Fred Johnston

A Moral Question

It seems a fraud, this
To offer an opinion from a safe distance
Touching a flame
But pulling back – a game of sorts
Or worse, a fashion

A sticker on a car’s rear window
Or wearing your kaffiyeh (but not too often,
It’s not easy to keep clean)
Or signing one more petition
In the safe, safe high street –

And there’s always an irate
Poem or letter to a newspaper –
They must be worth something
They must be worth something
And it’s the thought that counts

Still an ache that the thought is weightless
You keep that notion at arm’s length
We can only do what we can do
It’s not entirely a waste of anger –
Or so you tell yourself

But you are not among the ruins
You are not swallowing tear-gas
Or making verses out of bandages
Nor composing to the rhythm of hammering
On your door

So you must wonder
By what right – it’s a moral question –
You open yourself
To any of it. You run no risk.
You’d feel better, perhaps, if you did.

But then, and each time,
And itch, a nudge, a wink from the heart
And from this other far place you’re
Putting new words in order
In spite of yourself. In spite of everything.

And Yet

Who casts runes these days
Or tosses knuckle-bones?

Who inspects the arrangement of birds above the roofs
Or calls in to the local butcher’s
For a hank of warm entrails to rummage in and scry the weather?

Do we say: If three ‘buses come round the corner
One behind the other, I’ll have luck with the Lottery –
If a red-haired woman crosses my path . . . 

We have machines to prophesy,
The brick and iron canyons we negotiate do not quiver
To the indignant grumps of small gods –

Yet things die and fall about us
As they always did

Now every TV soap is its own well-thumbed gringoire
In these pallid actors we choose
As oracles, and each red-top spells our stars

We can throw our voices across unbridled space
As the naked shaman at his fires
Yet are still timid in the dark, for all the light we conjure.

Fred Johnston was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1951 and educated there and Toronto, Canada. In 1972, he received a Hennessy Literary Award for prose and was a founder, with Neil Jordan and Peter Sheridan, of the Irish Writers’ Co-operative. His ninth and most recent collection of poetry is ‘Rogue States’ (Salmon Poetry 2019). Three collections of short stories and three novels have been published; in 2004 he was Writer-in-Residence to the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco. In the U.S., prose and poetry have appeared in The Southern Review, The Irish Literature Review, The New Hibernia Review, and in Canada, in Prism, The Malahat Review, Fiddlehead, with some new work due in The Dalhousie Review. In Britain and Ireland, new poems have appeared in The Spectator, The Financial Times, Poetry Ireland Review, The Irish Times, The New Statesman, among others. He lives in Galway.