Brian Johnstone’s latest publication:

The Book of Belongings (Arc, 2009)

Bio & publications:


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Readings & performances:

The Book of Belongings

The Commonplace

Lady Day’s Experience

Two poems with Trio Verso

Complete reading at Zinc Bar NYC

Poetry films:

How Well It Burns


Poems on line:

Scottish Poetry Library

Ink Sweat & Tears

Shore Poets


Contributor Notes


Twenty Poems New & Selected

Brian Johnstone

by Brian Johnstone

Reading the Book


Limp-covered, unprotected, paperbacks

have grown their marks the way a body might respond

to wounds in childhood, accident’s distress;


grown them from the chop of steel,

the nicks in blades that sheared them square

to leave raised tracks that curve across the page-ends


like a scar.  They bear these too: the indentations

pulsed through covers that fade out only

as the plot develops, characters begin to grow. And there


the corners start to crease, each random scalene

waiting for a thumb to smooth it out,

to claim the place back from somebody pausing in a past


which left these pits and scores

by accident, from skill a little less than it might be,

or pressing time, preserved here in the strata of a book.







Making the Change


Each third of a pint

was passed round the class

till all


had their bottle and paper straw,

a hole poked into the foil,

and time to suck


the warm as blood,

or chilled from frosty mornings



governments they’d never heard of

put their way.  One extra,

two or three


if more were absent,

made the rounds, an object lesson

in the doing,


in the agitating

all were urged to do

to churn the stuff to butter, fresh


as their amazement

at the trick.  The solid,

chilled and spread on biscuits,


oozed and crunched on gappy teeth,

imaginations sparked

and harking back


to frozen bottles, winter crystals

icy on the gums,

the mystery of transformation,


milk persuading them of change.






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.




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.

from The Book of Belongings (Arc, 2009)






Dry Stone Work


Teamwork, you said and grabbed the corner

of the sack.

                     Too late.  My tensing back,

unused like yours to working with its hands,

went crack, as strain was felt and slack

was taken up.  We soldiered on and stones

built thick and fast.  Time dribbled past

and you, my senior by a score of years,

worked steadfast hour on hour.  I gasped

and, fighting to keep up, the stones became

this wall.

                  Now, looking at it all,

you off to more jobs still to do, it seems

a small thing to have made me crawl

from chair to chair, with aching back,

feeling much as stones inside a sack.






In Passing


I wander, aimless through the house, to discover

you have left, on a table in the porch,

a plate of strawberries rescued from the rain;


the first downpour of August saying:

summer passes, fruits will rot

if not collected in the gaps between the showers;


and lying there, eight blood red hearts

still warm against the white cold of the plate,

they hold the pulse of seasons willingly;


willing me to take their musky sadness,

press it to my lips, tongue sweetness, tang and texture

as I pass them round the cold white of my teeth,


suck every tone and fibre of the balmy days,

lay it up against recurring downpours,

against the way we have of laying fruit upon a plate.



first published in the anthology Such Strange Joy (iynx publishing, 2001)







Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness

Genesis 1; 26


We leave the table near to midnight.

Later cleared, it gives the game away:


a drift of salt, the crystals poised

against the bread crumbs, flakes of rind


that war for space upon this surface,

catching in the clefts of skin, the rough


of cotton,  as we swab it down. Enough

to brush this tribe into the rubbish


men will take to rot in landfill; enough

to trust that one day wood will plane


into a surface welcome to the touch,

will take the glossing of a sponge


unsnagged.  We quit the task, pinch

salt grains from our palms, accept


decay is evident and all there is beyond

this thickening of the gut, shines back


from waxed wood, marble’s mirror sheen,

wars too for space, a floater in the eye,


until it sticks there, snags the tissue

of the brain, makes us look through all


the surfaces we polish, searching for

our faces, for some deeper, richer grain.



from The Book of Belongings (Arc, 2009)

Place of Graves


She knows that she’s the only one

for miles. The rattling space

of countryside, the empty plain

unsettling her, the urban Jew,

drawn back to this black soil.


The township’s there, the name

still on a wall.  Her own, surviving

in some faded list, its spelling

recognisably the same, enough

to trace the lot the house stood on.


She knows before she sees it

it is gone. They all have, ashes

blown across the plain, a trace

of carbon on the surface of the snow,

hidden under still more recent falls.


In this one place of graves she’s found

they linger on, the family name

so worn away it might be nothing

more than wish-fulfilment, hope.

