christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: March, 2013

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.’

The Next Big Thing

I am indebted to Michael Bartlett of Crimson Cats Audio Books for inviting me to join his Blog Hop, wherein authors answer some semi-searching questions about a forthcoming piece of work ie ‘The Next Big Thing’. His next (actually recent) opus is revealed on his own blog  over at Crimson Cats. Of course the thing about a future piece of work is that it’s liable to change substantially, or even vanish entirely from the record.

1) What is the title of your next book?

At the moment, it’s ‘The Book Dragon.’ I like the idea of a title being unique, or at least unusual – not only so that you become the first result in an internet search, but as a statement of intent about its originality. It’s also a great way to pique interest. Other possible choices include ‘The Nurse Who Sold the Atlantic Ocean,’ ‘The Empress of Ice Cream,’ (about the Italian Duchess who brought ice cream – or sorbet really – to the rest of Europe, plus a nod to Wallace Stevens) ‘The Patron Saint of Television’ (and yes, there is one – St Clare, a friend of St Francis of Assisi; she was too ill to get out of bed to attend mass, and instead believed she could see it being beamed onto the wall of her room!) But the most likely candidate is ‘The Book Dragon,’ which is the poem I’m currently most pleased with.   

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

If we work on the basis that it is going to be called ‘The Book Dragon’, to a certain extent it is a reflection on authors and their books; what their extended lives have become through the popularity of their work and how their text is likely to be interpreted in the age of digital media. The title poem itself is about an extinct creature, a beast made from every book ever written who is caught and killed in the hills of China and its carcass taken to the British museum. It’s a metaphor for (and not an entirely serious one) the idea of the death of the paper book.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry is the obvious answer. There are some formal pieces in there, but predominantly it’s free verse. There’s plenty of rhyme, but very little falls at the end of the lines. Sorry to disappoint fans of more traditional fare. Having said that I’m a great fan of John Betjeman (there are two poems about him in the collection – one about his semi-imaginary honeymoon, church crawling around East Anglia on bikes, and the other about his waistcoat, possessed of magical properties, which he inherited from Henry James.)

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Well, the Book Dragon itself would have to be some sort of CGI animation – perhaps with Peter Jackson directing. There’s a poem in there called ‘The Fool’ – about Lear’s Fool – who I think would be played brilliantly by Michael Sheen who I think is the most talented English actor of his generation.

 5) What is a one sentence synopsis of your book?

The secret lives of books. 

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I had two books appear in 2011; and one in 2012, so I imagine it will be a little while this sees daylight; I would hope that it will be published by a recognized publisher. I’m not particularly interested in self publishing, but I was delighted that there is a Kindle version of my second collection, Farewell to the Earth (Arc 2011). I also like the idea of recording the collection and releasing it on iTunes. I don’t quite know why people don’t do this already.   

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

A manuscript develops over time, but roughly a year; I put my best poems at the top, which gradually nudges the also-ran down to the bottom. When there are 65 or so of quality then a collection becomes feasible. A theme starts to emerge around the midway point. For Farewell to the Earth it was the theme of death – which astonished me, as I’m quite a cheerful person.

8) What other books would you compare yours to?

Anything by Billy Collins, Bill Herbert, William Blake; William Shakespeare; sorry I’m being facetious. It’s modern poetry, which is quite a crowded market place, but I would say that the poems are more narrative based and character driven than most. If your favorite book is the selected poems of Matthew Sweeney, chances are you’ll like this.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Each poem has its own inspiration, which could be a thought, an image, a different way of looking at something. Often books, usually biographies, contains a detail that provides the seed for a poem – whether it’s Dickens swimming in the Thames, Katherine Mansfield in a freezing French chateaux chopping carrots in a fur coat. Claire Tomalin is our greatest living biographer, although Bevis Hillier’s three volume Betjeman is almost an unparalleled achievement in the modern age – a riotous comedy and an audacious work of art. 

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Each poem has to hold its own – and it’s so easy for a poem to overstay its welcome.  A longer poem really has to earn each line. What can I say, except that readers will find out the names of the songs on a long lost Beatles album; what happens when a scarecrow becomes unemployed , how people celebrate Oliver Hardy Day and what happened when they tried to drill through the centre of the Earth.


The thing about grandfathers

My grandfather was an antiques dealer, actor and magician; a teller of tall tales and wealthy enough to buy anything I cut of the Argos catalogue and sent him. A year or two before he died, he called me up and asked whether I would acconmpany him on a trip to sell some porcelain. It sounded like a bonding opportunity and it was.

