Fred Johnston – The Russian Version

Fred Johnston LEP&W V1 Dec 2022

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume One December 2022.

The Russian version, poems by Fred Johnston.

The Russian Version

This hotel lobby’s had a make-over
Since I was here with Alyona talking of Tolstoi over coffee and biscuits
She looked as tidy and colourful as a child’s doll
A gift for a child plucked from the yellow light of a Duty-Free window
We never met again

She took something I’d written and
With impressive, cautious efficiency, read it back to me in Russian
And made it sound much grander, much better
Than it was. I remember the word for a garden, сад, sounds like sad
That’s what she told me

She read like a girl tending flowers
What I’d written wasn’t mine anymore, it was hers, I let it go
When she folded the page it turned into a white bird
Tucking away its wings in the small white nest of her hands
And it began to rain

Against the gangly tall windows
Making a sound between a hiss and a whisper, a breathing sound
And the lobby lights shaped like elegant candles
Fluttered on. Alyona was not made for that room, or cold rain
Blowing on tall windows.

The Readers

Lodge in café doorways
Or at metal tables silvering the sun
Blinding the scanning eye:
Draining coffee cups to oracular circles
They have navigated the world
Before lunchtime,
Or have left it beyond the kerb
In a ruction of traffic loading, unloading
Pitching and hauling –

And then comes the crossword
With its demand for attention,
Thesaurus like a Torah, holy and
Deep-instructing; each square is a
Cipher and underneath meaning the act
Of graphing the letter. Then there is
A map and tomorrow’s weather,
Whorls like God’s thumb-print
Covering the known world –

Yet I have read and read again
The birthing, marrying and killing of men
In columns and lines often syntactically
Wrong, and have not yet understood
What reading does. Time’s ink.

A Bridge on the Côte d’Azur

A girdered road bridge like any other
This one hunched in its silence
Like something predatory. We’d stopped for lunch.

Not so much because of it, but the heat
Had pushed us about like a tide, we’d had enough
Of the Promenade des Anglais and Vieille Ville

Effervescent blue sea-light strung in the air
Like a sheet. Here were back-roads
Tree-thick sandpaper slopes so green they were black.

We parked the rented car, a stir of yellow dust –
And there was the bridge,
Red-ironed, miraged, clamped rock to rock.

It was itself and more, a possibility
Like someone’s beckoning from a door, or
A needed thing mislaid, like spectacles, or a key.

Through the camera’s viewfinder it looked
Imperfectly right, an angled accident set up
Sure of itself, pure to perspective, a willed harmony –

Walking from its far side, a man in earnest
There like a mote on the lens,
Hurrying but coming no closer, a strung thing

As if disarticulate, unjoined, loose
Like a shirt flapping or a flame –
Or a sketch, an idea penciled in the blue air.

© Fred Johnston

Born in Belfast in 1951, Fred Johnston has published nine collections of poetry, his most recent is ‘Rogue States,’ (Salmon Poetry 2019.) Co-founded the Irish Writers’ Co-operative in the ‘Seventies with Neil Jordan and Peter Sheridan and the annual CUIRT literature festival in Galway in 1986. In 2004, he was appointed writer-in-residence to the Princess Grace Irish Library at Monaco. He has written and published poetry in French and received a Prix de l’Ambassade in 2002. Two collections of short stories have been published, one in French, and three novels. Recent poetry has appeared in The Guardian, The Spectator, The New Statesman, The Irish Times, STAND, The Financial Times among other publications. He lives in Galway, Ireland.

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