She stoops to smother it with snow.


It reads again, a white script

ghosted by her fingers into stone.



from The Book of Belongings (Arc, 2009)









The former Craiglockhart Hydropathic, used during the First World War as a hospital for shell-shocked officers, now houses Edinburgh Napier University's Business School.


Maybe they’re here somewhere, lost

in these crowds of students, informal

in their tweeds, plus fours –


Sassoon, the elder, Sunday golfer;

Owen, bookish, gangly, pale – mingling

with the queue for the refectory,


snatching nervously at fags, ignoring

notices forbidding all those here

to smoke. You catch a glimpse


you think, later, in the distance

– backs straight, military haircuts –

turning down a corridor you glance along


but they’re not there.  No, no-one is, though

low light slants through window frames,

plants these crosses on the wall.








A grim reminder [was] found up the chimney of a New Town home, [as] builders took away bricks from a blocked flue...

Edinburgh Evening News


It dropped into their hands out of the soot,

this token of the past, now stiff with age.


The leather hard, the lace long burnt away,

they held it up, a blackened child’s boot.


Today, perhaps a boy of six could force

his foot in here;  a century ago


a ten year old might even fit this sole

abandoned in the flue, lost in the course


of haste.  Into the stack, his knuckles raw,

the threat of fire to goad him from below,


he must’ve let it lie, and scaled the dark

desperate to move, to sweep away the work,


the boot still on the other foot, they say,

his master always there, a cry away.


from The Book of Belongings (Arc, 2009)






An Execution


When Elizabeth I was informed of the death of Essex she was playing the virginals.


She lifts one hand and then the other.  The blade

has done its work, they come to say; he will trouble her

no more.  Her hands alone


deny this fact as, pausing at the virginals, her stare

is fixed on nothing.  Straight ahead she sees him

kneel, the rise and fall


of no more than an hour ago,

that makes the measure bitter to her thoughts,

its music pointless exercise that she, from her position,


must resume.  Her hands rest

on the keys.  Black and white is how she sees it,

this curse attached to rank. Her ladies watch 


as no word passes from her lips.  She lifts one hand

and then the other.  One note in precedence

begins it all again, a harmony restored.






The Method


I was a child nobody wanted. A lonely girl with a dream. . .
Marilyn Monroe


There are ways of acting which can be taught;

if the actor uses The Method


it will look a lot like real life.  It may even

start to feel like that.  It is as plausible as a dream. 


She wasn’t an orphan.  She had a mother,

had a father, living in a mansion in Beverly Hills.


Sometimes she thinks: If I was pretty enough,

my father would come and take me away.


In the orphanage she stares through the window

at the distant neon


on top of the RKO lot,

sees it flash and thinks, someday.


A Method actor will do something false

until it becomes second nature.  That way


they will not be playing at it.  No-one

will be able to tell the difference.  Perhaps the actor


will not be able to tell the difference either. 

Sometimes, if a life is awful enough,


there will be comfort in this.  A doctor says: Child,

save your tears!  You may need them.


from the writing of Alastair McKay

first published in the anthology Split Screen (Red Squirrel Press, 2012)






The Man Who Sang to Wine


is who we’re hearing in the basement.

Midnight, and we’re taking the back stairs up

to that attic room.  Morning,


and he’s crossing the yard in sunlight,

his voice lifting once again.

A fragment of some lyric, chant de Renaissance


filters the air clear.  And this

he gives to wine, to cellar after cellar

of the stuff – a chill runs through it. 


Somewhere between a tenor and an alto,

this rosé voice spans

a rack of notes. Each song soaked bottle


opens for our lips.  The chill is there, the suck

of grape on land, of some acoustic property

on liquid, flowing now


into our throats, the song dissolving inwards,

taking clarity, the flinty soil,

the element of joy, to tune our tongues.



Clos de Vaulichères, Tonnnerre, France


from The Book of Belongings (Arc, 2009)






The Bitter Fruits


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.






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 that’s read

from knife cuts, from twists of wire,

the necessary nail hammered home,


translates to a human scale,

preferring these 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. 



from The Book of Belongings (Arc, 2009)







Although the dyke would seem to point her back

to where the walk began

she’s lost


until these swans wing into view, heading out

for somewhere

that this silt has not turned back to land


which they could walk on,

she could not

for fear of sinking to her knees. Her eyes


track every wing-beat as the wind

decides their course,

forces them to heel about, to tack against the gusts


that push them her way,

right above her head. It’s there

she sees the glint of water flashing in their eyes,


hears the self-same wind

articulate each feather in their wings,

show her the way


determination works. They land on what she sees

as scrubby grass, and only later

will identify as water,


fen that would have stopped her in her tracks

which lead now – boots on flint,

impacted soil – the way


the swans flew:

banked, oblique but homing

by some instinct, for the place they left behind.



