Erudite to the first, Nicholas Johnson is a speaker of purity and place. Echoing the stones of spirit and surrounding, his work as poet and publisher carves and allows for some of the most visceral and vital responses to the problems facing our current state of being. His line of Etruscan books presents the work of modern culture’s most visceral and important writers, from the ur texts of Iain Sinclair, Tom Leonard and Brian Catling, to those of the much lamented Bill Griffiths, Edward Dorn, and David Gascoyne. Current artists covered by his benign shadow include Maggie O Sullivan, Helen MacDonald and the Hastings based writer and film maker, Rebecca E. Marshall. Johnson is therefore provider and protector of those working at the furthermost edge of expression and the exciting current project is the imminent publication of a new novel by the outsider who has been inside, the great John Healy, which has been 25 years in the making.
In line with the landscapes of fact and feeling that power his own work, the elemental nature of the practitioners that Etrusan favours echo the stones of a new coast. They call in fact for a realignment of feature, if we are to fully appreciate what is possible in language and its promotion through publishing. At a time when unedited copy smears the laser printers of self and online publishing, here is a sculpture of print, along with an enthusiasm and an originality of voice, housed within crafted and appealing books, whose smooth and intricate sensuality powers Johnson’s own creative energies.
How rare is it in these troubled times is to find someone fuelled by the true needs of responsibility? The father of three grown men and two young daughters, Johnson has certainly done his bit for the furtherance of the race and the sequelisation of personality, and yet his interest, intense and all- enquiring, remains. We met in Hastings, his personal place of renewal and the source of all of his work aimed at the body and soul. It was to be a snatched hour between appointments, as I left the company of our mutual friend, seminal poet, lyricist and singer, Pete Brown and Nick was shepherding his daughters to a pick up point with their mother, before heading off to a music festival further on, down the coast. Dazzled by my latest acquisitions from HMV (my first port of call on any shore I wash up on), a message came through to walk back to the sea and connect. As I stumbled and turned, Nick revamped his decision and out of sheer cordiality engined both young girls towards me. Emerging from the crowd we quickly re-established a friendship, born from a critique of certain poets at Pete Brown’s a few weeks before. Handing me the lead of his dog as he steered his daughters we were suddenly a tight corrall of intention as we motored off through the sea clapping streets. Talking in snatches that verbally mirrored the stirred ocean beside us we précised on subjects, some of which we had covered before. On who I was, what I thought and what I intended, my air- swept responses were hopefully designed to impress. But Johnson is sharp and scorches through all pretension. His support for true sense is impressive. There is refinement and power, just as there is in his studio brother, the mighty Andrew Kotting; Both men are workers, serving each hour. Cut through to the essence, drive yourself fast, to the point.
It was a rollercoaster on land as I juggled the dog and manoeuvred. We had got on in passing and now here we were side by side. I needed space to adjust, having been caught on the hop very slightly, but Johnson is motion, a lemon shark with bright peel. With sandy graced hair and clear eyes he is in your face and demanding, but they are the demands all should value as they seek to know someone’s truth. And so, while not having been friends, we quickly filled in that friendship, trimming the social fat and the fallow to get to the marrow within.
We headed away from the new to the proper old town of Hastings. I had been there the night before when Pete Brown took me to Maggie’s for the coastline’s best fish and chips. Today, there was an Italian circus troupe playing there, something to enjoy and react to; an artistic endeavour to in some way provide friendship’s glue. As we careened towards sounds of high accent and enjoyment, an unexpected spark of excitement suddenly came into view. Passing a line of parked cars we saw a woman’s handbag, abandoned. Full with life and its objects, Johnson immediately steamed towards it. ‘We’ll need to do something..’ he said, ‘we must find the owner..’ and his earnest need to resolve this was a clear testament to true grit.
How strange to see this, almost an alien object, separated as it was from its function as representative of the hand and the heart and the life of the woman’s it was. But why, though? And how? She had left her phone, purse and papers. There was food, keys, privations, all abandoned it seemed on the sand. Stones surrounded the bag, thereby making it totemistic. And perhaps emblematic; beach sourced premonitions of the stones of Johnson’s own poems (which I was soon to read), so the bag became a precursor, as if sealing the deal in some way. Everything stopped. I had the dog and the daughters. Nicholas had the handbag and patrolled around for a sign. We could neither of us understand how something this large slipped past senses. Was the owner Altzheimic? Or drunk in the day? Were they blind? Johnson scribbled a note and left it by the cars windscreen wiper. We took the bag and the baby, and the dog and the deed to the crowd. Nicholas bore the bag well, as if it were a shield or an emblem, while at the same time, parading it slightly, like a sixties girl, walking loud.
We got to the show. Acrobats balanced on the ball of a giant. Song, expectation under increasingly breaking skies. It began to rain. The small band could not risk the electrics and after only a few minutes finding and trying out plac,e we resigned. There would be no entertainment today but then I did not need it. What any new and strange day is lacking was easily supplied now by Nick. A man’s soul, opening, showing care for a stranger. Both for me and the woman. This mission he’d found was life’s trick.
He’d left his phone number. No call but as we walked away, a man (coast like, lumpen, burly), was talking on his phone to a woman about her missing handbag. Passing him, Nick sparked up, saying that he was the finder. The imperious oaf condescended to turn his slablike face towards us. Nick explained what we’d seen and that we were going to hang around until contact. He would sacrifice his plans, lease his daughters when their late mother arrived, but be there. The golem grunted assent as Nick gave the bag over. Nary a word passed that forged contact and certainly no gratitude. It was a form of horror. He left and now Nick and I stood with his daughters. We had witnessed a living example of the death of our times’ courtesy. I oberved the girls. Look, your Dad has done a tiny thing that was giant. I am hoping that the writing of these words some day tells them that their father once showed them both how to be.
