christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Christopher James Poetry

The Levitating Farm

Running up the lane,
and I find a barn
suspended above the field:
no pillar or post,
just a lid of tin and moss,
an attic of timber
and hay; no mirrors,
no wire, no trick of the eye.
Then I see cows, peddling
the air, stirring it
with their hooves,
licking knats from the wind.
Across the yard, a tractor,
driverless, scoops
mist in its shovel,
shifts down the gears.
The farmhouse floats
like a balloon tethered
by invisible thread.
Inside the chairs
drift through the kitchen.
I catch my breath,
while the wind slowly juggles
six bales of hay.
A pitchfork and saw
edge towards me
like the cutlery of a giant.
Then I see the notice
of auction, and later
up by the church,
a single cauliflower
laid on a brown dirt grave.

Lamb

New song – The Badger

In celebration of my favourite animal, not to mention my favourite craft beer, here’s a new song in the open tuning CGDGBC. Best enjoyed with a bottle of Golden Champion or Tanglefoot. Ad break over!

 Badger Beer Silver

 

The Dickens Impersonator

All that year, I wore dead men’s clothes:
Victorian trousers with a button fly;
white shirts that billowed like spinnakers.
At night I heard ghosts clink in the kitchen,
rummaging for whisky and cufflinks.
On buses I was like a time traveller,
my pocket-watch ticking like a heart on a string.
I overheated in matinees, left top hats
on top decks and watched the world through
a clouded monocle and a pair of pince-nez.
My overcoat belonged to an undertaker,
a monstrous blanket of darkness with pockets
as deep as graves. So I left it all in an attic
where my suit now waltzes with a scarlet gown.

Charles Dickens

 

Christopher James’ latest collection of poems: England Underwater is available now.

Archangel

This piece is called Archangel - partly because I like the name, and partly because Michael is a name that features quite a bit in my family. Michael the Archangel was heaven’s superhero, muscle-bound, hair in ringlets, sent to quell Satan and that kind of thing. The other Archangels were Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. Think of them as the Biblical Avengers.

Archangel

My first daughter’s Godfather is called Michael – as generous, funny and kind man as ever you’ll meet (hello Michael!), it’s my son’s middle name and my wife’s two grandfathers were both called Michael, neither of which she met. They were both storytellers and characters and of course without them I wouldn’t have my wife. So this piece is for all the Michaels and all the Archangels.

Starling Wonder

I wrote a poem about a long lost Beatles album and had to think of names for the songs; there were things like The Party At The Centre Of the Earth and Carnaby Streetlights. There was also one called Starling Wonder which might have sounded like this. The tuning is BGDGAD with a capo on the fifth fret.

starling murmurations taken at RSPB Minsmere nature reserve in Suffolk. @RSPB

 

The Emperor of Autumn

We saw him skulking on the horizon,
his crown a bird’s nest of amber and lime.
He wore beneath his burnished cloak
a rusting chain mail of fallen leaves.
His staff was the trunk of a Scot’s pine
clipped of its limbs; he littered gold
like a thief with a bag split at the seam.
His eyes were the red leaves of a maple
and his beard, a tangle of blackthorn.
Tied in his hair were firecrackers of light:
the dark and the bright of an autumn sky.

That night, the storm came; torn trees,
gates swinging from their hinges, fruit swept
from branches and birds flying backwards.
We knew it was him, the Emperor of Autumn,
his reign almost at an end, sent into a fury.
His robes crumbled about his shoulders
and in the morning the fields were frosted
white with the hearth rugs of the Winter King.

Fourteen

Ahead of the 2014 centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I have chosen fourteen of the most powerful works of art from the time. Collectively, they are a testament to those who fought and died in the war and all have extraordinary stories to tell. I have then responded to each with a sonnet, of fourteen lines.

Gassed

1919, John Singer Sargent, Imperial War Museum

GASSED

A blinded procession, a party game of sorts,
bandaged eyes, still clutching helmets, rifles,
an ordered chaos, they hold shoulders after
the barrage, the bullets, the gas; most stooped
but one still defiant: upright, hands in pockets,
fair hair, dapper, jacket hung on one shoulder,
as if having lost a football match. Another
turns away, vomits, as the mustard sun yellows
their shirt sleeves. At each side is a sea of men,
nursing their heads, making sense, others are
drugged with sleep; one swigs from a canteen.
As if in a dance, a soldier lifts up his foot a little
too high to step onto a duckboard and sanctuary.
In the distance, another party, oblivious to the first,
makes its own stumbling way out of Hades.

