Wednesday 7 April 2021

The archaeology of home, Brian Johnstone's The Marks on the Map

Brian Johnstone’s new collection, The Marks on the Map (Arc Publications, 2021), takes those afore-mentioned maps as a point of departure, observing their landmarks and the consequent parallels that can be drawn with our lives, particularly with the ageing process.

One excellent example can be found in ‘Outfield’, which evokes the development of an Ordnance Survey map…

…A slow collapse
to dereliction – flagged as ‘ruin’ there,
in brackets, on the map – then nothing

on the later OS sheets…

The poem comes alive via Johnstone’s deft description of the human changes that mirror the building’s decline:

…The hillside
clear of habitation, bar the farmhouse
standing empty, your father

gone, bedded in a care home,
blind; the light I saw each evening
switched off, disconnected at the mains.

In the above piece, Johnstone draws mainly on implicit comparisons that can be made between the building and the people around it. However, in other poems, he portrays the contrasts, as in ‘Primrose’, which also begins with a reference to the Ordnance Survey before homing in (sic) on the specific connotations and ramifications of a landmark on the speaker’s own life:

...New housed ourselves, and wed the year before,
we wondered what the place had left to share,
what archaeology of home we might obtain.

Some floor tiles, red and heavy fired clay, we left
an age ago in a cottage long moved on from,
and this small plaque still with us here today.

A finger plate, it holds the touch of generations,
the shepherd it depicts guiding them like flocks
to lower pastures for the coming autumn days.

This extract contains a pivotal, beautiful turn of phrase, the archaeology of home, that very much encapsulates the drive behind The Marks on the Map. Moreover, Johnstone’s tracing of the gradual loss of the souvenirs plays a pivotal role in pitching his own ageing process against that of the building. Of course, the evocation of autumn in the last line invites connection with the four seasons of life, human beings, nature and buildings all coming together. There’s no instruction to the reader, just juxtapositions that allow implicit connections to be made.

Brian Johnstone’s interpretation of the role of maps, landmarks and buildings in our lives is not only skilled and infused with experience, but it also provides a personal perspective that encourages us to view those roles afresh, leaving us to ponder the marks on our own maps. It might be time to stow our Sat Nav and dig out those old Ordnance Surveys once more.

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