Saturday 20 January 2024

Five Poems by Fred Johnston


Les Amours Perdus



‘A strange set-up.’

-       Alphonse Daudet: La Doulou


There was basket-making in a weedy garden space

And through the windows and down the lawns was the sea

Most of us had a few days’ stubble on our face

And through the windows and down the lawns was the sea


The corridor was a long and thin and a narrow space

And we moved in line along it like Great War gassed

We saw and heard things inside-out and out of place

And we moved in line in halflight like Great War gassed


One of us was so far gone he could not read

Who’d once read for a living and we knew his face

By times the very ill are stupid and we shunned his need

Who’d once read for a living and we all knew his face


On a weak, flowerless Monday they let me go

A hundred yards to the main gate and the world

In my eyes the light of the asylum’s mad afterglow

Down a hundred yards to the main gate and the world.




My name is Tethys and like many girls my age

I’m everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Though I’m brilliant at running a bath.


I’m a centrefold girl, a bit of sauce, my face

Can be viewed on the tiles of every bath-house

From here to Phrygia, the buxom well-fed


Lass whose ass could do with a hearty pinch –

I know how men think, let’s not pretend. Their

Bit of Phoar! I would! Made up in hasty paint


On cheap tiles, that’s me. Before I gave myself,

The tubby girl in the street, to that piss-head

Painter - who made a fair few bob out of me,


I can tell you – I had a few things going.

I’d been round the block even then, street-wise

As a tarrier’s rat up a bale of oakum


But I was girly-daft enough to think your man

Was going places. If he was, he didn’t take me.

Then I saw my round face over a bath-house


Door - he’d only sold me to a tile-maker for

A decoration. Such a divine child, my mother said;

Now you’re everybody’s.


Men gave me the Have-I-Seen-You-Somewhere?

My world tightened. Plashing about, me staring

Down on them, the minnow-pricked


Everybody’s and nobody’s, that’s Tethys.

I can be found in the bath-house, wide-eyed

On the tiles. No one’s goddess, me.

{In Greek mythology, Tethys came from an illustrious background, and married her    brother, Oceanus. In spite of this, she plays no active part in Greek mythology, though Homer mentions her briefly. Here she is reduced to a tile illustration in a bath-house.}




The café window’s crazy with loud

travestis burrowing into the night –

rue Amours-Perdus, les flics ladling macho like butter

over a biscuit-coloured road –

in veriflamme, a windowful of cabaret

camp, hands flying like birds


You’d go over, you said. If I wasn’t here, you’d go over.

Go over, like changing sides,

hang out an alien flag, go all Marlene:

No, though the camaraderie looked attractive

and we have only our straight selves and seldom laugh

and don’t do sex any more. Paris begins to rain.


The street lightless, sodden as a mourner’s

handkerchief. Kabyle music, an upstairs window

open to a thin terrace, the railing frail

as flayed bone. Taxis rat-fast.

The weight of things unsaid.

words stoppered in the gullet. This is what we are.




On a clear blue night my father and I leaning on the balcony

Listening to the Singer sewing-machine prick of automatic weapons

Carry over from the far side of the city

Under Black Mountain where the council estates live.




The radio’s rancid with weather warnings

We’re not talking

The garden is demolishing itself wind-blow by wind-blow


This is a fruitless, flowerless season

No good can come of it -

There are terrible things in the world; there is our silence.


Fred Johnston was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1951. His most recent collection of poems is 'Rogue States,' (Salmon Poetry 2019.) For some years he worked in journalism and in the mid-Seventies, with Neil Jordan and Peter Sheridan, he founded the old Irish Wtiters' Co-operative (Co-Op Books.) In 2019, he received an Irish Arts Council Literary Bursary to complete a new selection of short stories. Recent work has appeared in The Spectator, STAND, The Dalhousie Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Temenos Academy Review, Dreich, among others. He lives in Galway on the West of Ireland.

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