General_Officers_of_World_War_I_by_John_Singer_Sargent

1922, John Singer Sargent, National Portrait Gallery

GENERAL OFFICERS OF WORLD WAR I

Like men at the club caught between drinks;
a rubber of whist delayed while this duty performed,
they are immaculate.

Shirts pressed, ribbons bursting like flowers
at their breast; their riding boots never see mud.
They are without blemish.

Their coats need only fend off the wind
that blows down Whitehall and along Pall Mall;
their swords have never drawn blood.

Buttons polished, brass cleaned, they are
the great men of the England, reputations pristine
from the fields of Afghanistan, India.

They stand between columns that hold up the Empire.
Only one cannot look us in the eye.

Column

1915, Christopher Richard W Nevinson, Birmingham Museums Collection

COLUMN ON THE MARCH

A barbed serpent, the column moves as one,
a beast of war, obliterating everything.
Its length is obscene, it has no beginning
and no end. It has wrapped itself
around the world: a snake’s embrace.
In its jaw is the forked tongue of victory
and defeat. It slides like an iron chain.
For miles there is the metronome of boots

moving east to west beneath
this Godless sky. Identically kitted,
there is no one man, only a repeated print
of trench coats, kit bags and rifles
like matchsticks scratching the air,
as the snake slithers further from Eden.

La mitrailleuse

 1915, Christopher Richard W Nevinson, Tate

LA MITRAILLEUSE

An unholy trinity, three gunners plot
their kill; the triangulation of death.
Hard hats, cold hearts, they feed the gun
its magazine; it sucks and spits, hisses
and fouls like a genius in a fury, a dervish
drunk on its own laughter, berserk
with the perfection of itself.

They are welded together, a synchronicity,
like the parts of the gun, working in unison.
They cower beneath the scaffold of the trench,
eyeless, no longer men. In the chaos of fire,
only their aim is true. From here they cannot see
the smoke streaked sky or that their way
to heaven is barred with wire.

Canadian

 1917, Alfred Bastien, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art

CANADIAN GUNNERS IN THE MUD

The mud is not brown, but green and yellow,
the muck of creation: a swamp of purgatory.
A field gun is lying on its side, gigantic, metallic:
a god of thunder crippled in the mire. We have
reversed creation, invented a new death,
a new way to pound earth into a hell.
The sky is sea of fire; men are shadows.
They struggle with their machine, prising it
with planks and boards trying to make it live.
An officer directs; the men obey; this is
the way things are. They work because
they must, and will fight until they die.
On the horizon is a strange blue, a trick
of the light, or the sea, the sea, the blameless sea.

New World

1918, Paul Nash Imperial War Museum

WE ARE MAKING A NEW WORLD

This is no longer Earth; these are not trees.
This is not the brilliant glare of a new sun.
These black stalks are creatures of a new race
grown from the blood of men; they hang their heads
for the shame of it. This world is not yet made.
The mud bubbles up, as if by the heads of infants
struggling for air, they meet the thin atmosphere.
The sky is a wall of dirt; the red dust of a thousand
fires still burning as the planet forms. Today
is the first day after the darkness, and now there
is no memory of hope, of love, of solace, only
this pockmarked world, grown on the skin of the old.
And what of the light? It comes from a poison star
that gives life to these beasts of the new Eden.

Mule Track

1918, Paul Nash, Imperial War Museum

THE MULE TRACK

The hour of the shelling comes;
the shells fall.
We lead the mules along the track;
the guns call.
The world implodes; collapses in,
the field is cracked
in a devil’s grin
and the sky is fired with a plosive din,
it compounds the sorrow
of our original sin.
The mules rear up, shake out
their bloodied manes
as the path buckles
and shells fall.

nevinson_a_star_shell_big

1916, Christopher Richard W Nevinson, Tate

A STAR SHELL

In a moment, the world is shattered
sub divided into fractions of itself.
We freeze in its mathematics.
The trench floods with mirrors of light;
mud quickens into life and barricades
become the linked arms of children.
All of the universe turns on this point:
the second before the sun implodes.
It is not the moment after I remember
but the fabrics on our tunics, the accent
of light on our helmets, the spots of rust
on our iron belt and the olive green of the
subaltern’s eyes; the star drifts peaceably
to the earth and in an instant – gunfire. 

