Review: Maurice Earls reviews Rogue States for The Dublin Review of Books Issue 112, 1 (May 2019)
In these poems, which focus on the experience of cancer or a possible cancer, the body is as a rogue state. Intervention to restore the norm is undertaken by the medical, scientific world, which is regarded as not much better than an invading army. There is a sustained objection to falling under the control of the interventionists.
Organised society and its procedures do not appeal. The prevailing mood is one of grim fatalism; there is no belief in the medical world doing good. This is a world without Ms Nightingales. Here it is only machines, their operators and those who manage your appointments with them, the cold and efficient nurses. One has to go along with it.
... one smokes to much, is prone
to probing medical rituals, there are things to fear.
The poet’s background life surfaces throughout. It is mostly dismal and it is this, the shit of life, which is the felt experience of these poems and it is what the poet trusts:
Winter’s a slow-dripping tap
rows of houses headstones in rain
Bookies office and corner shop
Images of a father occur; there is warmth and regret. “My father never took me fishing.”
Mundane suited him with a pinch of risk
a football terrace on a Saturday, a bet
Unpleasant things happened:
Parents cackled in the living-room
while he tried to have me upstairs on his bed
with the promise of a Corgi truck
His mother’s life was structurally constrained:
Like a bigot on the windscreens. She’d hated the place.
For Johnston, at least in these poems, the grim is the real and other experience suspect. In “Golden Age” he rejects the idea of fulfilment in youth, asking:
What was so raging good about the ’Seventies
or the bed-sits with Joni Mitchell for company?
There is no temptation to say “Hey! Let’s give science a chance, let’s see if we can cut the bugger out.” In Rogue States the intervention is agreed, but with a scowl.
The cancer unit is “Oddly like a waiting-room at a train station” but with “an absence of destination”. This opening poem sets the tone. Medicine is not here to benefit humanity. This is not a vision which sees medicine and poetry as sharing a desire to grasp the human predicament. Here terrified middle-aged men are dropped in a managerial maze, a world whose rules they don’t understand, and which is governed by the emasculating “no-nonsense nurse”. “Names are sweetly called” but no one is fooled. The nurse going around taking details is an agent of power, an angel of death, not cure. Could you escape by being too small to notice?
You’re still a blank page and maybe they’ll forget
Or lose you, better still, still, the train-clack fret
Not yet, not yet, not yet.
No such luck. Here comes the humiliation:
Blue smocks that never tie up properly, one’s backside hanging
Death is the overriding fear. But escape may just be possible.
They may stamp your visa in the end, may yet wave you through.
The medics with their cold efficiency are border guards at the gates of Hades.
They never say much, the wise ones,
mortality is a flag snapping on a far hill
The patient-victim is not co-operative, recalcitrant and off-message. His only agency disobedience
yet out among the parking spaces
men like you smoke illicit fags
An MRI scan prompts one of many bleak wartime images:
It must have been something like this
in a kamikaze one-man sub.
The mood is one of powerlessness. The destination clear:
the colour of my file is red
it holds the geographies of my death
But the rituals must be followed, and confirmation sought:
There’s a TV in a high corner no one watches
the news we want isn’t likely to come up there
All must await the machines’ cold judgement:
This blue bunker of last resort
There is not much in the way of hope. “Hic sunt dracones.”
Where there are hints of the positive it is persevering through the bleak,
Some poet’s working in the midst of it, “you can bet on it”.
while a used tea-bag’s drying
on a two ring electric heater,
This world of archaic austerity appeals. Recognition is absent “rejection notes as thick as carpet in the hall”.
Others, it seems find life easier, as in “Ascent”:
we came here first with ropes and failure
no one fails now, the routes well struck
They’ve made some slick evolutionary leap
become birds, become seraphim, they
grab the air in their teeth, bite down hard
chew their way up and up, swallow us whole.
