Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tuesday Poem: The Sunflower by Andrew Johnston

for Stuart Johnston, 1931–2004

One young bloom in a vase or jar, breath-
takingly yellow. And her
hands, in the morning light, the way
they arrange and rearrange. Death
brings lilies, but someone has sent a sunflower:
this is our penance, staring at the sun,
its blind eye, its ragged halo. The day,
in the end, took to its bed
before the day was over, taking thee
with it. Soon this flower, too, will be dead,
its summer of wondering done
about the sun, petal by petal: loved me;

didn’t know how; did, unsayably so. It leaves me
as he left us, in the dark. From one breath
to the next, he’d deflect a question: in his the-
ology, I, me, mine were just not done.
Because he saw eye to eye with death
we can stare at the sunflower all day
but his heavenly father’s garden was further
than we were prepared to go—its bed
of blood-red roses, its promises, its premises, the way
everything had been arranged; ‘dead’
a manner of speaking, under the sun.
We counted ourselves lucky, hour by hour,

and by the minutes of the sunflower
(he doesn’t, he does, he doesn’t know me),
each in his or her own way worshipping the sun
and coming to other arrangements with death—
that it is the end, in the abstract. And then one day
someone calls, and you take a deep, deep breath.
Sister nor’wester, southerly brother—
into the mind of the man we guess our way,
blind and deaf, senseless, because he is dead.
From the end of the earth I will cry unto thee,
as daughters and sons have always done,
for words unsaid. The riverbed

was dry and I was thirsty. By your bed,
near the end, we could count our
blessings: each day,
for one thing, and though it was winter, the sun.
A sisterly sixth sense, when death
began to bloom, flew me
from the end of the earth. In a week you were dead
but we shadowed one another
through the brittle days before you went away.
You talked and talked, as you’d always done,
of all but you, till you were out of breath.
I would have liked to hear—despite your fear of the-

atre (so foolish was I, and ignorant, before thee)—
about your mother, for instance, who took to bed
when tempers rose; and how the sun
had burned a dead-
ly thirst into your father’s breath;
but the hard facts I craved, my mother
knew, were the same stones, day
after day, that you buried in death-
ly silence, so that in this inscrutable way
you could build—for you, for her, for six including me—
a house, a plain, safe house, with a sunflower
in the garden. ‘That which is done

is that which shall be done’
is all very well in the-
ory, but what if the sun
were black, and the book dead
wrong, and the interval under death
demanded a father
as unlike his father as day
and night? A breath
of wind reaches me
from the rose-bed;
in its vase or jar the sunflower
nods politely. Halfway

across the Channel, halfway
between waking and sleeping, my mind undone,
I had, as luck would have it, something of an inkling. The day
had been long; as I lay in the boat’s narrow bed
a wave of black joy lifted me and left in me
knowledge so dark it shone. I held my breath.
Fear fell away, of death, and other
fears; the end, in the end, was the darkest jewel. I was dead
tired, and fatigue’s mysterious flower
spoke perhaps in tongues. But that black sun
still shines—a talisman, obsidian, a bright antithe-
sis. Its darkness made light of death

at most, however, for me; the death
of someone else is something else. Your way
led over the border; I am a stranger with thee,
and a sojourner, but wherever I am, my place in the sun
you prepared. His earthly power
spent, your god, to us, is dead,
but it was your belief that gave us breath,
the life we take for granted every day.
What sense of your sense will I take with me?
How much of your world will we hand on?
Just before the end, on the wall beside your bed,
Peter pinned Leonardo’s St. Anne. Her

smile, wry, reminds me of you, and her
hand-on-hip benevolence. Wherever death
leads, we can meet here. The power
of light in van Eyck and Vermeer. The breath
of Wallace Stevens, overhearing his way
to work. Every Henry James you read in bed,
destiny and destiny like night and day.
The valedictory music of ‘The Dead’.
Thou hast set our iniquities before thee
but when all—or almost all—is said and done
sometimes it seemed you believed no less than me
that when we die we go into the sun.

