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 New Zealand poet who lives 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 2007 by Victoria University Press and will appear in a British edition from Arc Publications in May 2008. In 2007 he spent a year as Victoria University’s J.D. Stout Fellow, working on a book about contemporary New Zealand poetry. He has also edited Moonlight: New Zealand Poems on Death and Dying, which will be published in July 2008 by Random House New Zealand.
Johnston comments: ‘ “The Sunflower ” is woven from many strands. In 1991 I read John Ashbery’s book-length poem “Flow Chart” and was struck by the double sestina embedded in it (pp. 186-193), which borrows its end-words (among them, “sunflower”) from a poem by Swinburne. In January 1997, newly arrived in the depths of a London winter, I was bowled over by an exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s sunflower paintings. When my father died in 2004, my brother Peter suggested two passages from the King James Bible for the funeral service; their language stayed with me. I spent November 2005 at a writer’s residence in the north of France. On a trip back to Paris one weekend, I had a revelation in the train: I could use the double-sestina structure, and even Ashbery’s (and Swinburne’s) end-words, plus bits of the King James psalms and Kiefer’s sunflower image, to write the poem I needed to write about my father (there are echoes of many other sources in there, too). I went back to the Villa Mont-Noir and wrote “The Sunflower”. ’