The aptly titled ‘Rogue States’ by Galway’s Belfast born Fred Johnston takes you to places you don’t really want to be. It helps a lot in most cases to have been there sometime in your life, broken or otherwise or even in spirit. The oncology unit of a hospital is a case in point.
Running through there’s philosophy and poetry joining forces in hospitals, deserts, back gardens and great cities and more for good measure. The language he uses and the metaphors he draws on frequently come from the same well, from behind the wall he hit in the Cancer Unit which is the title of the first poem.
The terminology of war seems to crop up time and again to describe traumatic experiences metaphorically.
One might say a great number of poems are coloured by and take their direction from the shock waves he experienced in the waiting for and the taking of his diagnosis. It’s his take on it that makes the reading of this book a mind gripping exercise, especially for those who have gone through the same trauma of uncertainty under the cameras of a robotic machine hovering over them.
This is how he begins his series of poems where he is corralled:
‘Oddly like a waiting room at a train station
The same gruff fidgety anticipation
Yet the essence of baggage, an absence of destination’.
Thoughts of desperation in his fear of what he might be told like ‘maybe they’ll forget’ spin in his head. He finishes up with a perfect example of onomatopoeia:
‘Names are sweetly called, but not you, not yet
You’re still a blank page and maybe they’ll forget
Or lose you, better still; still, the train-clack fret
Not yet, not yet, not yet’.
His use of rhyme in this collection, wherever it suits, appears here with all three lines rhyming in very crisp and effective three line stanzas in this case.
Later in ‘Procedure’ he talks of ‘days in limbo’ and in an outburst of frustration with it all says:
‘Better, you say, to hop a ‘plane, outrun the thing’.
Wishful thinking but anything goes when your back is to the wall. This sudden flamboyant approach to life by the poet is not uncommon as you read on through all his highs and lows at home and abroad. There are traces of black humour as well in his treatment of grave circumstances. He sees the funny side and the lighter side and his quick wit can turn things inside out in a flash.
Fast forwarding there is a poem ‘Business End’ that illustrates this along with his racing imagination. He is on the phone to one of the nurses in the Unit and she speaks of ‘Numbers high for your age’ and he begins to imagine what she looks like and how it would be between them at consultation time. He guesses she would be very clinical but questions comically:
‘What expression does she wear, leaning into her lover
(whose readings are normal for his age) for whom
she invokes a different lexicon, her voice intimate,
not phlegmed with static and so damned clinical?’.
In ‘Bone Scanning’ he lightens up considerably in the light of the particular procedure at the time:
‘Perhaps like Superman I will see through walls
now that I have tanked up on isotopes
lighting bruise-blue veins and sparking neon
from suspect bones’
He describes the camera as being ‘as smoochy as a lover’. His ease and power as a poet shown in his narratives makes his poems here so readable and attractive. The language he engages fits his subjects like a well chosen overcoat fits the buyer.
In the operating theatre the surgeons are about to proceed:
‘They think they’ll find a Tora Bora they can drone over
and it won’t be painless, that rooting out;’ (‘Surgical Strike’)
Undoubtedly he expects them to find one of his rogue states deep in his body and like all rogue states he expects it to be treated as such.
In the title poem he talks of his surgeons:
‘annexing bits like rogue states
not quite failed but a tad ungovernable
stepping over a line, shape-changing
redrawing of the borders we knew by heart’.
Once again, warlike terms crop up:
‘I’m waiting for
a laser-guided strike, buying time, living the hit-and-miss’.
He makes a point or two about oncology waiting rooms that are so familiar to those who may have been there:
‘There’s a TV in a high corner no one watches
the news we want isn’t likely to come up there’
Poignantly and powerfully poetic lines like:
‘someone’s laughing in the infinite, irrelevant elsewhere’
make ‘Rogue States’ a striking read and a grim reminder of what people have to go through at times like this on their own private journey.
He talks about standing ‘in a drunken politeness’ for his diagnosis:
‘a verdict like sacred writ, slow as you can hear
every word, numeral, percentage: murky odds made oddly clear’ (‘Grace’).
He is as if writing in hammer blows and he never fails to hit the nail on the head.
The title of his poem on his MRI scan is called ‘Hideous Fish’, ‘a kamikazi one man sub’, for a scan ‘in the tubular loneliness’ he gives us a report from inside.
He imagines that sounds being made were that of savage fish attacking him:
‘the bang and thump
like hideous fish trying to get in’.
In a very singular poem ‘Reduction’ in the same vein he talks of himself as being:
‘the site of an ambush’
and he imagines the radiotherapy machine cameras hovering around over him:
‘the cosmonauts, circling
the diminishing globe of what I am, or was’ .
