Poems by Jonathan Dunne

From the unpublished collection Venus:



We watched the swimmer as he swam out to sea,
pulled himself out with strong, steady strokes,
only his head above water.
It was a wet November day,
the dampness strewed pearls on your hair.
Whenever we looked away or climbed higher,
it was difficult to find the swimmer again.
That is until we spotted the buoy
and with that landmark in sight
it was easy to find him
pulling himself out to sea
with fine, steady strokes
as the dampness in the air turned your hair
into pearl necklaces.




The ticket inspector
appeared out of nowhere.
‘Tickets please!’
I had not punched mine because
on boarding the bus
there were so many people
I couldn’t get past the stairs.
So I journeyed with my back to the wall,
felt the swish of the door,
how it opened and closed,
admitting and expelling passengers,
breathless, rosy children saying, ‘It’s warm!’
gaunt men in caps with sunken eyes and bristly skin,
mother hens with their shopping,
a youth so charged for his girl
he barged past without noticing
the effect he had on us.
I can say I enjoyed the journey,
it was well worth the fifty stotinki
of my unpunched ticket I held
in the freedom of the arena
when most people had got off
and we were in the city centre.
I heard an angel say, ‘Maybe it’s time, you know…’
but after all the pushing and shoving,
after all the alarms and doors and bells,
I was suspended in a sea of space,
of slothful silence that meant I couldn’t be bothered
to raise my arm.
My delay (in this world) was my downfall.
In the next moment she appeared
as if out of nowhere.
‘But yours isn’t punched,’
she said with a knowing look.
I explained about the people when I boarded,
that I couldn’t, there was no way,
but I quickly realised that my words
in the open space surrounding me
were weak as a bulb in daylight,
a punching machine right next to me,
and how in my broken Bulgarian
to describe my sense of ease à la Horace
in the open field of the bus, tending faces…
‘What I say is true’ is all I could say.
I meant to throw the ticket in a bin
but she smirked.
She had been here before,
a woman of all seasons,
and she fined me five leva
and pulled out an orange ticket,
which she tore.
I left through the door,
what I say is true,
and the bus pulled away, rattling leaves in its exhaust.




A Bulgarian gymnast in her sixties
well-endowed and with eyes like walnuts
direct descendant of the partisan Vela Peeva
dressed in a leotard
took me by the arm and
slammed me on the bench
worked her way up and down
my back rotating screws
loosening bolts sliding
She did some kung fu
located my pressure points
applied a machine I would call
a packer
that ground my bones muscle and flesh
to mincemeat cellophane-wrapped
She climbed up on the bench with me
and taught me to breathe
while pistoning downwards with a thwack
There was a confession rising within me
slowly like mist or
smoke from a chimney
years peeling away like bark
from a fir tree
She sat me on a stool
took me in her embrace
and as she wiped away my thoughts
as she absolved me
I felt her breast like a coffin




I translate from memory.

The dark room. Camera obscura. The place of making. Where light is reclaimed.

Death is an exhalation. The breath is drawn out of the body like a string of raw fish. Only the translator has to remember to breathe in again.

Failure is not liking your reflection in the mirror.

The sea is grey-green. The sky is grey-green. Only the lighthouse at night points the way.

The translator stands in no man’s land, crucified there where the grass will grow. By standing on the line, he negates what he doesn’t see, the eye slowly opening.

ONE contains every number bar one, which in chemistry isn’t written down anyway.

One wishes he were a haiku poet, the other wishes to get away. One wishes he had entered the church, the other wishes he had stayed.

The other is God (theos). The word is love. And we all will drown.

This thought has kept me awake.



From Even Though That (2004):



Domenico has a tub of net in the hallway.
He worked nineteen years in the engine-room of a merchant ship.
But he’s really a fisherman.
He sits in the day and darns.
I’m never sure if he has advanced,
because the net always looks the same.
It seems to have no end or beginning,
like the coils of a snake up a tree.
He darns in the day.

He sings while he picks at the thread.
They are songs of heart-stopping beauty that
I do not understand, but I think they have to do
with memory, and I understand.
I listen as the coffee bubbles through the smoke-hole of the pot,
molten copper,
I listen to the strands
of centuries.




On Procida, people own houses,
have dogs to guard them,
gates to protect them,
walls to keep out prying eyes.
Everyone drives a car.
There are no pavements,
so you have to walk in the road.
Some people slow down,
but most don’t.
The only quiet places
are the bridge to Vivara
and the cemetery.
you can hear the birds sing.
The traffic worries me.
It scares me, if I’m honest.
The drivers are blissfully unaware.
They think I am the madman.

Sometimes I process slowly down the middle
(the road is too narrow to pass)
as if I were deaf, had not heard
the crunch of tyres, the driver’s breath revving.
When I’m going in the opposite direction,
I scowl at the drivers,
I scowl with hatred in my heart.
I open the way for them
with a sweep of my arm.
They fume, I perspire.
Other times, I splay against the wall
in mock horror
like a starfish.

They think I am the madman.
I don’t know how else to behave.




It was a bad day.
I was woken by the builders at 7:15.
I was so tired that, working in the morning,
I fell asleep. I wasn’t taking much in
anyway. When I came back for lunch,
they were still at it, this time
drilling on the wall of my room.
Not much, I know, but I’d been hoping
for a kip. I left in a fury,
went walkabout, ended up in the cemetery,
unable to make sense of the living.
The dead weren’t too forthcoming
either, unwilling to let me in
on the secret of all this.
I was just about beat,
so at four I took my work
down to the beach.
It wasn’t a particularly bad day, I know.
It could have been much worse.
Someone could have died or
got sick, or done something awful.
I was tired, that was all,
letting it get on top of me,
until, after a swim, my mouth
parched with salt, she appeared
out of the sun, drilled a
cold drink on to my chest.
Not much, I know, but it made
me feel a whole lot better.
I looked up then and took it all in.




The scorpion just came to the wrong place at the wrong time.
It wasn’t to know.
It waddled towards us, content almost,
as if it had news to convey,
some juicy gossip, a joke, something like that.
You could tell it had something inside it wanted to get out.
But we don’t speak its language,
and it was heading straight for the dull, yellow light
of our front door.
Lisa jumped up, skipped off in search of a broom,
returned like a gymnast across the mat.
That scorpion didn’t have long to live,
I could have told it that.
It hit the step before our front door,
took a detour.
It may have changed its mind,
been heading out of our lives,
in search of someone else to talk to,
someone a bit more receptive,
someone who spoke its language.
But it was too late for that.
I leapt outside, turned
as Lisa raised the broom (the axe),
took aim as the scorpion cleared the step
(stairs were not an obstacle then),
brought down the broom,
raised it (the scorpion was fighting an invisible enemy now),
took aim for the second time…

The scorpion’s last vision of life
will have been a broom hurtling out of space –
a spasm – and Lisa washed down the tiles
and Torborg asked if scorpions were dangerous.