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Rogue States, by Fred Johnston

Rogue States, by Fred Johnston, Salmon Poetry, 73 pp, €12, ISBN 978-1912561254

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
no poetry here …
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
on a horse;

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:

                                   “  …..and the rain spat
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
Out like a prank;

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:

Down in Radiotherapy
This blue bunker of last resort
There’s chilled laughter

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.

Maurice Earls



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