Here his language is downbeat. He says of his body as regards their searching:
‘I would rather not know what’s
there, nor learn of its savage inhabitants -‘
He finishes on a very low note:
‘this black and white intrusiveness
shakes me, that I am reduced to this’.
He pronounces ominously that:
‘All things are fatal until they are proven innocent’
In his ‘Bunker’ a title where the cap fits perfectly (‘down in radiotherapy’) he states:
‘The architect got it wrong, left
A space for this contended zone
Prone to a sly inside job, self treason’.
These lines could only be written by a man experiencing disillusionment with the human condition and our vulnerability to attack from not only without but within.
He references Robert Burton’s ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ and at times seems melancholic himself, unheeding Milton’s :
‘Hence loathed Melancholy,
Of Cerberus’ and blackest Midnight born’.
If we were to look closely at the author of this book of poems we would see that here he is like a swimmer on a long distance swim across the bay. Sometimes he takes a nose dive and disappears for a while. It gets a bit murky and mysterious down below but before you know it he surfaces again, striking for shore.
His second three line stanza in ‘Algiers’ written in blank verse stands out in the way it catches the timelessness of the place and for the imagery that it portrays so lucidly.
‘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’.
‘Public Scribes’ also set in Algiers leaps out of the page at you. It gets to the heart of that North African city and makes the point loudly of how these people who were illiterate were revealing details of their private lives just to understand and be understood:
‘those who could not decipher a ‘bus destination or find
their way through a city that flowed like a burst dam – ‘
What a fitting metaphor in the end there for the turmoil of human traffic in Algiers.
His poetic narrative on the public scribes is perfectly executed:
‘The public scribes sat at antique school desks in a line
like a fair-ground train outside the Post Office in Algiers
writing personal letters, postcards, official pleas and
arguments for those who queued and could neither read nor write’.
Love is in free fall in ‘Clouds Cover’. He says from his in-flight position:
‘This is my terror,
that you will look up and see
a mile-high convulsion and spin
that you reach out forever and fail
to catch me, to break my fall’.
There are many more occasions and places of love recalled and expressed in emotionally laden poems. We get some idea, in so far as he allows us, of the heartaches and hurts inherent in his love life.
‘sand erasing the roads
in drifts high as hills, our love like grit
Clogging the heart. Do you remember?’ (‘Sand’)
‘a scrabble of touch
and breath, eyelids shut, eyes skittish under them’ (‘Sandwork’)
‘One day, love, you’ll say what you said just now
and you’ll be talking to yourself” (‘Blues’).
‘And over your head the peace will fall
Like a picture unsurely nailed to the wall’ (‘Now that the war is over’).
That poem moves from this jittery post war enjoyment of love to a more comfortable and secure finale.
‘The midnight TV news blinks above us
In the slow black of our room, and the rain
Comforts us, hissing, gossipy, on the red roof’.
‘I searched Dublin for a sign, tore up the pavement for our bones
My ear hugged every nook we’d snuggled in, I was dumb for days –
That Georgian door I entered by no longer pulsed with a light
Miraculous to me. We’d kiss, you’d leave, I’d listen to it close’. (‘Georgian Door’).
‘ while that island song rowed around in my head
day into night
and back again, circling its own calamity –
and still we slept in our sheltering place
breath to breath, face to face’. (‘Calum sGaire’).
All of the above are love lines from a brace of his poems speaking for themselves on romantic interludes and attachments.
Melancholy and the mundane rule together in ‘Bet on it’.
‘bookies office and corner shop
map out the unheroic boxing-ring
of the everyday, nothing to sing
about, life with a full stop’
The next two lines are loaded with rejection and dejection as epitomised by this lonely hallway, a hallway with a history, a story to tell:
‘rejection notes thick as carpet in the hall
left to be tramped on, beneath the whispery meter’.
We get glimpses of his relationship with his father in a number of poems. In ‘Working From A Still Point’ he says:
‘Mundane suited him, with a pinch of risk
a football terrace on a Saturday, a bet
on a horse; poor man’s shrapnel, harmless’
but we know there’s more to it:
‘He believed I could not see this entangled man
that it was unheroic to conjure up the torn flesh
reveal where the barbs went in’.
It’s hard to walk away from this poem and not want to read more into that man’s life so warmly depicted.
We note well the lines on him earlier and empathise with him:
‘somewhere in all of it was dull regret
that things hadn’t taken a different turn’
When his father was ill and coming near the end connected up with medical contraptions to keep him alive his disarming reminder to Fred from his sick bed was highly unexpected towards the end of a silent vigil:
‘If you go now you’ll just make the pub’
Both his father and mother are remembered emotionally in the poem with the challenging title ‘My Father Ought To Have Liberated Dachau’:
He lauds his care of his mother:
‘when her legs melted into cancer
he didn’t send for me
knew better; youth is indifferent, death a myth
the daily dressings, pain’s mess, love and duty’.
