Monday 31 January 2022

Six Brilliant Poems by Fred Johnston




If you want to save a life, leave it alone

Have a jar where lives are kept like coins

Keep your own in there

Don’t let any curious fool take them out and fondle them

And give advice about polishing them up

He’ll start with the others and come to yours

He’ll wear it flat with his advising thumb

Featureless, he’ll say, it shines brighter

You know the type. Be miserly. Hide the jar.

Be miserable about it if you must

There are people out there who thrive on rust

You know who they are

They tell you to spend a little, then spend a little more

Let the light in, let the air in, let the rain in

Your life becomes one big suggestion

He won’t be happy until you’re base metal

So keep the lid on tight

Your jar, your coin; spend it or don’t spend it

Be brutal. If you want to save a life, leave it alone.




A funeral here is still an event, as watchable as a house on fire –

Mixum-gatherum of gaping single parents

In gossipy knots under the highway trees, cigarettes and buggies


Scallywag kids on bicycles doing wheelies on the church tarmac

Fidgety adult silence broken by grape-shot laughter, small

Dogs interrogate the lustrous hearse tyres: the deceased


Boxed and out of sight. The plot’s up a traffic-halting hill

A stroll above the tower blocks

A Manchester United T-shirt smirks under a faux-leather jacket


The shuffle behind the muffled hearse quick-steps into comedy

A car or two of close family, splats of black in shut windows

A shy few fall out, hawking the sky for rain -


The smell of wet earth settles on the skin

No flowers, by family request, cards of condolence

Or a name in a ledger is enough. Plenty. Stick to basics.




I fell in love at the age of three

In the playroom of an Atlantic liner, the sea

A green rack of icebergs; she

My age but colder.


With big red engines you could sit

In, toys of every world-wide shape and fit

Every make and model of kiddy kit

I could hope for


On the deck, Up There,

Our parents and guardians took the air

It must have been hard not to stare

At the iced hills sliding closer


No one got lost and all went well

We met each day for an hour and a bell

Called us to order and we fell

In on bell’s bark in fine order


We never exchanged a single word

Not so much as an infant sigh was heard

From either, emigrant kids, scared

In an emigrant liner


Around the play room ice and sea

Mixed a cocktail of bones insidiously

As our parents, guiltily free

Toasted the ice-blue weather.





Arc almost perfect in a perfect sky of early June

Blue still and alive with light

The red leather blackened as it gained height

And it was coming to me

Batted with a dancer’s ease

Certain, effortless, a pure dream of a thing, a spin too soon



There’s an unhappy moment of recalibration.

Distance, velocity and angle of fall

It’s a two-glove grab, if it’s anything at all

But it tricks the stretch, tricks the grasp

Slithers on sleek grass to the boundary, defies your petty calculation.


Your whites pile disappointed where they’re tossed

One by one, the others come in

No one mentions, or has to, the unforgiveable sin

Hanging in the air rank as blood

Or poison gas, or cancer; or by what margin the silly game was lost.




They continued down the quayside

And I was drowning (the story’s weightier that way)

Lapped into the breathing tide of Lake Ontario

And from my scant inches of water I could see them

Moving away and away in a not-far distance

And I shouted and they turned and ran back to me.


Not drowning, not drowned, I was hauled up

In their fright to dry gravel, and they blamed each

Other for what might have been, love as wrath –

I remember boat engines on the greeny lake, their

Cranky burr, their impertinence. The sounds small

Waves make over small stones, water in my shoes.


The Huron call it The Lake of Shining Waters –

My wretched baptism fell into myth, assumed the

Nature of unhappening. It hung in the branches

Of mind like snow or stars, brief as fog. Child-feet

Impressed upon the bruised skin of such immensity:

A child’s shout as ferocious as god-breath, as storms.




Make me a poem of bone before the soldiers come

In their moonless hours, without anyone’s permission

Powder the bone and give it to the children in cups of milk


It is the poem they come for, they are looking every-

Where with a violence this house has never known, the

Energy of actors rehearsed in their lines, every syllable


The street is washed in light brighter than the sun

Some are so young they are embarrassed. They search

About for someone to take away. Every room violated.


This will continue to the end of time. They leave

Empty-handed. Move along the street. The poem settles

In the children’s bones. We tidy up, sing the poem, as before.

Fred Johnston was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1951 and educated there and Toronto, Canada. He is the author of three novels and two collections of short stories, along with nine volumes of poetry, the most recent being 'Rogue States' (Salmon Poetry - 2019.) The founder of Galway city's annual CUIRT festival of literature in 1986, in 2004 he was writer in residence to the Princess Grace Irish Library at Monaco. He is a recipient of the Kathleen and Patrick Kavanagh Bursary and of a Prix de l'Ambassade (2002) and several bursaries from the Arts Council of Ireland. He lives in Galway, Ireland. 






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