For William Johnston, born William Coutts, Brechin, Scotland, 1865


Born, at least.
A little light
in the east.

What was registered
is legible —
Braik’s Close —

the light
breaks close.
What the records

said. A little
about your head.


her mark,

at the
paper mill:

acres of paper —
imagine her face —

acres she tills
and leaves



That streak natured
or nurtured —

a little sorrow
handed down —

bother in Angus
and anger and sadness —

it stows away
and is stowed away —

a branch broken
in Brechin.


The field I think slopes slightly
and the man who stands there

holds himself upright —
it is an act of will

against all to which
he might be inclined —

life lived as a slight —
instead of this the light.


Force the door with
this, his certificate —

that he raised himself
into the furrow that runs,

as I think of it,
across his brow.

Andrew Johnston is a New Zealand poet based in Paris, where he works as an editor for the International Herald Tribune. He also edits The Page, an online digest of the web’s best writing about poetry. His latest book of poems, Sol, was published in February 2007 by Victoria University Press. In 2007 he is spending a year as the J.D. Stout Fellow at Victoria University, writing a book about contemporary New Zealand poetry.

Johnston comments: ‘ “Splinters” is about my great-grandfather, about whom I knew nothing until April 2006. His son, my grandfather Frank, emigrated from Scotland in 1922, bringing with him a great silence, which he passed on to my father. After my father died in 2004, I discovered that some Scottish census and other records were available online. I dived into them and found out that my great-grandfather William had been born illegitimate to an illiterate paper-mill worker, Jean Coutts. At the age of five he was living in a poorhouse, with no sign of his mother to be found. He seems literally to have raised himself, and then seven children of his own, working as an unskilled labourer. What was he like? How much of who I am, and who my father was, comes from him? How much do we inherit? How much do we pass on? This poem — composed of splinters from the family tree — barely scrapes the surface of these unanswerable questions.’

Poem source details >



Andrew Johnston’s website
New Zealand Book Council writer file
Victoria University Press author page
Arc Publications