BY REV KEITH RUSSELL
Robert Elliot Johnson 1948-2021
An Ode to REJ
Robert Elliot Johnson died two days ago, on 1 August 2021. For the most part, I don’t think the nation took much notice; it didn’t notice him much while he was here.
He was a poet of exceptional gifts. And he was a Bahamian, from Fox Hill.
In our present moment, any lowbrow person can create a voice note on social media, which contains inconsequential gibberish, and instantly it goes viral. Who reads and quotes Robert Johnson? Who reads? It is so unfortunate the level to which our public discourse has fallen.
Still, in all my reading, I had not read a single Bahamian poet up to the time of graduating from university. Hence, the miseducation of Keith! Perhaps it was because of the paucity of offerings in our young subjugated place; or in the avoidance of nurturing the sensitive spirit in these isles of perpetual June.
Nevertheless, there was a yearning in my soul, occasioned by this tremendous void. So, I went looking for me, for us; for some poetic musing authentically Bahamian; something that would creatively arouse the sights and sounds and taste and smell of home.
Then one day while browsing the little dusty library at St. Paul’s College in Freeport, I found my way to our house. I came across Robert Elliot Johnson’s monumental and elegantly styled brooding collection of poems The Road. I was like a thirsty Bedouin, trekking across an arid desert, who had suddenly and unexpectedly stumbled upon life-giving water. I dove in and drank—incessantly.
Winston Saunders, another literary luminary who is no longer with us, wrote the preface to the collection; there he quotes Johnson’s poem “Monuments”:
“We, unlike our fathers, see
Needs to erect another house
Truer than that which aged above
Our heads since Spain’s empire:
Our fate is still entangled
In Columbus’ mistake.”
Yep, he had me at hello. Then I turned those glorious pages and ambled through the house that Johnson built, a house with which I was so familiar. I basked in his imagery, his word plays, his subtle nuances; and felt his disappointments, anger and pain. I had met a master wordsmith, a fellow traveller, a brother of the soil.
In my first literary contribution to the corpus of Bahamian literature, a collection of short stories titled Passage of A Native Son, I included as Epigraph a quote from Johnson’s poem “In a Polka Night”:
Then from the ashen
One solitary spider crawls
Out of the polka night . . . . . .
I was that “solitary spider” that had crawled “scuttling/In ashes, elegiacally/To broken chords/Of tinkling silver/ out of the polka night”. I was one of the lucky ones, who miraculously escaped from “the sterile tomb” of Gibbs Corner and had made it to university. He knew my story and told it passionately, intimately, with exquisite poetic brilliance.
He knew this place, too, this sun-kissed archipelago. In the final poem of his collection, entitled “An End of Things”, in the final two stanzas, Johnson writes”:
Only here, in my ear, the tides still roar
Before the birth of an endless calm:
Here mists are falling; owls hoot hollowly;
The black Omega birds still sing;
The crows still glide on silent wing.
Peace cannot come to an isle that lies
Like a wild waste-land where the john-crows flies:
It haunts that ruined tower still,
Ghosting my soul against my will.
Unfortunately, we are not a land, yet, that sings much for poets; we hardly sang for Robert; though he sings so much for us. Good-night, sweet prince; may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
I write; you decide End