Fred Johnston


God brought him forth out of Egypt: he hath as it were
The strength of an unicorn……

My father said that, since I was still workless,
He’d get me into the shipyard. Harland & Wolff,
Queen’s Island, duncher caps and bicycle clips.
My grandfather was secretary to the East Belfast
Boilermakers’ Union – sons after sons in their tribes.

Well and good, all this; it helped if you belonged
To a Lodge.
Clan writ ran the length of the rails and the height
Of a gantry. I squinted at the grids and girders

Saw in them an infinite cartoglyph, read the
Signs and codes, the black mass of men herding
Over the bridge out of their Egypt, a treacle of black bees:
All of it an intimate speech of sorts, whispers through the iron;
A job for life, rivet and scalding steel, tea from a tin.

All well and good; a word in the open ear, keys
To a Jerusalem of water and iron. Not for me.
Not mentioned again.
Not spoken of, building arks like Noah, tossing them
On the waters like bread: no Moses to whack the tide in two.

This poem first appeared in The Children of the Nation: Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland edited and introduced by Jenny Farrell (Culture Matters, 2019)

Fred Johnston © 2019