Johnston uses flexible line-length and natural rhythm within the 17-syllable limit to create a subtle range of effects that act as a measure (in every sense) of the experiences she is exploring and relating. It is, I think, telling that the moment of catharsis hinges on poetry, the two stanzas that end page 30 and begin page 31, the move of the eye from page to page being part of the release:
In the rage of a poem, where the
In the calm of a poem, where the
This leap from fury to calm, from revolution to resolution, a leap that can be made in both directions, is what enables the hope of the poem’s ending (and I read the entire sequence as a single poem), in that extra final stanza, one that cannot really be read without the one before it:
A tingle pulses on her tongue tip – one
word, unspoken, shelters
Love. On the doorstep. Kissing its
warm till she lifts the latch.
In the interesting times we find ourselves inhabiting, this joyful nostos is Johnston’s gift to her readers; that survival is not only possible, but desirable, that we can be agents in our own lives, and that poetry can be a part of that journey. This is an important little book. Read it.
[Six-Count Jive] is a superbly crafted piece of work whose language is at times sublime. The narrative is gripping because it takes us through the protagonist’s process back to happiness. In its deliberate brevity it invites us to mine for layers of meaning and rewards constant re-reading. Its back story and message of survival are life affirming but significantly, this is not an exercise in therapy, instead, Six-Count Jive is a superb piece of art.
Although deeply personal, these are not the spontaneous outpourings of ‘confessional’ poetry, but tightly-controlled poems, which — as Johnston acknowledges — ‘have come together over nine to ten years.’ As the new and selected suggests, several of the stanzas are, in fact, drawn from her previous collections, sometimes unchanged, but often subtly amended and/or placed differently within the sequence. Almost all come from Sweet Seventeens and Bittersweet Seventeens, which both tell the same story as Six-Count Jive, but in very different ways. Reading them together, you can see how they plot the poet’s move towards a better understanding of the abuse she suffered, which in itself is testimony to the honesty of her writing at the time…
What is most striking about the poems is the sheer physicality of the imagery which Johnston uses to evoke mental states:
Her world is hers now, she cups it pulsing, breath-born in her hands, vital.
She also invests her compressed form with a wide range of tone from the softness of:
Her washed-out gaze wakes to kelp garlands, new moon’s high-shore embroidery
to violence on the scale of Hopkins at his most tortured:
Wind, whip anguish from her skin, strip fury from her pores, come blast her clean!
There is wit in these poems, too, for instance in:
Two magpies argue on the roof whether only two-ness brings us joy
Six-Count Jive is a brave and honest book, one which I hope will not only be enjoyed as poetry, but also give encouragement to women recovering from similar experiences. Rosie Johnston dedicates it to everyone with PTSD, ‘especially those of us traumatised in our own homes.’
You can find the review in full here.
‘This collection would be very supportive and immediately understood by anyone experiencing or anyone who has experienced abuse. However, due to the accessible layout of the writing and the way that this allows you to really concentrate on what’s been written, as well as the considered, beautiful, delicate language and imagery used, there is plenty for any reader to take away.
… There is a fragility to the images used within Six-Count Jive, as well as natural imagery. One of my favourite lines within the collection is an example of the latter, when Johnston writes, “She lives in a glacier,” which perfectly reflects the main character’s isolation.
Six-Count Jive creates some order in writing out of the chaos of life. It also feels very healing, as writing often can be. It’s good that this collection came out of such a subject matter. It was brave of Johnston to write this collection. The lasting image of Six-Count Jive, the title idea of the jive—mentioned twice in the book—is its final, strongest, parting idea; despite everything covered in the collection, the reader is left with the idea of a dance, something joyful and freeing.
‘The choice of seventeen-syllable stanzas (Sellen writes) is far from limiting; one of the wonders of this book is the variety and nuance which she imparts in such small packets of verse. These are not ‘haiku’ as such but, like the haiku, they are spare and densely significant, the carriers of reverberations and tensions it is important not to miss. She has used this form before in previous collections and her control of it is impressive. The narrowness of the form forces the writer to make each word count and the readers to pay special attention in our turn.’
Listen to these sound-patterns, language-choices and rhythms. First, the opening stanza:
Lie soft, gentle winged creature, roped and dazed,
unless you struggle.
