada, who is possibly an elderly neighbour, remind me of Keats’ Meg Merrilies. The woman has very little but is always willing to share what she has. The two poems are separated in the book, which gives a lovely sense of the time passing between ‘Ada in Autumn’ when she is offering windfalls, and later ‘Ada in Spring’, putting her washing out between showers. It feels as though we have lived through a difficult winter to arrive at a new spring, which is a lot to accomplish in a pamphlet.

Birds and wildlife offer a further theme, and further accomplished poems. Johnston is a poet who observes and notices things others might miss, and shares her noticing with her reader. She also gives us unexpected love poems, such as ‘Sheltering’, in which hailstones  are ‘pearls round our feet’; they somehow come to stand for years of marriage and intimacy, in the quotidian moments that are not rare, but which make our lives worth living, those simple joys.