By James B. Johnston
Published by Celtic
With good reason, Ireland has been called a nation of exiles. The population of Ireland was a little over 8 million in 1841. Today the population is approximately 4.5 million. In the 1840's and 1850's alone, about 1.5 million people immigrated to the United States as a result of famine. Many, including the author, were to follow in later years, some in search of jobs, others seeking greater religious or political freedom, many fleeing from the violence of war. This great movement of people to the New World is captured in Johnston's 2001 award winning poem "The Greening of America."
Skeletal shadows haunt
hillsides silent of song.
The flux of bloody
fever flows from tumbled cottages
The human freight of
coffin ships sail west
In this first collection of poems and photographs, the author writes about growing up in Ireland, living in Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles and the experience of moving to a new and distant country. In a real sense, Exile is very much about preserving the past - people and places, family, friends and strangers, the living and the dead, experiences good and not so good. As Tina Rosenberg noted in her book, The Haunted Land, "Memory of the past is a prize worth struggling for."
James B. Johnston was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was educated at Grosvenor High School in Belfast and Trinity College in Dublin. A Protestant from East Belfast, he met his wife Ann, a Catholic from North Belfast, shortly after The Troubles began in 1969. They married and immigrated to North America in 1974. They currently reside in Knoxville, Tennessee.
"History books and cultural studies tell us that the Appalachian region has drawn Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Scots-Irish immigrants for more than 200 years. Undoubtedly, many immigrants came to this area because it reminded them of home. That sense of place, the idea that the physical world shapes our spiritual world, is at the heart of James B. Johnston's impressive volume of poetry, Exile: Poems of an Irish Immigrant.
Born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the poet and his wife fled what has come to be known as "The Troubles" in 1974. After living in Canada and Alabama, the couple settled in Knoxville, Tenn. Although the poems in Exile take place in that still divided island, they could very well be set in Western North Carolina or Southwestern Virginia or even East Tennessee. While many of Johnson's poems are about a specific place, it is not the location that is intrinsically important but rather the memory that is connected to the physical site.
Memory is what drives Exile, and it is the autobiographical nature of the poems that pulls us into the volume. In fact, Exile is not only Johnston's history, it is, in many ways, the history of thousands of Celtic descendants who were forced to leave their homeland to find a safer and better life in the Appalachian region.
The book is divided into three sections, with the opening group of poems called "Home Ground." In this segment, Johnston imparts us an autobiographical trip through Ireland. The poet's focus is on two things: the people and the places in his life. Poems such as "Gentle Man" and "Ann" provide vivid images of the people who shaped his life. "Rocky Road," "Lisburn Railway Station," and the wonderfully descriptive "Giant's Causeway" show us Johnston's Ireland, with each detail allowing us to see that faraway country through the poet's eyes. Yet, the simplicity of personal relationship and the power of place are cut down by violence.
In "Lonely Farm," "Last Ride," and "The Grim Reaper," Johnston seems to ask the question that we have all asked since Bloody Sunday, the January day in 1972 when British paratroopers fired on unarmed protestors in County Derry, killing 13: Why? Why in an island so beautiful, inhabited by people renowned for their warmth, is violence a way of life?
In "Stone Wall Fences," the poet suggests, "We are a land divided by stone wall fences and granite hearts." At the end of the poem, Johnston posits that the answer may only be found in "dismantling the walls of/Granite hearts, peace by piece."
The collection's middle section, "Stony Ground," centers on the Irish problem of emigration. Since the Famine in the 1840s, emigration has been a way of life for the island. In the 1970s, though, people like Johnston did not have to leave because of starvation but rather because they feared the stray bullet or car bomb or mistaken identity.
In this group of poems, the Irish immigrant struggles with the idea of leaving and all that encompasses. In the first stanza of "Exile," perhaps the book's strongest poem, Johnston writes"
When advancing years
slow my steps
Indeed, that has been the overwhelming question for many young Irish people who have been forced to leave Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to find safety and a future.
"Holy Ground," the final section of Exile, offers a more peaceful and reflective sense to the collection. It seems as though Johnston has accepted the fact that he must emigrate. The poems in this segment avoid the ugly side of the poet's home. Instead, memory guides these poems.
In "Origins," the poet mourns the loss of his mother---and perhaps symbolically the loss of his past. "I wish I had spent more time with you," Johnston writes in this poem, "building memories, capturing and cultivating/Your gentleness and strength." By the end of "Holy Ground," it becomes clear that Johnston has accepted his fate and realizes that, as the last line in "The Shepherd" notes, "Among tombs of the dead, new life begins."
Because of Johnston's storytelling ability, one that is matched with a clear, straightforward poetic style, Exile: Poems of an Irish Immigrant is a meaningful and thought-provoking collection. Johnston's story is the tale of many people and serves as a reminder, especially to the Celtic-shaped Appalachian region, of the power of family, place, and memory. And that is a lesson we all need to recall now and then.."
Shawn O'Hare is assistant professor of English at Carson-Newman College, Jefferson City, Tenn., and is the editor of Nua: Studies in Contemporary Irish Writing.
"James Johnston's poems explore the varied and complicated implications of exile: the yearning for home ground and its attendant values of family, memory, connection. Through his chosen separation from his beloved Ireland, Johnston discovers the depth and range of his ties to place and people. To have chosen exile is to be keenly on the edge of what could have been, as we learn in "Visiting the Faithful," when the narrator tells us
It is 28 years
since I preached here
The old man asks
my name, and gets the keys.
I have no survival
Although similar to photographs that preserve the past and keep tradition and memory alive, these poems go a step further in giving voice to stories, in singing praise for the heart's desires. And it is this singular voice we cherish, the measure of Johnston's vision of and caring for the wide world he inhabits, its joys and sorrows, its struggles and realizations, whether near Fahan or a wooded patch of Tennessee."
--Jeff Daniel Marion
Jeff Daniel Marion is poet-in-residence and Director of the Appalachian Center at Carson Newman College.
We first met when we
went to Rathmore,
I look at my last photograph
I think often of that
Saturday, seven months later.
STONE WALL FENCES
Rising a modest twenty-eight
hundred feet about the sea,
Today, again, we have
left Belfast for the tranquility of the Mournes,
We are a land divided by stone wall fences and granite hearts.
We go on to the Silent
Valley to experience, for a moment,
High above columnar
Set in this amphitheater
The song of stonechat
and wren compete with
I go back to the place
of my birth,
I wish I had spent
more time with you,