Rosie Johnston’s poetry is tightly structured but it still allows room for growth and movement, observes Emma Lee

Bittersweet Seventeensbittersweet
Rosie Johnston
Lapwing Press
ISBN 9781909252646
40pp    £10


It’s an apt title. The poems are each of seventeen syllables and a bittersweet feeling pervades. Loosely the poems follow a narrative from a girl searching for love to an adult woman who has missed out. The eager optimism of the girl is captured in:

Love love love said Rose, it’s the
Only way
To grow and find your footing

Love creeps soft as a moth’s thought,
Than tomcats’ breath, light as a dove.

Two magpies argue on the roof
Only two-ness brings us luck.

There’s more to magpies than the nursery rhyme of two for joy. These birds mate for life and have been shown to grieve for a lost partner. The long “o” vowels of the first two poems are still present but not as sustained in the third where the shorter vowels suggest a change in tone, a note of doubt creeping in. The poems move through the seasons too, reaching autumn with:

November’s altostratus greys
Hide sky’s
Unbridled kaleidoscope.

Vermilion creeper, ruby maroon,
Glamour over autumn.

Here the poems are most like haiku with their seasonal references. The vocabulary has grown too, just as the narrator has. The simple light as a dove has developed into altostratus greys hide. The girl doesn’t conceal her thoughts, the woman acknowledges that concealment can be necessary as nature covers the slumber and death of autumn with bright, glamorous colours.

Between past hells and future
This moment poises sacrosanct.

Exhaustion rubs her down, she’s
Nearly done:
The sculpture’s called ‘Smile, resting.’

Atom by atom past suffering
Melts in
Relentless gentleness.

Winter becomes a time of passivity and tiredness. The softness in relentless gentleness suggests a resignation too: an easing into acceptance.

Using the haiku-like structure gives the poems a consistency of voice and, although the voice develops and grows, it is recognisably the same voice throughout. The abstraction and lack of first person narrative stops them becoming confessional or requesting an emotional response from the reader. There is space for the reader to enjoy sounds, images and structure while also responding to the poem’s meaning.

The collection is preceded by a note, “Although metaphorical and symbolic language is used in this and other sequences she has written, the reader is invited to read the sequence as a narrative. Immediate responses to the text should take precedence and over-analysis set aside, in the way we may respond to the beauty of a Ginger Jar without smashing it to see how and from what it is made.” This is either arrogant or suggests the writer has a lack of confidence in her audience. It is arrogant for a writer or performer to tell the audience how to react. It might be distracting, particularly in performance, if the audience react in a way that hasn’t been foreseen. But once a piece has been put into the public sphere, the writer is merely the author. The reaction belongs to the audience and they can respond as they feel appropriate. If you say “over-analysis [should be] set aside” you appear to be prejudicing reviews which suggests the writer is not yet confident enough to share her work with an audience. This is not a good message to give to a reviewer. Fortunately there’s no reason for Rosie Johnston to lack confidence in her work either.


Emma Lee’s poetry collection Yellow Torchlight and the Blues is available from Original Plus. She blogs at and also reviews for The Journal, Elsewhere and Sabotage Reviews.