Hell image

1917, George Leroux, Imperial war Museum

HELL

Through an arch of smoke,
you enter the burning cathedral.
The altar is a water-filled pit
where a dead man presides
in an open jacket, his face to the sky.
The nave is sea of mud
and open graves; broken trees
hold up the blackened roof.
In the water is a reflection of the fire
like a golden cloth laid
across a tabernacle. But there
is no God, no feathered angel,
no blue Madonna, as these pilgrims
leave relics of themselves.

Lawrence

Eric Kennington, 1926, Tate

COLONEL T.E. LAWRENCE

This is his Turin shroud, this sketch,
this impression; see how his neck
and shoulders fall away like dunes
how his eyes are lit with the grief of ages.
One side of his face in unmarked,
brushed by the light like the white sand
of the Negev Desert; the other is dark,
shadowed by the blood of Aqaba
and Tafileh. He knows nothing
of the future, but can feel history
all around him, the furrows of destiny:
of races at war, trains burning,
and the scowl of a dying star
throwing light on his thin, pale face. 

Over the Top nash

1918, John Nash, Imperial War Museum

OVER THE TOP

They are drawn towards the horizon
bayonets fixed, eyes locked in a dead man’s stare.
A shot officer rests on his knees as if in prayer.
His sword is discarded in the snow; they fight on
as someone cries: ‘forward!’ Right or wrong,
they close ranks, to seal the wound left in the line
and advance to the abyss, the unseen divine.
They walk on as if hypnotised by song
and those that live become breathing ghosts
forever drifting in these fields of snow
clutching their rifles then watching as hosts
of countrymen die on this cold plateaux
The handful of witnesses think on this most:
They killed us like cattle, row after row.

Kensingtons

1916, Eric Kennington, Imperial War Museum

THE KENSINGTONS AT LAVENTIE

Four days without sleep and then, Laventie,
a village of ruins, streets bedded with snow,
a place the shells for now, could not reach.
But still Wilson would not lie down, as tall
as he was the first day, his head domed
in a balaclava, watching the treacherous skies.
He carried the burden for us all, his rifle ready.
Sweeney lay in the ice as if on a summer
meadow, his cheek on a pillow of charred wood.
A purgatory of diamonds, a fiefdom of snow,
we were for a time the lords of all saw; kings
of the magpies that flitted through the rafters.
They eyed our treasures, our buckles, a crimson scarf
and the gold tipped helmet we stole from the Bosch.

Tanks

1917, Sir William Orpen

TANKS

Our sentries heard them first,
the clatter and groan, like threshing machines.
Then we saw them through the smoke:
a pair of Goliaths, monstrous, faceless
their tracks churning like mandibles.
They reared up like beasts, then flopped
into shell holes: cockroaches that had
survived the end of time, swelled to
nightmare size, unstoppable, unthinking.
We trained our howitzers, our pistoles,
then fled, as the rumble became a roar
and behind them, in shadows, we saw
the British come to claim our rotten soil,
Inside they burned in the grease and oil.

Interior
1917, Eric Kennington, Imperial War Museum

INTERIOR OF AN ADRIAN HUT

The beds are empty now, the soldiers gone
leaving only their impressions, the echoes
of their spirits and dreams; their mutterings.
The canvas smells of bleach and damp.
Somewhere a bird sings; voices are heard
outside, then drift away. In fields close by
men slump in their trenches, stuttering,
smoking, waiting for the whistle to blow.
But here, in this interior, we do not know
how many lived, how many died, only that
the beds are empty now and that morning
has come again and that a square of blue
French sky lights up the ward where men lie
in this church of whisperings, soft goodbyes.

Against the Cull

In this dark-lit thicket
where trees have fused and rocks
grow green with rain, the badger goes.
Watcher of man; dreamer of earth,
striped headed totem of England,
you remember the night Arthur came.
He heard you sifting the soil
in your old man’s coat and black stockings;
long faced guardian of our realm.

