THREE PLAIN HAIKU
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.
NOTHING TO DO WITH LOVE OR SLEEP
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.
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.