Fits & Starts. Andrew Johnston (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2016). ISBN 9781776560615. RRP $25. 86pp.
Reviewed by Jonathan Gill
The chief achievement of Andrew Johnston’s Fits & Starts (winner of the Poetry Award in the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards) is the wide array of poetic effects it communicates, through simplicity of both language and form. With few exceptions, the poems in this collection are written in a seemingly unassuming two-line stanza. These bite-sized bits (or perhaps fits) can have relatively self-contained meanings, but they transform when read within the flow of the overall poem. Take, for instance, the opening two stanzas of “Hunch”:
I was in love with your shrink
in my dream, she said
tell me your dream, so I
told her my waking —
At first blush, the opening lines read fairly simply — a woman recounts a dream she has had. But when we reach the third line, we find that what she says is something else,“tell me your dream”, asking us to reassess who says and does each of the actions recounted. The atmosphere is of early-morning fogginess, and it is one small example of how Fits & Starts stresses the activity of reading.
The book is organised into three parts. Parts II and III are very intentional sequences of poetry, whereas the first part is a collection of only loosely associated poems, the most ambitious of which is “Half Life”. The titular ‘half life’ is many a thing: it is a reduction of life to formulas, data, facts. It is only half of life, objective reality without subjective experience; and it is the decaying half life of modern alienation. But it is not a bleak poem — in fact it exudes charm and wit as it mixes laboratory experiment with daily life: ‘Breakfast is served at the periodic table’.
As its name suggests, Part II of the book, “Echo in Limbo”, incorporates elements of Greek mythology and biblical cosmology as it tells a story mostly set in modern times. Each poem is named after a book from the Old Testament (“Genesis”, “Exodus”, and so forth). The sequence follows Echo, a Greek nymph searching for love who is repeatedly compared to a satellite orbiting the earth (“I Samuel” and “II Samuel”). Like a satellite, she observes the world from a nonhuman frame of reference. Eventually, in Part III, we discover that Echo lacks a soul (“Echo”).
The poems in Part III are organised around the NATO phonetic alphabet used in radio transmission: “Alpha”, “Bravo”, “Charlie”, etc. The poem “Delta” serves as a good showcase for how these words expand into new meanings and symbols. It tells a not-so-happy love story, and along the way ‘Delta’ becomes Delta Airlines, the triangle of father-mother-child (inspired by the Greek letter Δ), and ‘where the river meets the sea’.
These verbal associations have an easy playfulness and humour, but their wittiness is never just surface level. Fits & Starts wants to engage the reader with numerous emotions, as it narrates stories of human relationships and what it means to live in modern society.
Jonathan Gill is completing his doctoral studies in Renaissance Literature at the University of Auckland. He has worked in coffee shops, theatre, and soup kitchens.