Last week, I had the pleasure of receiving a copy of Natural Prayers, a new poetry chapbook by Gordon Johnston, who taught English literature at Trent University for 40 years before retiring in 2011.
Natural Prayers collects 24 poems Johnston wrote over the past few years, each one of them from the perspective of a different plant or animal.
The book was published with care by Jackson Creek Press. It features a hand-printed letterpress cover on textured blue paper and two linocut illustrations by Jeff Macklin, the designer and printer behind the press. Macklin finished hand-stitching the 100 copies of the book last week, and Johnston intends to give them away to friends, or sell them, with proceeds going to the One Roof Community Centre.
The poems in Natural Prayers originated a couple of years ago, when Johnston received some encouragement from his friend and worship leader Christian Harvey.
At the time, Harvey was leading an alternative worship group at St. John’s Anglican Church that Johnston attends. Harvey occasionally gave members of the group, which is called the Open Circle, small assignments to carry out from one Sunday to the next.
For one of those assignments, “the instructions from Christian Harvey were to pay attention,” Johnston remembers. “To start watching and listening to the natural world, [because] the natural world might be able to teach us ways to pray.”
Johnston was intrigued. He started following Harvey’s instructions, and he recorded his observations in verse. Johnston is an avid walker, and during his strolls he noticed mourning doves,
Nestled, greybrown, in ground cover
like tiny mounds of roadside dirt.
And Johnston saw giant miscanthus,
Huddled in tall bunches against the snow,
expectant but mournful, a serried mass
not yet in orderly rows.
Johnston’s poems are all in the first person, giving readers an imaginative glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of the creatures we share the Earth with. In “Carrots,” Johnston writes:
A feathery show up above,
but we push our way slowly in the dark,
point our way downwards
through whatever it is we encounter, we swell
at last into our own true shapes.
Johnston is aware there is a risk of subsuming the natural world under human categories in this kind of writing. “Am I exploiting their voices,” he wonders. “Am I anthropomorphizing them,” he questions.
But he says he chose to write in the first person to lend the poems a sense of intimacy, and to convey a sense of community and personality amongst the two-dozen creatures he included in the book.
And he says the poems can operate as metaphors. For each poem describing the characteristic behaviour of a plant or animal, we might ask whether there are humans who are similar. As an example, Johnston points to “Astilbes,” the final poem in the book. “Some people, like astilbes, lose their bloom in drought,” he says. “They’re not as beautiful and outgoing, but they hold their shape.”
In the last lines of Natural Prayers, the astilbes acknowledge this fact about themselves, but they also celebrate it:
There are times such as these dry days
when we cannot be our usual blooming selves,
but this also is praise.