Friday, April 26, 2013

Poem: Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson (1965-1993), not the recent Pulitzer Prize winner but the late lyric poet bearing his name, was one of the promising British versifiers of his generation when he died of HIV-related disease in the early 1990s. A native of Stalybridge, Cheshire, he arrived on the London literary scene in 1984, and cut a stylish figure, while also producing poems very much in keeping with the mainstream conventions of that era. What began to set him apart was his fastidiousness with language and his openness in writing from the perspective of an openly queer young poet, taking up the thread that predecessors Thom Gunn, W. H. Auden and others had bequeathed him. Like so many queer male poets of that moment, of that generation, my generation, he was cut short before he even reached his prime. Johnson published one book in his lifetime, a second appeared only weeks after his death at 28; his Collected Poems, edited by Neil Powell, did not appear until 2002. Johnson's poems are usually only a few stanzas long, show almost no formal experimentation or elaborate wordplay, draw upon observations of nature, and often invoke an unnamed beloved, though he was quite clear who, in later years, this was: James Levondowski, his love for whom underlines many lines. Below is "Nocturne," one of Johnson's earlier poems that shows the talent he possessed and gives a hint of what might have been possible had he lived longer. All art is ultimately in part a memorial, and in the case of those many artists struck down before they were able to accomplish what they hoped to, it's but a tiny cenotaph, yet one that, especially in Johnson's case, keeps drawing us back, to read, and remember.


October makes censers
Of these wooded places.
Out of the cool ether
Of darkness strike the
Branching crystals of trees,
By night's definition
Of a rarer substance -
The texture of bark
Is wholly light's privilege.

The path leads us to
A locked gate we climb. There is
Tension in our nearness -
The feel of you, our hands
Clasped in recognition
Of their own engaged warmth.

In embracing we earth,
Here, where a stream's course
Through banks of cypresses
Designs a garden,
The motion of its cool blade
As purposeful as blood.

Now the spell of your voice
Concedes to other sounds,
Falling into dark air
That cherishes each note -
This water easing
Over known rocks, through reeds,
The soft consent of leaves.
Drawing me close, there is
Nothing you would not give.

December 1986

Copyright © The Estate of Adam Johnson, from Adam Johnson, Collected Poems, edited by Neil Powell, Manchester: Carcanet, 2003. All rights reserved.

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