He stood at the mouth of the sett
where your clan ghosts roamed the tunnels.
You watched him plant his sword
and slump here in this glade,
his shirt of mail glinting on his back.
Rose hips drip like blood on the branches.
Generations gone and now you twitch
at the marksman’s shadow, the blades
of light in the trees; still you guard
his crown deep in the burrow,
dull and cold on a bed of leaves.

 

Compassionate surrealism – the poetry of Bob Mee

It is most useful to think of Bob Mee’s The Maker of Glass Eyes (Cinnamon Press) as a man trying unsuccessfully to lead a quiet life. The poet’s days are given to the strange, the absurd; afternoons are disturbed by curious, unexplained incident and interrupted by a constant stream of outrageous, uninvited guests. From Gustav Mahler spotted sipping an espresso to Mr and Mrs Shakespeare nursing bacon sandwiches in a café, characters from history, literature and the imagination make continuous, unexpected appearances.  

Many poems are unresolved; beguiling sketches where you are left to draw your own conclusions. The Hat involves a man returning from the fields to find a woman’s hat that he doesn’t recognise on the peg. He goes ‘from room to room’ and calls out: ‘Is anyone there?’ Receiving no answer, he simply returns the hat to the peg. The language is plain and the narrative straightforward and on the face of it, there is nothing particularly poetic about it, but the effect is pleasantly strange and gently philosophical.

The Maker of Glass Eyes

Events unfold around us, the poet seems to be saying; we can either resist, wasting our energies, or simply give them room and watch what happens.  Perhaps not all of these work, such as Early Morning, Herefordshire, where a white haired man pushes a barrow, followed by a black dog. It’s little more than an image; a rural snapshot, balanced pleasingly in black and white, but the poet presents it anyway – almost with a shrug: Here it is, it’s up to you what you do with it. He is not afraid to be simple, and does not pursue the self-consciously poetic line. What makes it poetry is the frame placed around it; its selection from reality.

The family is at the heart of The Maker of Glass Eyes and is the inspiration for some of its best poems. His studies of his son, Jack, as he finds his way with woodworking are acutely observed and admirably restrained: ‘nails in his teeth, in the rain astride a branch/bow saw slung across his shoulder.’ Elsewhere, father and son are fishing together ‘at the edge/of the pond/without need/of words.’ A series of mundane actions ensue; tea is poured, lines are cast – and with a comic’s timing, he concludes: ‘it doesn’t matter what happens.’ The subtext is everything – and the ability to imply tenderness, connection and respect between these two anglers is enviable. These are portraits in words that will be treasured in years to come.   

There is plenty of humour here; some comes in the form of anachronistic observation; Mee has a (glass?) eye for the unusual image – a nun plays cricket on the beach ‘fielding in the sea’ with some boys in football shirts; her laughter ‘floats out across the waves./It should reach Holland by nightfall.’ But there is a tenderness and humanity as well as humour in these images that take them beyond the anecdotal; they are small reminders of our potential for vivacity and shared experience.

Other poems have more elaborate constructs and are increasingly absurd; we stumble upon Nelson and Hardy playing Scrabble before Trafalgar, where the pair argue as to whether ‘URGH’ is a word. A man stands on one left for four hours for a bet, while the wonderful ‘Aunt Mary’ begins: ‘I bought Aunt Mary on the Shopping Channel yesterday’. The conceit is spectacularly well executed and the invention is sustained throughout. It works brilliantly well in performance, but is equally enjoyable on the page; the deadpan delivery is controlled by judicious line breaks and clever repetition, which changes rhythm and pace.            

This is an accessible collection and one that is easy to like; but that is to take nothing away from its seriousness. The sequence about the poet’s father is richly evocative and moving; the period detail of woodbines, Third Class travel and Carnation milk is expertly chosen; it allows us to touch and taste the past. Mee has both a magician’s box of tricks and a painter’s pallet; whether working in simple lyricism or acrobatic surrealism, Mee presents modern fables that resonate in the most profound and unexpected of ways.

