Water Sports by Paul Johnston

Water Sports by Paul JohnstonOK, right from the jump this one requires a disclaimer: I am not a regular reader of poetry, therefore reviewing it is not my forte. Having said that, I was sufficiently moved by Water Sports, a collection by author Paul Johnston, to give it a go. So… here I go.

Johnston is best known as the author of three fiction series featuring the characters Matt Wells, Alex Mavros, and Quint Dalrymple. I have reviewed books from the Matt Wells (Maps of Hell and The Nameless Dead) and Alex Mavros (The Last Red Death) series, and have also been fortunate to have Paul guest post here on two occasions.

Though both of Paul’s guest posts are well worth reading, it is his first, “On Death – Not Necessarily Terminal, Not Necessarily Red,” that should definitely be read in conjunction with Water Sports. In that post, Paul talks frankly about a serious health scare he had, one which required a nine-hour operation and follow up chemotherapy. That experience is the most obvious fuel which stoked the fire of Water Sports, and the ways Paul has addressed such a life-altering event, and questions of mortality in general, via poetry are quite moving.

“Quintessence” finds the author purifying himself by symbolically distilling his essence down to only the necessary and positive, and being somewhat dismayed when all that’s left is “a miniature’s worth.” Nevertheless, he holds onto it, guards it, until he finds the right person with whom to share it. And when he does:

We mixed my paltry measure
with your gallon-jar of goodness.
We drank that quintessential cocktail
and I was shaken into love.

“Reburied Treasure” is a reflection on how our mortality is inexorably tied to our history, but also a realization that the very same things that can lay you low can also be the ones from which you draw the most strength.

“Mother’s Day” is the most haunting of the collection for my money. Short but extremely hard-hitting, it finds a group of adult children watching a video of their mother dancing at a wedding, a video that ended up being the last images of her ever caught on film. You never know when someone’s time will come, but on “Mother’s Day” their mother can dance forever in their memories.

“The Queen of Asini” is an absolutely beautiful piece about the ability of the one you love to lift you up on even your darkest days, and how they can want more for you than you may even want for yourself:

The poem was enough for me
the poem and the place
but you wanted more:
the early blooms, the asphodel seeds
and ancient vein-scarred pebbles from the crescent beach

You wove of them a generous and efficacious spell
more powerful than Hades’ will.

The collection’s eponymous entry, “Water Sports,” is a deceptively lighthearted look at why water sports are banned in the Johnston house, and why “a pack of stealth jellyfish” has thankfully kept Paul “on the shore of the living.”

In “Growth” Paul takes the gloves off and addresses his illness head-on, only to realize that at one point the tumor had become as much a part of him psychologically as it had physically. So much so that once it was removed there was more than a physical void left in its wake:

He was missing the killer within.
His unborn twin was gone,
its offspring soon to drown
in chemotherapeutic pints.

Now all that had to grow back
was the person he had been before.

All told there are twenty-one entries in Water Sports. I’ve mentioned the ones that affected me the most, but the others are all deserving of your time. After all, if there’s one thing I do know about poetry it’s that different people are moved by different things; I’m sure you’ll find something in Water Sports that will do it for you.

Water Sports is available from The Ravenglass Poetry Press (ISBN: 978-0956539526).

PS – My apologies to Paul if I’ve completely bollocksed up the interpretation of his work.

Paul Johnston is the author of the Matt Wells novels, The Death List, The Soul Collector, Maps of Hell, and The Nameless Dead. He is also the author of two other series, one set in a futuristic, Orwellian Edinburgh, and the other in Greece. The Silver Stain, the fourth novel in the latter series, featuring half Scots half Greek missing persons specialist Alex Mavros, will be published by Crème de la Crime in April. To learn more about Paul, visit his website.


  • Paul Johnston

    February 16, 2012 - 5:29 am

    Thanks so much for the review, Elizabeth. You certainly haven’t bollocksed up on interpretation – and, anyway, the reader puts in as much as the writer. Writing poetry is much more personal than fiction and you have to put your feelings on the line much more openly. That was a risk for me and it’s very reassuring when informed readers such as you respond positively.

  • Charles Wingfield

    February 15, 2012 - 7:26 pm

    “Now all that had to grow back
    was the person he had been before.”

    Ok, that’s just damn cool.

  • Sabrina Ogden

    February 15, 2012 - 3:45 pm

    I’d say you’re better at review poetry than I am. Nice job, all of them sound worth a read.

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