Fred Johnston – Three Poems

FRED JOHNSTON 1Fred Johnston was born in Belfast. He is director of the Western Writers’ Centre, based in Galway. He also reviews poetry for Books Ireland. He founded Galway’s Cúirt festival in 1986. His recent work has appeared in The Spectator, Stand and The New Statesman. His most recent collection is ‘Alligator Days’ (Revival Press) and he is working on a translation of Béroul’s prose edition of ‘Tristan et Iseut.’


What I can remember are taxis and a long walk by the docks
smell of oil and tar and fish-stalls by the mosque –
where were you, daughter, who crept out in photographs?

Those white buildings, white as blind eyes, and the casbah
with its deceit of lanes and entrances, and a donkey
for no reason still as held breath in the middle of the street

Where were you in all of this, can you remember for me?
I needed cheap wine and pills to keep me bouyant
someone to read the street-maps, take care of us both

Invisible to myself, was I invisible to you? Dust and blue sea,
afternoons heavy and viscous as poured concrete –
rank wine in the teeth and a tongue burnt by black tobacco

Postcards that told lies, I wrote them in the old French rooms
needing witnesses, the post-box became a confessional –
we’ re as out of touch now as then, images with their colours bled

Out, we may as well not have existed. Algiers did that
and the other places, exotic or plain,
I doubt we trailed a decent shadow through all that light.


Now that the numbers add up
the screens have advertised their verdict
there’s a yellow corridor to walk down
into the half-light of how things are changed

yet out among the parking spaces
men like you smoke illicit fags
as if nothing’s happened but everything will,
precarious on the edge of no going back

your future is in a brown envelope
in the language of things dispensed, calculated
they never say much, the wise ones,
mortality is a flag snapping on a far hill –

you went in as one man and emerge
as another, knowing secret things of blood
and tissue and deep scans. You could live
well without such knowledge, or unknow it.


Now we’re the waiting-room brigade
daubed with crosses of invisible paint
on the forehead, scribed into ledgers
posed in plastic chairs like art-pieces
still lifes, or, as the French say, natures mortes

Not so much dead perhaps as transmuted
into the out-of-date, like the curl-cornered
magazines, we’ve been handled too often
scanned but not read
idle curiosity is for other people not

Splitting apart from the inside out, dividing
themselves, annexing bits like rogue states
not quite failed but a tad ungovernable
stepping over a line, shape-changing
redrawing the boundaries we knew by heart.



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7 Responses to Fred Johnston – Three Poems

  1. Astonishingly good. My favourite, ALGIERS is a masterpiece!

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  4. HSx Barrón says:

    Ahora que los números se han agregado
    las pantallas revelan su veredicto;
    hay un corredor mortecino por el cuál descender
    hacia la media luz de las cosas que se transforman,
    sin embargo afuera en los huecos del estacionamiento
    hombres como tú fuman a escondidas
    como si nada hubiera pasado, pero todo ha pasado;
    sometido en el filo de lo irreversible
    tu porvenir está envuelto en un sobre de papel,
    en el lenguaje de las cosas perdonadas, prevén
    que los que saben nunca dicen mucho
    -la mortalidad es un banderín en una colina lejana-;
    entraste como un hombre y saliste
    como otro, conociendo las cosas secretas de la sangre,
    y los tejidos y los profundos análisis. Podrías vivir
    bien sin saberlo, y aún sabiéndolo.

    Traducción al español: H. Sx. Barrón

  5. Una traducción excelente.

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