Poet Marjorie Johnson’s front porch looked out at the head of Mackerel Cove. (JOANN GARDNER PHOTO)

For most of her 80-plus years, Marjorie Johnson lived in a modest house on Bailey Island, on the side of a hill overlooking Mackerel Cove. Her father was a fisherman; her mother, the proprietor of a summer boardinghouse and cottages known as The Willows. Above her, on the main road, was Skillings’ general store, and across the road was Library Hall, where, from the age of 16, she served as librarian.

Johnson lived from 1900-1981. Although details of her life are somewhat sketchy, it is clear she had a strong attachment to the island and its people. She attended local schools, reveled in the sights and sounds of her surroundings, and spoke the dialect of coastal Maine. While regional in preparation, she was not indifferent to the outside world. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Maine at Orono; took on various teaching jobs, locally and in New York; did graduate work at Columbia University; and toured Europe, California and the Caribbean with friends. While these experiences were personally enriching, she always returned to Bailey Island for a sense of home.

Johnson’s father died when she was 24, a loss that impacted her family significantly. Her brother Lawrence was still in high school; Marjorie, it seems, midway through her college career. Her mother became head of household, and Marjorie, her eldest child, a principal means of support. When Lawrence married in 1939, Marjorie and her mother became co- managers of The Willows, and, after her mother died in 1951, Marjorie became the property’s sole manager and only full-time resident. She later worked in real estate, buying and selling island properties in a growing market.

Such a profile hardly suggests that of a serious poet, but Marjorie Johnson was one. She read extensively, reveled in the poems of William Blake and Rainer Maria Rilke, and adopted the rich imagery and stylistic understatement of an Emily Dickinson or an H.D. She also studied European painters, such as Tintoretto, Giovanni da Rimini and Georges de la Tour, for their expressive use of light, and she shared her poems with other writers whose opinions she valued. Her literary friends recognized her talent, and her island neighbors expressed quiet admiration for the way she mirrored their lives. In “The Evolution of Bailey Island,” published in 1992, Beth Hill referred to her as “the island’s favorite poet.” Undoubtedly, she was.

Johnson published her first and only collection of poems in 1975, just five years before her death. Titled “Songs from an Island,” it consists of 112 pages of mostly short lyrics, ranging in subject matter from cherry blossoms, to the play of light upon the cove, to the enduring tragedy of the Vietnam War. It also includes one quietly humorous poem about a Mr. Church from Turner, who came ashore for one night and ended up staying 35 years. In it, Johnson assumes the voice of an elder, capturing the dialect and laconic rhythms of coastal Maine:

He lived

with Gramp and Gram

on the island

for thirty five years,

caring for the cattle,

helping with the chores,

lobstering in winter,

seining in summer.

Then he took sick,

and his daughter come

and took him home …

Like so much local storytelling, “Mr. Church” finds its beginning in an actual person and an actual event. It has no moral or point, except, perhaps, the pleasures of island life or the reward of storytelling itself. It takes us back to a time when such tales were a source of entertainment, and it helps us remember who and what we are.

Most of Johnson’s lyrics include strong imagery. References to rubber boots, silvered fish on the wharf, drifted kelp and crumpled waves help situate us in her environment, inviting us to feel rather than simply “understand” what the poet is saying. Especially in her later poems, Johnson reaches beyond description toward an experience of the divine — as in “Beneath This Broad and Starry Fastness.” Here, she begins at the edge of the cove at night and ends in dreamlike ecstasy:

The little cove

lies silent in the haze

and one day

you will stand

beside me there.

And lay the moon

within my open hand,

and drift

the dust of stars

upon my hair.

Even if you don’t believe in hand-sized moons or stardust-sprinkled hair, you can feel the calm of surpassing love.

The tragedy of Johnson’s career is that she published so little, so late in life, and that today, almost half a century after “Songs from an Island” appeared, her accomplishments are no longer celebrated. Most of the physical reminders of her presence have faded. Family and friends have died or moved away. The Willows boardinghouse and cottages have been sold and replaced by a new house looking down on Mackerel Cove. Even the press that published her book has folded; the book itself, no longer in print.

Still, there are traces of her impact available, if you know where to look: A copy of “Songs from an Island” is in the Library of Congress. She is represented in the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England’s Abplanalp Library. A handful of copies (now collectors’ items) can be found online or in secondhand bookstores, often with inscriptions to people she knew. If you are willing to make an effort, you too can immerse yourself in Marjorie Johnson’s world.

I can’t help but think that she deserved more literary attention, but fame is not the point. For her, poetry was a way of dealing with life in all of its imperfections. Death was a natural conclusion, after which worldly concerns no longer mattered. In her poem “Transition,” she depicts her own passing in ecstatic terms, showing us that what she really wanted lies beyond. In that spirit, we will let her have the last word:


She ran as the wind,

earth free,

down the wide, sweet meadow

of her youth.

Old age lay withered,

outworn beside her.

The sea glittered,

daisies shone.

Time reversed itself

and stretched,

ribbed and sharded,

before her.

The winnowing wind


sea sweet on her face.


She ran as the mist,

across gold, drifting meadows

of her life,

the vast clouds of Paradise

folded about her

into numinous Light.

A former English professor at Florida State University and a Maine native, Joann Gardner now works as a freelance poet, essayist and book reviewer. She divides her time between Tallahassee, Florida, and Bailey Island.