Five poems by Fred Johnston

for Gerry McDonnell 


Hours like slow water

Lap the doors and then we sleep

Dreaming we can swim


Uncut grass will climb

Out of control up the walls

Every blade knife-sharp


Old men in flat caps

Small voices on a long street

The street-lamps click on.


The landing was so rough people screamed,

A woman charged the cockpit door 

A gabble of schoolboys bit into swearing as if it were food

And they had been starved –

So did we come to Madrid, where the saints

In Baroque churches were dressed for celestial cat-walks –

In a backstreet bar, an antique singer bowed

Immaculately under thick shrapnel of roses

How did we pass the days? With love-making

On a hot balcony floor, ice-spiked horchatas pale as Northern skin;

In the acid green of el Retiro, where kissing had once been a crime

Paddle-boats and watery dollops of heat

Afternoons were timed by thunder and rain

Heavy as oil; the streets steamed when it passed

At night transvestites met for drinks and dancing at an open café,

Beery men yelled at TV matadors en pointe for the kill.


Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away.

                                                                      – Song of Solomon 8:6

How many this river has embraced

Alluring in her nite-clubbing

Fringed by swans

Vampish in the after-pub hours:

The sleepy snuggle of waves

The nail-polish scratch of taxi lights

Snaring the anaesthetised eye –

How many, and more besides?

This postcard town is veined

Blue-black by rivers and canals

They all took lovers:

More than the guardians can count

Shimmied down the glossy banks

Into the chill warmth

Of a river frenzied with salmon –

Divers found them, fat as fools

As if they’d gorged Roman-fashion

Bloated as festive blimps

Deformed by the botched cosmetic

Surgery of eels, skin slipping like wriggling

Off an out-of-fashion suit

A pupa, a new thing being born 

Nothing to do with love or sleep –

Come witness a closed casket, a tincture of salt.


Our dogs shuffle, I dare not turn on a bedside lamp – 

I’m a felon, room-creeping while you sleep.

I don’t sleep well, what with one thing and another.

The window’s open, there’s no need for that

A rat might visit, it’s hardly impossible, and the dogs

Wouldn’t stir, wouldn’t bother. We’re defenseless.

The meticulous motions needed to negotiate

A room like this in the deliberate dark: it’s hardly

To be believed, the strategizing, the advance planning:

There’s bird-song suddenly, mocking whistles

From an enemy trench. We’ll clamber over the top,

Into a sniper’s slaughter of corroded eyes and bad temper.

Nothing is worth imagining, it’s all by-the-numbers

Now. By drill, by rehearsal. By the manual. 

Malingerers will be shot. Smoke if you have them.


As if someone had pushed in the front door

it was unlocked, not properly closed, but a bird

harvesting the weight of its flight had walloped in,

saw the skylight, climbed up on a shaft of grey light

which he mistook for a stairway out, and now it had

wrapped itself in a shroud of dust-webs and lost the

fragile aerodynamics of muscled bone and knitted feather

All clattery 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, this clamour and rage

turned frightening to look at, so that I was afraid, a giant

wielding a broom-handle, not hitting but helping, until

without guidance but from some blown instinct it saw

the gift of the open door through which it had entered

and scraped by and out, leaving the hallway quiet again

trailing a flag of dust and web but unencumbered, free.

Poet and Critic Fred Johnston

Writer and critic Fred Johnston was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1951.  His most recent collection is True North (Salmon Poetry, 2019.) He founded Galway city’s annual literature festival in 1986 and in 2004 was writer-in-residence to the Princess Grace Irish Library at Monaco. 

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