‘Lie soft’ and ‘gentle’ suggests the compassion of the poet’s later self now writing at a distance of the first pain. ‘Roped and dazed’ monosyllabically evoke the spider’s web with its horror for the victim. There’s the reassurance of ‘safe’, then the comma’s pause followed by the implicit threat of ‘unless you struggle’. Here is a stanza from the last page:
Among tall rococo willow
bats flit a bold fandango
The dance of the three-syllable words, the confidence of ‘tall’ and ‘bold’, the lightness of ‘flit’ – all combine to express a very different mood. The line-break throws emphasis on ‘shadows’. This might be interpreted as suggesting that shadows do not hold fear but are a place of dance, are no longer the darkness that earlier in the book spoke of ‘weariness and grief’. The changes in rhythm reflect the changes in the rhythms of the writer’s life.
‘Dance’ carries important positivity in the later poems. It is in the title ‘Six-Count Jive’ and in the language – ‘waltz’ and ‘fandango’’ ‘balletic’ and ‘pirouettes’ – and most essentially in these lines, where ‘daze’ is no longer negative (roped and dazed) but positive:
‘Birl me, sway me back to my
girl days –
daze me alive with six-count jive.’
The six footprints on the cover showing the pattern of the jive indicate that surviving PTSD is akin to learning how to dance again.
You can find the review in full here.
‘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, sad Rose, it’s the
to grow and find your footing.
Love creeps soft as a moth’s thought,
than tomcat’s breath, light as a dove.
Two magpies argue on the roof
only two-ness brings us luck.’
‘Johnston has compiled a richly rounded poem that flows beautifully as one piece, one entity. And yet, for those readers who prefer to dip in and out of a collection, each perfectly sculpted stanza can also be appreciated in isolation.’
‘On the face of it, scriptural exegesis looks like pretty unpromising material but it is transformed into the basis for a gripping, plausible and beautifully written literary thriller. This small book is nuanced, complex and wide-ranging, taking in love, hypocrisy, despair and faith. The lyrics to songs by the made-up heavy metal band Sword Rampant (such is [Johnston]’s attention to detail that the group has its own website) are worthy of Spinal Tap.’
‘British author [Johnston] follows her children’s novel, What You See Is What You Get , with a dark novel for adults that raises disturbing questions about faith and religion. Freelance journalist Patrick Price-Johnson reveals from prison, where he’s remanded on a murder charge, how he became obsessed with the Rev. Helen Halberd. In a flashback, Patrick interviews the attractive 46-year-old Anglican priest, who has written a controversial bestseller, Fire Down Below , for which she’s been denounced as “a blasphemous handmaiden of the Anti-Christ” for trashing the Virgin Mary. Meanwhile, Patrick’s girlfriend, Dr. Julia Nayler, wants Patrick to get the dirt on Helen, who may have had an affair with another unconventional Christian, the Rev. Neil Sarbridge, the dean of Lancaster College, Cambridge, in hopes of ridding Cambridge of the overbearing Sarbridge. [Johnston]’s needle-sharp characterization of the deranged Patrick is nothing short of terrifying.’
‘With free verse a popular choice among many poets today, it is somewhat comforting to know that amongst all this talented work, there is still a strong current of poetic form surging underneath.
Formerly Belfast/Portstewart and now London-based resident, Rosie Johnston is one such poet who has embraced a fixed form in her writing. She specialises in creating poetry with just 17 syllables per stanza – a style some may hasten to describe as Haiku but which, upon closer inspection, stands apart from this Japanese form.’
‘Last year I interviewed local poet and author Rosie Johnston, recently I was delighted to hear that her latest collection of poetry has just been published by Lapwing Publications.
Rosie, who lives on the ‘Island’, has had a number of books published in recent years but Bittersweet Seventeens is her third collection of Poetry where she uses her own particular style of poetry using seventeen syllables for each verse.’
‘How much life can you squeeze into seventeen syllables? Quite a lot if you’re Rosie Johnston. Some of these poems are like tiny stories, others like soft pillows, others like pieces of ice. Read them and you’ll want to write a few of your own!’
Author and Bookseller, Vestal McIntyre
THE MOST INTIMATE PLACE
‘Very wicked and beautifully written’ – Maureen Freely
‘I doubt an ostensibly religious theme has ever been better served, or been simultaneously as scholarly, well-written, compelling, funny and, thank God, filthy. This atheist loved it.’ – Martin Rowson
‘A smart and eminently readable literary thriller’ – Patrick Neate
‘Lyrical, thoughtful, sensual and shot through with dark humour’ – Imogen Robertson
‘This book is wonderful: funny, frightening, compulsively page-turning and all in all a
rattling good read’ – Martin Rowson