Tuesday, March 8, 2016

But For Now - Gordon Johnston (McGill-Queen's University Press)

Today's book of poetry:
But For Now.  Gordon Johnston.  The Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series.  McGill-Queen's University Press.  Montreal & Kingston, London, Ithaca.  2013.

At the heart of it Gordon Johnston's But For Now is a celebration of each new day, each new breath. Johnson's But For Now is a declaration of faith and hope.

Johnston has many questions about faith, about the very existence of God,  that counterbalance the certainty of his own belief, yet underneath it all the reader can see that Johnston's God is omnipresent.

A New Psalm, of Uncertainty

How shall we speak of you, O God?
  Is the thunder crack your angry voice?
    Are we children huddled under a blanket of faith?

We are needy, O God, and we need to tell you so.
  We need plants to grow, and come to grain or fruit.
    We need animals to offer their milk, and themselves.

We need a roof or tarpaulin, a blanket, a cup.
  How shall we speak to you, O God?
    If we beg, do you listen to us?

Hear us, O God, in our neediness and fear,
  And in our uncertainty, here,
    In our threadbare faith.


These are careful poems, each of them constructed with some inner musical ear that gives them all a quiet power.  Johnston tempers his certainty with a gentle and experienced knowledge that questions his own belief.

Johnston is suggesting that the way we look at God and faith may need to be rethought and he is doing it with charming eloquence.  But For Now is never proselytizing, which is a good thing for this heathen, he is always on topic and that means he is always searching for a better understanding of our time on this mortal coil.  Johnston is never trying to muddy the water, quite the contrary, But For Now is Johnston distilling faith into reason with music.

Factorem Caeli

from CREDO

Most days don't need heaven; here's enough.
Don't even like the sound of it, what I've heard:
all those people, and me not good in crowds.

Why would anyone want to be immortal?
What would you do every day all day, if they call it
day there? And rest eternal sounds the same, but night.

When I dream of reaching to hold you, my arms go through
I hear your voice, but it comes from too great a distance;
you appear in a crazy story, then you vanish.

What I want heaven for, more than anything,
is to see you again. I need to see you again.
In heaven I want to hear you, and see you, and hold you.


Factorem Caeli translates as "maker of heaven".

Reading But For Now was a treat, underneath everything is a feeling of quiet certainty that exudes a calming joy.  Johnston has finessed faith into a questioning beauty with this work and the resulting poems have a tight logic that is all their own.

When I tell you that there is a lightness to these poems do not think I mean they are slight, rather that they are illuminated from within by Johnston's hope.  Too much?  Today's book of poetry stands on every word -- you won't be able to read But For Now without experiencing it.

Finally The End of Poetry

  the end
    of poetry.
No more
  poems, or
    the need for them.
We shall write to each
  other now
    from the heart
with the best
  words we
    can find
in the full light
  of everything we know.


At least one of our staff had the pleasure of being a student in a Gordon Johnston poetry class at Trent University, and look at where we are now.  Today's book of poetry was honoured to read But For Now and sends a big dip of our hat to its author.

Gordon Johnston's profile photo
Gordon Johnston

Gordon Johnston lives in Peterborough where he taught poetry for forty years at Trent University.



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