Andrew Johnston, “For Rose”

Writing about anxiety and love, as I’ve done recently, feels strange. On the one hand, I’m figuring out what to do with experiences from years past, how I acted rightly or wrongly, how I let certain emotions or ideas govern me. On the other hand, there is no resolution, despite a greater sense of security regarding my own memories. I don’t have answers about how exactly I should have acted except regarding things I was definitely wrong to indulge. All I can do is speak a bit better about what has passed.

Yet there are moments in life which speak their own significance, almost taking away all our words. The birth of a child is one of them:

For Rose
Andrew Johnston

Rosie Marsland b 26/7/94

What does sunlight sound like?
A white flower in darkness knows,

an ear that hears both ways, and sees —
sirens, and silence; laughter, and after;

conversation of insects all over the house
and a steady heart

thinking the the the
and Rose’s ear, born furled, unfolds

that hears these, and those, and knows —
Rose listens to the world, the world listens to Rose.


Johnston responds to Robert Frost’s “Design” rather forcefully. “Design” opens with an indirect description of a child: “I found a dimpled spider, fat and white, / On a white heal-all.” That spider, of course, readies himself to eat a captured moth, but other than that, it resembles a baby, “fat,” “white,” “dimpled.” Not much later, the wings of the dead moth are carried “like a paper kite.”

Children are not merely carriers of darkness in this world. “What does sunlight sound like? A white flower in darkness knows:” the beauty of the world makes itself known in how that beauty is responded to. Rose herself, fully animate, precedes and underlies adult rationality. She is “a white flower in darkness,” “an ear that hears both ways, and sees.” The “sirens and the silence” each matter just as much to her. “Laughter” is as pure to her as what comes after.

She participates in “the conversation of insects all over the house,” listening carefully, maintaining “a steady heart.” The conversation of insects thinks, or inspires thinking of, “the the the.” Insects think objects, “I-it” relations. This reminds of Hopkins’ “As kingfishers catch fire” — the relevant lines:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

In crying “what I do is me: for that I came,” all mortal things do one thing and the same. They speak and spell themselves, and the funny thing is that they don’t really speak an “I.” An “I” depends on a “Thou,” another with equal respect. They reduce themselves to objects. “The the the” is mere difference, as one simply wants to be counted among innumerable other objects.

This is not to say insects are awful, selfish souls who are incapable. We know they’re better company than people most times. For that matter, I myself don’t know that “I-it” relations alone mark moral shallowness. I only believe in what is proven. “Rose’s ear, born furled, unfolds / that hears these, and those, and knows.” Rose hears more and reaches beyond herself, beyond objects as “the.” There are “these,” immediate to her, “those,” a bit more remote, and then knowledge, knowledge that all of these and those and things far beyond have value. The value of the world resides in the joy of simply being: “Rose listens to the world, the world listens to Rose.”


Andrew Johnston, “For Rose,” from Essential New Zealand Poems: A-Z, ed. Lauris Edmond & Bill Sewell. Auckland: Godwit, 2001. p. 142

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *