Fred Johnston – Concerning Lucanus

Johnston LE P&W May 2023

Download PDF Here 
Live Encounters Poetry & Writing May 2023

Concerning Lucanus , poems by Fred Johnston

Concerning Lucanus

By wick-light he grew his thoughts
Sipped a wine gone sour
Heard in the ruffling draped dark, or thought he heard,
A scraping of a nail across a board

It was a nail’s edge of moon etching a line
Of light along the window sill
And he could hear it. And hear too his jaded empires
Ebb away; there was much he heard

Sipping a wine gone sour, and a new day
Not far, not far. A new bird woke,
A dogbark, or foxbark, a tree clearing its throat –
Lucanus had much to say, yet went away without a word.

Lucanus at seventy

When all was said and done, he’d made a life
Of quills and inks and two sons and a wife
The frescoes on his walls
Gave depth and vibrance to his office space
His halls drew in the scent of oranges and wood-smoke
He washed his face awake in sandalwood

He could see Cyra’s tomb from his balcony
Cyra, mater et u. hic iacet –
Simple and unfrilled as a column of accounting
Milled in the marble. Beside it, his own.
But time enough, he still enjoyed his wine
And friends and books and all of that yet.

The air was full of salt and fallen leaf
When the gardeners came,
Lucanus, for no reason, felt a fattening of grief.

Lucanus the poet

In an age when even slaves
Were writers of drama
Lucanus felt the state, the world, diminish

His own small verses
Entertained his friends
And theirs was the praise of friends
And they passed long nights hungry for sleep

He wrote of ordinary things
And held that in the ordinary
Lay the universal. Grey heads nodded
Over wine and purple grapes in fading light.

What a universe was his
From his villa, down
The geometry of his tended lawns,
Down the vineyards to the ever-belling sea

To the harbour, to his ships
To his oils and carpentry, the dates
Of parched Gaetulia –
The ample cool of eternity

Lay on his eyes like a finger
Dousing the sweat of lamp and ledger
Content, he was, Lucanus, in his verses
His heart flickering like a flame.

Of no consequence

Lucanus, now big-bellied as a baker
Had in youth been
Of no consequence:
A thin presence on the harbour wall
Preening himself like a gull

And like a gull, scavenging
Among the bits and bobs of other people’s
Fortune; while his father’s trade
Grew large
He borrowed money and threw dice

How far he’d come from that
Thin shadow –
How thin now the shadow of Romulus
Augustus, how thin the Empire
His ships looted without reprisal

He took hot herbal wine
For his heart pain
Rhubarb for flatulence
Fennel for his waters
And a polite diet of oysters and eggs

How far he’d come, Lucanus
Whose villa shone
Like a white shell
Like the well-fondled bone of a die
Like the magnificent cut marble of his tomb.

Lucanus omina legit

A physician, they say,
Makes a bad patient –
His mother had instilled in Lucanus
A hackworthy faith in signs
Some best read by night, others by day

For some, he had, like most
To hire a priest to fumble
In the guts of something suitably dead
Something harmless, approved and small
Butchered under incense, blood in a thimble.

He would stand and watch
Flocks of seabirds claw the blue air
In gyromantic panics, fits of speed
Their angles like a language, spelling out
A formula as potent as stars to intercede

With what gods, big or small
He dared not wonder. Just in time he grew
A prudent fear of flying birds or slippery offal
Dreading, of all things, madness such
As fell upon old men like him, who delved too much.

© Fred Johnston

Fred Johnston was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1951. Working as a journalist for some years, he was a poetry reviewer with Books Ireland and The Irish Times, among other publications: he also reviewed for The Sunday Times and Poetry Ireland Review. His work, both prose and poetry, has appeared in The New Statesman, The Guardian, Stand, The Spectator, Iron, Orbis, The Irish Times, The London Magazine, The Dalhousie Review, The Sewanee Review, Southwards, The Moth, The Stinging Fly. Founder of CUIRT international literature festival (Galway,) his most recent poetry collection is ‘Rogue States’ (Salmon Poetry, 2019.) He is also a novelist and short story writer. He lives in Galway in the West of Ireland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.