Sol – it’s an apt title for summer reading, but the cover image is of a sunflower not in bloom. Seeds are falling from its dead, drooping eye onto grass. Near the sun lurk the shadows, but more sun may yet bloom out of the shade.This collection has a deeply spiritual feel to it. Sol is not just sun but “Solitude, solace, consolation.”
Johnston is the 2007 Stout Fellow at Victoria, where he’s writing a book about contemporary New Zealand poetry. This is his fifth poetry collection, following Birds of Europe (2000), The Open Window (1999), The Sounds (1996) and How to Talk (1993).
There are, in fact, two ‘suns’ at the heart of this collection. ‘Les Baillessats’, for Johnston’s young son, hails the child’s reaction to French farm life – “You see everything, but you won’t remember it”. The child sees a butterfly, “a new soul hatched, every minute, with new wings.”
’The Sunflower’ is an elegy for Johnston’s father in which a Christ-like, glowing, terrifying image appears risen from a tired mortal body – “death brings lillies but someone has sent a sunflower:/ this is our penance, staring at the sun/its blind eye/its ragged halo.”
In ‘Glacier’, a radiant but frightening display of global warming inflicts itself on sorbet-eating latterday ‘Romans’, “and suddenly the sun/ puts out its tongue/and another glacier/melts like icecream.”
Sol is not just the sun, but the leafy sheltering tree beneath it and the shiver you get from sitting in its shade.