HOW TO SAVE A LIFE
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.
SONG OF A CHILD IN AN ATLANTIC LINER
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.
Post a Comment