We see the fruits of this everywhere in Johnston’s poetry, which more perhaps than any other contemporary New Zealand poet’s obeys Keats’s injunction to “inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress / Of every chord, and see what may be gained / By ear industrious.” He has a special affinity for the sestina (and even the rare double sestina, as in the extraordinary elegy for his father, “The Sunflower” from Sol) which allows him simultaneously to stake out an allegiance to “traditional” form, but also nod to the form’s vibrant modernist (and post-modernist) life. In both traditional forms and free verse poems Johnston’s ear is constantly alert to prosodic effects. Note in “New House,” for example, the subtle plays of internal rhyme, assonance and alliteration (rain/train; other/Mother; house/doubts/drought etc.).
This is not to suggest an empty formalism. Johnston’s subjects are often small in scale but usually large in implication; family scenes and personal memories are teased at until they yield powerful meditations upon life, death and the fragility of our bonds with the past. Johnston’s “Les Baillessats,” an answer of sorts to the vexed relationship with his father, and his father’s Catholic faith, explored in “The Sunflower” records a visit to a small French hamlet in what was Cathar country in the Middle Ages. The poem seeks to record the experience for his then 16 month old son. It is a touching record of paternal devotion but the violently erased history of the heretic Cathars haunts the poem as an all-too-present absence, calling into question the very possibility of preserving memories and passing on legacies.
Johnston reads much as he writes, with a careful precision that gives the words space to allow their echoes and evocations to reverberate.