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An Introduction to Martin Johnston (Part 2) [by Thomas Moody]

Martin Johnston died in June 1990 at the age of forty-two having published three books of poetry: Shadowmass; The Sea-Cucumber; and The Typewriter Considered a Bee-Trap; a novel, Cicada Gambit; and a collection of translations of Greek Poems, Ithaka. His short life was marked by tragedy: his mother committed suicide in 1969 when Johnston was 21, and almost exactly a year later his father died in his sleep of tuberculosis. In 1974, Johnston's sister Shane committed suicide. A year before Johnston's own death his half-sister, Gae, died, also in tragic circumstances.

 

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"The Sea-Cucumber" is an elegy Johnston wrote for his father, ostensibly dedicated to the painter Ray Crooke. Crooke, best known for his dust-colored landscapes of the dry Australian outback, ironically won the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture in 1969 for his painting of Johnston's father, George. "The Sea-Cucumber" details an evening in which Crooke shows George Johnston one of his new works in which the painter has "floated / a sfumato background almost in front of the canvas". Johnston's father is "garrulous as ever" but the young speaker knows there is something forced to his father's performance, as he presses "every word-drop, like the wine of a harvest not quite adequate." 

 

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Ray Crooke North Queensland Landscape

The poem speaks to the limitations of art and centres on the metaphor of the sea-cucumber who, when touched, "spews up its entrails / as though that were a defence" to capture the futility of the writer who knows his work cannot save him. "The Sea-Cucumber" also gives us a taste of Johnston's eloquence, his erudition (which creates no impediment to a genuine intimacy), and brings to the fore a haunting melancholy which lurks in the corners of many of the poet's works. 

 

The Sea-Cucumber

                                                        for Ray Crooke


We'd all had a bit too much that night when you brought out
your painting,
the new one, you remember, over Scotch in the panelled kitchen,
and my father talked about waiting. Well, he was doing that,
    we knew,
or it could have been the dust you'd painted, the way
    you'd floated
a sfumato background almost in front of the canvas
so your half-dozen squatting dark figures couldn't see it
that moved him in that moment softly, in damp stone,
    outside time.
He was as garrulous as ever, of course, but somehow
in a time of his own, it seemed that he was pressing
every word-drop, like the wine of a harvest not quite adequate,
to trickle in brilliant bridles across the stained table:
what sorts of eucalypt to plant—so that they'd grow quickly—
art dealers, metaphysics, three old me he'd seen
at Lerici, playing pipes and a drum under an orange sky.
Memory finds a nexus, there in your image,
people just waiting, not even conscious of it,
or of ochre and sienna pinning them in an interstice of hours.
None of this, you see, will really go into writing,
it takes time to leech things into one's sac of words.
The bloated sea-cucumber, when touched, spews up its entrails
as though that were a defence; my father's old friend
the gentle little poet Wen Yi-tuo, who collected chess sets
and carved ivory seals in his filthy one-room hut,
is gutted one night and flung into the Yangtze.
The dark river runs through your dusty pigments.
Ferns, moss, tiger-coloured sun beat at the window with banners
but the dust ripples between trees, and among the waiting
glints of each an meta are wiped from the fading hand.
This people of yours, Ray, they are that evening
when we first saw them, or the other one when my father 
planted nineteen saplings in our backyard, or when you looked
    at them
later and said, They're coming on, and his fingers
drummed a long nervous question on the table, though 
    he agreed.
And we were all waiting, though not in your style of art:
more of a pointillism in time, disconnected moments,
a flash of light over an empty glass, a half-finished volume 
    of Borges,
the cabbage plan stooping at dusk into the chimneys,
certain paintings, Corelli, or a morning like the fuzz
    of a peach,
all bright and disparate. But I think, remembering that painting
of yours, that if one could step away, ten yards, or twenty,
    or years,
at an angle perhaps, a frame would harden into cedar
and through a haze of dust we would see all the brilliant dots
merge into a few figures, squatting, waiting.

 


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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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