Here, as in the title he sums up his high opinion of him and catches the essence of him wonderfully.
‘ a man who might have done many things
worthy of a photograph
instead he dodged the monumental and settled
for the ordinary trudge, heroism of a different order’.
‘Intaglio’ is a particularly fine narrative ingrained with sadness on the death of the poet’s mother and how it left his father as ‘a fleshed intaglio of himself’ after caring for her at home and how:
‘she hated the place.
Thought the people tight, funless, unknowable’
while all this time:
‘He lay so long in the damp ditch of her illness
He became lightless;’
In one stark pen picture of his father his state of health at that time shocks:
‘In the mirror a thin man shaves
ragged in the cheekbones as a cheap shirt’.
On a number of occasions the poet is on location, so to speak, in his back garden, sometimes in contention with it.
In ‘Watering’ Fred leads us up the garden path, to use a pun, with a metaphysical, transplanting yourself approach:
‘or plant yourself, for that matter
grow rooted, sturdier, grow upwards
like a tree, skin barked,
eyes for leaves, that sort of thing?
‘Gone Native’ goes even further. Here his unattended gone Jurassic garden really engulfs him. His imagination runs rife even in these limited lack of the exotic surroundings:
‘The source of the Nile is somewhere between my window
And the breeze-block wall; I might do a Kurtz and disappear
I ought to disappear, I’ve been mapping myself for too long’
Yes, if he could disappear here into the very heart of the garden in a Jansenistic fashion he would then be:
Ghosty in my green-black back garden, a man translated’
I have found many more quotable and insightful stand alone lines in this collection and in highlighting one lot I could be taking the risk of being unfair to a whole range of others that make an impact on you:
‘You went as one man and emerge
as another, knowing secret things of blood
and tissue and deep scans’ (‘Diagnosis’).
‘the colour of my file is red
it holds the geographies of my death’ (‘Reduction’).
His mother doing housework in an obsessive way:
‘busying about like a fly head butting a window’. (‘Fly’).
His father in the background admitted to not knowing:
‘What needed to be said,
the spell for resurrecting her each day’.
In Paris anticipating the news contained in a letter delivered:
‘A first day opens like a flower or a tomb’ (‘Lost Pages From A Guide-Book’)’
and on opening it:
‘No postcard this, but an X Ray, a scan to the bone’
‘the rain spat like a bigot on the windscreens’ (‘Intaglio’)’
and also in the same poem:
‘The city shifted and shot itself in the foot over and over’.
On looking at the hospital ward doorway where his father lay seriously ill
‘The great silence, solid as brick, framed in that open door’. (‘Vigil’).
Lines from a poem written for the visit of a troupe of Palestinian dancers to Galway:
”Do not harm my olive tree
For it is watered by my blood’ (‘A Poem For You).
Probably the most intriguing part of this collection of poems for me is the reoccurring image of a red Georgian door and the fine poetry that’s woven around it and behind it with a strong whiff of romance attached.
I cannot but record how I admired the sheer moving beauty of his ‘Bird Incident’. This poem works like clockwork, showing off the finely honed craft of Fred Johnston to good effect:
harvesting the heft of its flight, had walloped in
saw the skylight, climbed up on a shaft of grey light
which he mistook for a stairway’
making so much noise, like a child railing at the bars
of a cot, like a man gone mad at the squeeze of his cell
or someone buried under rubble’
Luckily it found its way to freedom in the end by some blown instinct out the open door by which it had entered. His compassion for the bird is extended by his metaphors to people in captivity and those affected by war and natural disasters.
I hope that by reading ‘Rogue States’ you will find a freedom of your own. I did.
Matt Mooney. Born in Kilchreest, Co. Galway in 1943, he has lived in Listowel since 1966. His four collections of poems are: Droving (2003), Falling Apples (2010), Earth to Earth (2015) and The Singing Woods (2017). Winner of The Pádraig Liath Ó Conchubhair Award 2019. (Filíocht/Poetry). Poems published in: The Amaravati International Poetic Prism Anthology 2018, The Galway Review Anthologies, Feasta, First Cut, West 47, Duilleoga, Striking a Cord, The Applicant, Poetry Breakfast, Poems on the Edge. One of his poems appears on the syllabus of a number of UK Primary Schools. His poems have been read on: RTE Radio, Wired FM, Radio Kerry.