Sunday 24 February 2013

Fred Johnston

Fred Johnston's commitment to the Western Writer's Centre often overshadows his own ongoing career as a writer. Following on from his success in publishing his work at home and abroad we took a look at a selection of his poetry and were hugely impressed. 

Johnston's poetry expresses a keen sensibilty to the fragile nature of the human psyche immersed as we are in the brutality of the world around us.  The poem L'Abbatoir expresses this very Beckettian awareness of the indignity which life often meets out. Like Beckett too, all three of the poems quoted below were originally written in French and subsequently translated. 

 (Nantes, le août, 2008)

La petite femme qui écrit dans son cahier au bord de la rivière
Me dit que des guerres, des meurtres et des catastrophes soient
Les sujets des cahiers de ce genre; et dans la poche d'une joile femme
Au bord d'une rivière, on peut trouver toutes les horreurs du monde,
Les promesses délabrées et les peines qui n'existent que dans l'abattoir.

The Abbatoir

The young woman writing in her note-book beside the river
Tells me that wars, murders and appalling tragedy are
The things one finds in that type of jotter: and in
A pretty girl’s pocket, at the river, we can find all the horrors
Of this world; broken promises and the kind of distress that exists
only in an abbatoir.

Any dealing with Johnston will quickly convince you that he is a very active, political and insightful commentator, often making life difficult for those who choose complacency over practical solutions. This has resulted in his gradual marginalisation by those in authority and in his sense of being a voice calling in the wilderness. In his poetry too there is a sense of his being an outsider, of being caught between two worlds and this is very clearly expressed in Le Rêve de mon Enfance.

Le Rêve De Mon Enfance

Mon enfance circulait
entre les deux pays

comme une rêve
qui s’interpose entre

les deux cauchemars, ou
une liaison qui éclate pendant la guerre –

De cette façon,
on nait hors de sa géographie,

sans regarder aux circonstances –
on vit comme un môme

qui est perdu dans
l’hypermarché, entre le kawa

et les cadavres, qui gerbe,
qui pousse un cri, sans réconfort –

et un flic, comme la mort, le suave.

Child’s Dream

My childhood ran
between two countries

like a dream
intruding between

Two nightmares, or
A love affair that breaks out in wartime –

Thus was I born
outside geography

regardless of circumstances;
like a kid

lost in a supermarket
between the coffee

and empty bottles, throwing up
screaming, inconsolable –

and a cop, like death, delivers him. 

Archetypal images such as the lost child cut through the hint of biography here, exposing the  experience of the wider race, lost and abandoned in an unnatural and price tagged existence. The only sense of redemption comes from the slight possibility of communication, perhaps in relationships with the people encountered throughout the poems but more importantly with the reader.   Johnston is a keen observer however, and even that relationship with the reader he realises can often be a one-way street for a poet. In an Orphic image in 'Aux Yeux Bandés' he shows the blindfolded musician, singing 'the world's apologies'.

Aux Yeux Bandés

Personne ne voit

L’aveugle qui joue de l’accordéon –

Personne n’écoute

Sa musique dans la rue.

Mais il écoute
La foule qui passé sous silence,
Et it voit
Les notes derrière ses yeux,

Et dans sa bouche
Il chant les excuse du monde.


No one notices
The blind accordion player
No one hears
His street music.

But he hears
The crowd passing in silence
And he sees
The music behind his eyes

And in his mouth
He sings the world’s apologies.

It is important to remember that many voices such as Fred Johnston's were forced into exile in the past. If we have learned anything from such mistakes we should recognise in Johnston's poetry and in his commentaries, an honesty and poetic value which are vital to the ongoing success of our cultural standing. 

Further selections from his French and English work may be found in the forthcoming:
Weyfarer Poetry Journal

Review: Ann Fallon. Ann is currently completing a Ph.D in English Literature at St. Patrick's College, DCU.

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