There is nothing new under the sun
but much of it is mystery: this my mother knows. Her
psychological eye revised your the-
ological line. They’d converge, anyway,
at the library—your rain-cloud, your seed-bed.
You read and read and read. And saved your breath
not to write yourself, but to make each day
bloom and turn. The astonishing flower,
head full of edible seeds, bows down dead:
this is the credible sense of its death,
that here, where its turning is done
other journeys begin. It seems to me

you believed what you believed, but it strikes me,
too, that the seeds you sowed, in the mind’s sun,
mattered most. (Sometimes they grew a bed
of nails: you were often ‘sick to death’
of fads and feuds, the way
they shut out the sun.) Flower
of wonder, flower of might: if I see thee
on the other side, when I am dead,
I’ll know there is an other
side. Till then, while we have breath,
our burgeoning work is not done:
what we have been given is a rich, difficult day

that could go on without us, nevertheless, all day,
whistling a cryptic tune. It comes to me
in the conservatory, where we catch a little sun:
I didn’t know you well, and then you went away
but in the day of my trouble I will call upon thee
because you were a man to get things done.
In its vase or jar, the young sunflower
I imagine has served its purpose. Beneath its bed,
all along, the river was flowing—deep, where death
knows more than we. Sylvia dons her
gardening gloves to gather the dead
roses. Man cannot utter it, but under his breath:

‘Remember me, my loves, when I am dead.’
Rest on memory’s sea-bed: we will swim down to thee.
And in our own blue day, we will gaze at death
the way this one young bloom would gaze at the sun.
In the garden of the living, my mother stops for breath.
Thou thy worldly task hast done. And seeds rain from the sunflower.

Andrew Johnston is a NZ poet and writer who lives in Paris, and this is one of my favourite poems. It uses the form of a double sestina - an intricate, repetitive, interlocking form - which evokes brilliantly the intricate, repetitive, interlocking relationship between grief and memory, between parents and their children, between love and life and death. Here's what I wrote on The Sunflower in one my first ever blog posts.  
The sestina is six 6-line stanzas, each stanza with the same end words but in a different order, the final end word in each stanza being repeated at the end of the first line of the next, and the poem ending with all six end-words inside the body of the last stanza. 
The double sestina is twelve 12-line stanzas each one with the same rearranged end words (and same end sounds, too, so 'sunflower' can become 'hour' and 'her' 'brother'.) The final six-line stanza (ideally) pulls together all 12 end-words. This repetition and subtle shifts in The Sunflower, and the final gathering together of all 12 words at the end, echoes the relentless persistence of grief and it's sister, memory.  
Johnston's mastery of the sestina form fills me with wonder. He has drilled to the core of his relationship with his father, and to the core of grief itself in all its hatefulness, meaninglessness, significance and bizarre beauty, and come up with something that will surely become a classic. 
You can read more of that post hereReading it now, I feel I mixed my metaphors rather clumsily - referring (breathlessly) to the use of repeated/adapted end words as like both blood pulsing through the body and beads in a kaleidescope - (pause for breath) now I think of it as more like jazz improvisation. 

One of my ambitions is to write a sestina. I have a subject in mind, I just have to find the time now. I wonder how long Andrew Johnston spent on this one? 

Andrew Johnston has given me permission to use this poem on my blog. 

Do try more Tuesday Poems at our wonderful Tuesday Poem site. Click on the quill.

Tuesday Poem


Rachel Fenton said...

Astounding poem.

Tim Upperton said...

A lot to admire about this poem, not least its re-use of Swinburne's line-endings (from "The Complaint of Lisa"), line-endings that were also re-used in a double-sestina by John Ashbery. The repetition extends beyond Johnston's poem, and 'calls out' to Ashbery's and Swinburne's. With these added restrictions to the already restrictive sestina form it's like an Oulipo exercise, but with a heart.

Mary McCallum said...

I'm glad you read it Rachel - I thought the length might put people off! Not blog material is it really. And thanks, Tim, for your comments. Johnston talks about the Ashbery and Swinburne poems but I haven't investigated them. I find that very exciting - cross-poem conversations... Must check them out. Have you ever written a sestina?

Rachel Fenton said...

I think, Mary, like any good piece of writing which sucks you in so completely, you don't notice the length until afterwards!

I do think though, sadly, most bloggers look at the length of a thing first before deciding whether or not to read...


Tim Upperton said...

I did write a sestina - published in Landfall about a year ago. I think most poets with some formalist inclinations have a go at one sooner or later.

Mary McCallum said...

Must look it up, Tim. I wonder if it can be found online?

bob roberts said...

This Listener review from 2007 explains a lot of the background:


Tim Upperton said...

It's also in my collection, Mary, if you have a copy at your bookshop!

Mary McCallum said...

Read it last night, Tim! I have your wonderful collection A House on Fire. First time through I hadn't noticed the sestina so nice to go back in and find it. Interesting what you say about 'formalist inclinations' in a poet. I see that in your poetry especially the one where you reach the point of recognising a line written in iambic pentameter... and they way it is like a blue baby's heart beating, an animal pacing...and in the wonderful Aubade. That slayed me. I guess I must have 'formalist tendencies' too then. Lots to think about...