Circling the Core with Myra Schneider

Myra Schneider’s luminous collection of poems: ‘Circling the Core’ (Enitharmon) explores remote places – of the mind, the memory and the planet. From Scottish Islands, to powerful recollections (reading the headline in Rome: ‘Kennedy Assassinata’) to the self-questioning: ‘Why did I wake this morning remembering a day decades ago?’ this books travels long distances to find simple answers. Paradoxically, these remote places are often signposts to the core – the undiscovered self.  The experiences have made her what she is, and yet her innermost being remains elusive and undefined.

She is drawn to deserted, ghostly vistas, often bordering the sea. ‘Blakeney’, the Norfolk fishing village, famous for its seals is ‘that pale strip/pulling me like a magnet.’ The sea (its ‘ever shifting glitter’ so different from ‘everyday clutter’) is a tantalising prospect – so emotionally charged; so inscrutable. It offers the promise of escape, release even. Her language is as interwoven as nature, internal rhyme and half-rhyme binding poems together: while ‘low tide water dribbles’, gulls ‘stand/on their doubles.’      

Circling The Core (Paperback) ~ Myra Schneider (Author) Cover Art

‘Nothing’, is another poem located in an undefined, shifting world, (most likely the gloom of an English winter) where we find ‘grass greying in hollows and humps/seeping into lightlessness.’ It is a disconcerting study of grief or depression – or at least its memory. It is haunted by images of absence: from the ‘vacant cradle/of delicate bones that was once a bird’s head’ to the skin shed by a snake. Landscapes become ominous, filled with significance, threatening to tip the darkness of old memories back into the present. It is one of the most startling poems in the book, but it is artfully conceived, from the acute observation of nature (‘the heavy bellied sky’) to the skilful interweaving of an actual journey with a psychological one.

There is another journey and another absence in ‘Going Back,’ where the poet revisits a childhood home – a dangerous pursuit for those who prefer to think of their past as a place that continues to exist somewhere, untouched by time. Her worst fears are realised: ‘Not there: the sandpit where sister and I invented worlds/only a garage.’ She documents the changes, but finds her mind slipping back to the past: ‘I click my camera but when I leave the present peels away.’ While the physical world changes around her – with the seasons and passing years, memory works in a less sequential way providing another parallel narrative.

There are rest-bites on this emotional journey and ‘Goulash’ is one of them: a poem with which some readers may already be familiar. It was deservedly shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. It takes the form of a precise set of instruction for the preparation of a delicious dish – a prescriptive poem somewhat in the manner of W.H. Auden meets Delia Smith. It is genuinely mouth-watering (and entirely accurate if you wish to cook along) but peppered with delightful ideas and turns of phrase: ‘bless the mixture with stock’ she advises.

The poem is almost fetish-like in its detail; almost religious and like much of her work takes you to unexpected places. Stirring the dish, ‘it dawns on you how much you need darkness’. It lives in the ‘airing cupboard where a padded heart pumps/heat.’ At first I found this and other images in the poem out of plac:e an unwelcome incursion on the otherwise tightly focus on food; then I realised this is what gives it its fourth dimension – an emotional response to the physical world.

There are links between poems and recurrent images which give the book itself a strong sense of unity and cohesiveness. Certainly the theme of darkness is prevalent throughout, as well as birds, domestic spaces (cupboards in particular) Kennedy (?), the sea, and nature in abundance. There is so much to absorb and admire it is foolish to attempt the book at a single sitting; but in both individual poems and its cumulative effect, it is collection of undeniable power.  

Possibly the finest piece for me is Bird, where the poet imagines herself as the creature: ‘I am wings/springing from breast, sweeping back,’ and elsewhere ‘See how/ I enfold head and heart in flight. Map out my hungers and dangers.’ It is almost shocking in its physicality. Many poets attempt ventriloquism in poetry, but this goes a stage further – truly inhabiting the animal, which in turns helps her discover a fully realised self.

For those looking for value in a poetry collection, Circling the Core offers plenty of it. Not only does it benefit from several ‘hit singles’ – a fistful of first prizes, many poems are multi-faceted, multi-layered things that tackle subjects many different ways; scenes are shot from several angles. Undeniably it is a dark collection, but it is tempered with humour and there are few poems that do not hint at redemption – whether in art, in food, in love, in nature or the simple promise of tomorrow. All of these poems are exercises in circling the core, where she concludes:         

‘The further in you go/the nearer you come to the mystery.’

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