They were too young that day but we don’t stay young forever. Apart perhaps from our spirit and its committment towards decency.
Here was a provider and poet who lives the proper path of a poem. He supports it with action. And is undeniably working, in and around words, for the free.
This freedom, or need to feel the heft of that freedom is there in the vibrancy of his manner and the humanity he so freely conveys. He is a romantic of sorts, a singular part of a world free from romance and in staccato bursts, Johnson questions the aims of us all as he writes. He observes and feels all, while much of his surface looks English. And some of the pain and distress he has weathered has been artfully subsumed into art. It is there on his face and in his talk as you listen. But it comes to the fore in his writing which melds weather and wind to warmed heart.
Johnson’s poetry evolves like the changing coastline to which he is so attached. Listening to the Stones and the totem like And Stood On Red Earth All A Round are encapsulations of spirit and place that easily rank beside the more well known evocations of Hughes and Heaney at their most arcane and elemental. Johnson is a Prometheus on his own crag, from which he considers and transforms his observations and experiences.
In Sea Mortar,
To walk the pitch of coast
And scrutinize Roy’s boy’s
Fishers they cumen in
Skittling the catch
To tar huts
Evokes not only the lost time and sensations of coastal communities as was, but also allows them to be joined with the now as effortlessly and effectively as Alan Garner’s The Stone Quartet, or the playwright David Rudkin’s raking of the Saxon shore.
Air’s stealth between sleeping rooms, strepsil sunlight..
In the slope and sashay of the cinema
Our chairs go down like decadent corn
Below the scythe
To the same poem’s ‘..vestiges of yearning (that) jostle me awake..’ Images and connections forged between personal and public past replay in the mind and the eye. That someone dealing so directly with the contemporary world (the pressures of independent publishing, the raising of a continuing stream of children) can contemplate and work at the poetic lathe in such a way as to make ancient metal and stone still ring true is a remarkable accomplishment. The scope of the book and its passage from shards of Johnson’s own life to sparks of reignited past take the breath far from the throat. Reading the pieces that come at you in the very same way that landscape does when travelling through it with great speed and intensity, one is compelled to speak out loud the phrases and conjunctions that mystify before, with sand and time scraped away, their meanings are more clearly revealed.
The slanting rain pioneers large petrol nooses up and
down a road. Hyacinth rissoles, eerie outspent wild garden pools
Not the no and not the yes To get incredulity at absence:
Glow worms, rooks, eel legionnaires you didn’t see
One for each preferred Side
Of the moon/ The Pleiades
And now night.
We are introduced to a worldview that comes from the core of the writer in a totally unique way. Old and new language forge their own song in the publishing smithery in which Johnson operates. His education and command of language join gentry to commoner, and his patronage of others is evidenced by his careful solitication of his own origins and current responses. It would be innacurate to suggest that other writers don’t work that way, but certainly much modern poetry seems to originate from musings that either resist or obey form and curiously percolate back in on themselves. Much modern writing resists the proper uses of craft for a passing semblance of the clever. Johnson is clever but he also sails his own craft His writing emanates from his deep contemplation, which in turn calls on differing areas of engagement and humour to raise every piece through its own education. As he laments lost loves, or moments of inspiration and connection, he searches, as ever, for ever new boundaries. His writing is chiselled, etched, mixed and considered and placed on the page in stanzas that very much reveal themselves to be steps or ledges towards a greater interpretation. They are explosions of observation, summoning, challenge and affirmation, keen to re-colour or to re-invent our own speech;
Blue dawn she rouses boats in a harbour,
Tarpaulin and flamenco squid waken. Mass she gives
To ink eyes and self poisonous scales,
Seines drag through water to ice-chocked casques
This poetry of the sea stoked areas that fringe the forgotten sides of the country is as much King Neptune as it is Lighthouse keeper, shining its power on everything moving for us through the black. It is poetry made by the relocation of language, as;
Off graves, ladle
My palm to a jem
And stars can be felt in your hand.
Aaron Williamson on the fly leaf of And Stood On Red Earth All A Round describes Johnson’s writing as a ‘driven music,’ and so it proves to be in the six book long poems this collections houses. (Pelt: The Two Brothers, Haul Song, Interval, Pine Apple, The Show and Pelt Book II). In a learned introduction, John Hall shows how Johnson connects to other coastal poets, such as the Dorset born Douglas Oliver (also an Etruscan author) and how the fusion of autobiography and for want of a better term, the much abused psychogeography, leads these epic poems to be equivalents of former literary lends; modern Gawains and Beowulfs, whose protagonists can transmute into many forms, containing both an adaptable individual and the people who populate that individual’s perception . Johnson, like Iain Sinclair, is an eminent walker and with his surfeit of energy covers the terrains of his past redistributing the sacred I to numerous narrators and protagonists as he delves for meaning in and through experiences both spiritual and harrowing. From his brother’s breath shining on a mirror as he hunts game in the poem The Two Brothers in Pelt, to the
‘fern spores that tinkle off sour shields..’ in Haul Song,
Johnson makes the act of memory a poem in and of itself. He carves from this reddened earth, redolent of the blood of past suffering, the forgotten colours and sensations that have formed us and in an English that seems to encapsulate and infer the stresses and concerns of other tongues altogether, he sings, sounds and celebrates
‘..the other reverberations of the street you will no longer be at odds with..’
For Nicholas Johnson there are truths within truths. His questioning of people, place and position is relentless. His need for the purity of the past and the commonality of the future are unequivocal.
In a whitening world his language is pigment.
At a time of clear ending Johnson pursues further earths.
His books are a path to the country he favours.
His words are stones for our building.
In his flashes of light lay sky bursts.
David Erdos 22nd October 2017