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Essay

Luke Hathaway on George Johnston’s “Firefly Evening”

(How Poems Work, November 2005)
As in Outram’s “Story,” the aural weave of this poem is tight: not only with rhyme and alliteration, but with repetition (heft/heft, evening/evening, thunder/thunder). Like Corkett’s poem, this one employs a strong falling rhythm that elbows its way into one’s mind. Unlike Outram’s and Corkett’s poems, however, George Johnston’s “Firefly Evening” does not have an obvious narrative line. It is less about story than it is about image; its effects are less cerebral than sensual.

As in Outram’s “Story,” the aural weave of this poem is tight: not only with rhyme and alliteration, but with repetition (heft/heft, evening/evening, thunder/thunder). Like Corkett’s poem, this one employs a strong falling rhythm that elbows its way into one’s mind. Unlike Outram’s and Corkett’s poems, however, George Johnston’s “Firefly Evening” does not have an obvious narrative line. It is less about story than it is about image; its effects are less cerebral than sensual.


As in Outram’s “Story,” the aural weave of this poem is tight: not only with rhyme and alliteration, but with repetition (heft/heft, evening/evening, thunder/thunder). Like Corkett’s poem, this one employs a strong falling rhythm that elbows its way into one’s mind. Unlike Outram’s and Corkett’s poems, however, George Johnston’s “Firefly Evening” does not have an obvious narrative line. It is less about story than it is about image; its effects are less cerebral than sensual.

Let us consider the poem’s structure: two four-line stanzas, each rhymed [_aabb_]. The first stanza is heavily punctuated; every line is end-stopped; it moves along haltingly. The second stanza is entirely enjambed. The poem thus gathers momentum as it goes along. The final line is truncated: two strong stresses here, as opposed to the three we find in each preceding line.

In my discussion of “Story,” I mentioned that odd quality of ‘thingness’ assumed by a good short poem: the way, once learned by heart, such a poem somehow escapes its linearity. One can hold the whole thing in one’s mind at once, can read it simultaneously forwards and backwards. This poem of Johnston’s is remarkable to me in that it is the only poem I know of that seems to read _itself_ forwards and backwards; the grammar of the poem seems to run simultaneously both ways.

Let us take for a moment the sentence of which the poem’s second stanza is comprised. All the parts of the sentence are there. It seems at first to be an imperative let/that proposition, of the sort we met in Outram’s poem. “Let,” then, is the sentence’s primary verb. But who — or what — is its object? The “airs” with which the stanza begins? An implied ‘us’, as in the rhetorical opener ‘let us assume …’? Who is its subject? The deity of biblical supplication? An implied ‘you’ — the reader — who must be prepared to ‘let’ the parts of this unusual sentence be suspended in her mind while she reads to the end of it? The sentence’s secondary verb, which seems to belong to the “that” clause, is “come”; the obvious subject would be “thunder,” in a subjunctive formulation: … [_that thunder may come from over pastures_]. Yet “come” also seems to recollect, as subject, airs. [_The airs that come from thunder, over pastures: let them come also through windows and through the downstairs?_] No straightforward grammatical rendering seems to do the sentence justice.

What all of this havering obscures, however, is that in some more intuitive way this second stanza is immediately intelligible; one has a visceral sense of its meaning, subjects and predicates aside. The language is super-loaded, as thunderclouds are super-loaded with rain; there is the sense of things conflated under pressure, so that it is impossible to tell what comes from what: the thunder from the poem, or the poem from the thunder.

I have said that this poem’s effects are more sensual than cerebral; but any poet knows that this is a false distinction. “In the fields with which we are concerned,” Walter Benjamin writes, “knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.”