ADAM JOHNSON was one of the most promising poets of his generation. 'It is a tragic loss,' says John Heath-Stubbs. 'He was writing with more and more fluency, perhaps because he knew that time was short. What he has left shows not just promise but real fulfilment.' Johnson died, aged 28, only weeks before the publication of his first collection, The Spiral Staircase (a second volume is due next year).
Born and brought up in Cheshire, Johnson startled the London literary scene on moving to the capital 10 years ago. A dapper dresser - favouring white suits and the bow-ties he never quite learnt to tie - he was a familiar figure at PEN. His high- cheeked, matinee-idol good looks were well-known on the poetry circuit, where he was an effective and accomplished reader.
In his work as in his life, Johnson was sensitive, complex and fastidious. 'He gets better all the time,' Thom Gunn wrote a few months ago. 'He writes of horror with restraint.' Last week Gunn added: 'But in truth he had nothing to be restrained about.'
At the heart of Johnson's poems is a tenderness and simplicity. Each of the two short stanzas which Johnson dedicated to his lover S. James Lovendowski concludes with a couplet which celebrates and affirms the relationship: 'I, corporeal merely, / Love you dearly.' 'Will you, who contain the sky, / Teach me to fly?'
Johnson never made any secret of his homosexuality. For the past year he was also open about the fact that he had contracted Aids. And as his awareness of his condition grew, his work matured. 'The Playground Bell' expresses both the impact of Aids on the gay world and the joy he found in life, to the end:
. . . hands can find
Response of hands; hold, in the hollow silence,
A tangible warmth, the heartbeat in the dark
Where death has entered, ringing the playground bell.
It hurts the ear. It echoes through the woods.
I stare at death in a mirror behind the bar
And wonder when I sacrificed my blood,
And how I could not recognise the face
That smiles with the mouth, the eyes, of death -
In Manchester, London or Amsterdam.
I do not hate that face, only the bell.
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