Blakeney, Norfolk

from The Book of Belongings (Arc, 2009)


The Accents of Mice


Whinstone, rough as banter,

lets them in,


its grammar leaving space

for something


small enough

to pass as thought,


allowing sense

to mutter in the skirtings,


habits as ingrained

as accent in the brain


and harder than its markers

to expel.







Something tolls, dead in the water,

from sixty years back; chimes

in the stonework of the brain


the way a mother’s voice is never

quite forgotten, the sounds of childhood

carry through somehow.  And you


look downwards at the brink, knowing

that the eddies washing on this shore

have inhabited what’s left of life


that quit this valley by decree.

The banking stretches out behind you;

notices on poles advise against


a list of things from which the years

have cut you off, the way these waters have

from house and plot, familiar homes,


the chapel where you pumped the organ

for the psalms.  Ignored, the gables rise

like bibles in a rack from where


you always knew they would, in time.

And now the drought has dropped

the level of the water twenty feet, enough


to recognise where lanes had been,

how houses all had hunkered in together,

formed the township that you left


to which you have returned, a memory

in someone else’s book: an old man

staring out across this reservoir, as deep


in thought as are the sounds

of church bells, accents, running water,

steeped in sixty years of loss.








Weather writes, erases and rewrites itself upon the sky with the endless fluidity of language.
Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds


It’s the way we stare at clouds

and wish for sun

to siphon out the gloom,


the way we watch each patch of shadow

billow like a bruise

across the fields


not bringing what we long for.  It’s this

our minds reach after, surprised

to find they close


on nothing but the blue

that lingers close to the horizon

we gaze at hour on hour,


each retina impressed with lie of land,

recognising slope and contour

as easily


as the permanence

we think we hanker for. Somewhere

between the cloudscape


and the purity of blue

is the weather map that we believe

to be desire.



Behind Your Eyes


There are times when you stop in your tracks,

halted by the scent of a blossom, the curve

of a particular leaf; times when these things


shift like the wind from absence to absence;

and all of you lurches forwards, foot before foot,

your mind one turn in the path from recognition


and this is one of these: a tree lies, particular of aspect,

along the way; a light blinks across the valley;

and darkness reaches out to touch you,


as this does, welling up from somewhere

you have been, you think, before but

did not know it, did not recognise the moment


that takes you now by something more

than just surprise; like something living, palpable,

that rustles in the underbrush, hides behind your eyes.



first published in the anthology 100 Favourite Scottish Poems (Luath Press, 2006)










Notes on the poems:



Several of the poems in the above selection make reference to cultural elements specific to Scotland or the UK.


Making the Change is inspired by the class lesson frequently experienced by young children in the 1950s & 60s when each child would receive a daily drink of milk, courtesy of the government’s health programme; spare bottles were sometimes used to make butter by passing them round the class to be shaken vigorously.


Surfin’ Safari for a Small Town Boy is a fantasy imagining The Beach Boys visiting a Scottish seaside town; it contrasts the west coast US surfing culture with the dour Calvinism of 1960s Scotland.


Gable is also set in 1960s Scotland, during the period when Victorian style tenements were being demolished in favour of high-rise apartment blocks; a frequent sight then was the exposed internal gable exhibiting each apartment’s end wall to public gaze.


Place of Graves was inspired by a radio programme about a Scottish actor, of Jewish descent, returning to her family’s roots in Lithuania.


Craiglockhart refers to the War Poets Wilfred Owen and Seigfried Sasoon’s stay in an Edinburgh hospital, as featured in the film Behind the Lines and the novel Regeneration.


Sootfall refers to the 19th century practice of sending young boys up chimneys to sweep out the soot; the New Town in Edinburgh is the 18th century Georgian expansion of the medieval Old Town.


Reservoir is based on a news story about the reappearance of the remains of an upland village, previously flooded by the construction of a reservoir, reappearing during a period of drought.


Should anyone wish further information on these poems or their cultural references, please contact the poet via his Facebook page (link above).