Somehow the “official” world of poetry is on the same side as the medical interventionists. The question is how to protest in language and survive
How not to become an enemy of the state
of poetry, which has spies everywhere
There are moments where personal pain and alarm find voice:
It’s a shock, I tell you, to become like everyone
to be human, frail as God, ordinary as grass
collapsing inward, drying up, unheroic, alarmed
Sometimes it is clear that a poem which embodies a personal truth can never be a negative thing:
The sun always grabs us by surprise
its yolky wash on a pub wall
the clumsy spill around the back legs of café tables.
we have stopped being pretty, all of us
too many pills and pill-packs embarrass our pockets;
the future served up three times daily after meals.
Goethe remarked: “Science arose from poetry … when times change the two can meet again on a higher level as friends”.
Perhaps, but not here, not yet.
Interview: Fred Johnston interviewed by Charlie McBride for The Galway Advertiser, Thursday 21st March, 2019
SALMON POETRY has recently published a new collection of poems by Fred Johnston, entitled Rogue States. It is Johnston’s ninth collection of verse and arrives almost 40 years after his debut, Life And Death In The Midlands.
The phrase ‘rogue states’ has been used by world powers like the US to demonize countries which have fallen out of favour with the West. Johnston’s book adopts the phrase and personalises it; serious illness is seen as a ‘rogue state’. Other poems address themes of love and loss, family and friendship, and the place of poetry in a world of turmoil and injustice.
The collection commences with a sequence of poems evoking Johnston’s experience of a cancer scare and its attendant treatment. ‘Diagnosis’ observes that "you went in as one man and emerge/as another, knowing secret things of blood/and tissue and deep scans. You could live/well without such knowledge. Or unknow it."
“It’s not an illness book, I’m chary of those,” Johnston tells me over an afternoon chat. “Those poems make up a small section. When I got the initial diagnosis I was terrified because it ran in the family. But you become enmeshed in the medical process and that somehow flattens out your anxieties. After a while I was taking things in, my surroundings, the jargon of instruments and procedures, the physical milieu of doors and corridors, and I started writing about them and the poems started to come. They are about the experience but they are not ‘woe is me’; I tried to stand back from that and assume an objective view.”
The volume also includes a number of sharply tender poems about Johnston’s father. In ‘My Father Ought To Have Liberated Dachau’ he writes "My father might have done many things/worthy of a photograph/instead he dodged the monumental and settled/for the ordinary trudge, heroism of a different order."
'There is a thin line between being overtly political and propaganda, you can waver over and back across that line and if you are lucky you don’t fall into being propagandistic and stay on the poetry side, but it is difficult to do'
“He’s popped up in a lot of my poems over the years,” Johnston notes. “I have an admiration for him hence the ‘Dachau’ poem. He was the kind of guy nobody noticed. He was quiet domestically and yet he was involved in the labour movement and got fired for trade unionism in his day. He experienced a lot in his life; he came from a large family and was very bright. He won a scholarship but he didn’t take it because the family needed him bringing in a wage.
"He got a job in a bakery and later worked in Shorts Aircraft factory during the war. We emigrated to Canada when I was a kid and had a life over there that was unimaginable in 1950s Belfast. He was earning enough to bring us on travel holidays twice a year. But then he came back to Belfast due to some family situation there and ended up working in a back street garage. He never spoke about it but it must have been a major disappointment. He does come up in a lot of my poems and in those poems it is him I am investigating.”
Johnston holds strong political views on issues like Palestine and US imperialism but when he addresses politics in Rogue States it is mostly done obliquely. One exception is the trenchant ‘A Poem for You’, written in response to a Galway visit by a Palestinian dance troupe. It concludes with the couplets: "Do not offer me sand for bread/For I will make bread even from sand// Do not tell me who I am/For I am written in the Book of the World."
“There is a thin line between being overtly political and propaganda, you can waver over and back across that line and if you are lucky you don’t fall into being propagandistic and stay on the poetry side, but it is difficult to do,” Johnston observes. “Now and then there is a point when a poem-as-propaganda - though propaganda is a loaded word - is justified
"‘Poem for You’ I wrote for the visit of a dance company from Gaza and I read it out on stage when they were here and I think it is for reading out loud where you can be a bit more declarative. The whole subject is one which our writers generally have steered clear of - much as they steered clear - with the exception of Thomas Kinsella and Padraic Fiacc, perhaps - of true criticism of what was happening in Northern Ireland during the worst of that.”