We’re in a railway carriage looking out at the disappearing fields of East Anglia. I’m sitting opposite my grandfather with a copy of Mojo on my lap, steadying a Diet Coke on the table in front of me. His reflection catches mine, and he pulls a ghoulish face, raises his eyebrows and slides out his dental plate. Despite the fact that I’m nineteen, he can’t resist playing the role of the clownish ancestor.  ‘What have you got there?’ he enquires mischievously. ‘Mowgli? Is that the Scouting magazine?’

We’re on route to London, to deliver a consignment of porcelain to Phillips, the auctioneers. He’s wearing a suit, with a smart beige overcoat, topped off with a flat-cap, clearly having put some thought into what the stylish gentleman should wear on a trip to London. I notice he has slipped some new rings onto his fingers. Between us is the stash of porcelain, a small precious selection from his wider collection. I have been entrusted with the case.   

Blue-and-white porcelain flat vase

It is not clear whether he actually needs the money, or whether this is a trumped up excuse for a boys’ day out in the metropolis, but there is an undeniable excitement to all of this. He tells me stories about the war, about his antique dealing. Despite having been retired for many years, today he clearly feels back in the game. This is a comeback of sorts. He tells me there was a kind of hierarchy among the dealers. At the bottom rung, there were those who went ‘on the knock’ who would visit houses and ask to buy their antiques. Often, they would scan the obituaries and offer to do house clearances in the hope of picking some finds. Then there those who haunted the auctions houses, who loitered like ghosts around the tables (in a way they all did this). At the top, and of course he included himself in this bracket, were those with a shop of their own, who would greet his public with blue cravat tucked into a freshly pressed white shirt.

Often he said, it was quiet and you could read or just enjoy a cup of tea while admiring a painting, or better still close the shop and do something else. He had an assistant, he tells me, who ran by the unlikely sounding name Unkie. In my mind he immediately becomes a sort of Igor character, ready to obey his master’s every bizarre whim. One morning, a refined lady comes into the shop looking for a picture a night scene with a moon. As luck would have it, he had a rather pedestrian painting leaning up against the wall in the back room. He asks her to wait a moment while he has a word with his assistant. A few whispered instructions later and the lady is despatched out of the door minus several hundred pounds, with the instructions to come back towards the end of the afternoon after they had a chance to wrap it properly. A few moments later, Unkie himself is despatched with a couple of pound notes in his pocket in the direction of the craft shop to purchase a small pot of white paint.  You can probably guess the rest, but suffice to say the lady got her painting of the moon. Whether this made my grandfather a minor criminal is a thought that’s left hanging in the air, but you suspect this is an image he is happy to propagate.

Passing through Ely, we unwrap the cheese sandwiches my grandfather’s wife, Hilda, has made for us, and he administers two small doses of tea from an ancient Thermos. Despite being of some considerable means, he is of the generation that thinks it is nothing short of madness parting with a ten pound note for a few slices of bread and a brew. Besides, he is something of a tea snob, and is one of the last in the world I suspect who messes around with tea leaves rather than plumping for the tea bag. He drinks religiously from his plastic camping cup and watches the cathedral recede into the distance.  

We draw into Liverpool Street Station on time. I go to help my grandfather to his feet, but he shoos me away and points his cane at the large leather case on the floor. ‘That’s what you need to looking after, not me. And it doesn’t matter that I might be older than the porcelain.’ From his seat, my father raises his hat to a passing older gentleman and nods to another couple as they wait their turn to leave the carriage. It is entirely typical of my grandfather to act like a member of the royal family when travelling. Some fame on the amateur dramatic stage has gone to his head and never left. In fact I think he rather fancies himself, on the evidence of nothing, as some obscure minor noble – merely awaiting the conformation of the DNA results to confirm his suspicions. There is a photograph of him sitting on a throne in the middle of a field in Africa while one of his soldier mates kneels obsequiously before him. While we the passengers continue to shuffle down the aisle, he tells me a story about a previous foray into the capital. He was, he says, in a room at the Tate admiring Van Gough’s Sunflowers, when all of the doors are suddenly closed and a senior looking attendant whispers to them all to carry on exactly as they were.  The Queen he explains, then walks into the room and joins the small crowd inspecting the art. ‘One of the guides was filling her head with all sorts of nonsense,’ he tells me, ‘so I went over and offered her a more considered opinion of the work.’ I rest a cheek on my hand while this increasingly unlikely story unfolds.  I nod until the last of the passengers has left and we follow suit.

The suitcase is heavy, but not painfully so, and I consider its weight a useful reminder of its existence. A small package could easily be left behind on a table or chair. I march through the barrier towards the Underground when I hear my grandfather calling behind me. ‘We’ll get a taxi,’ he says. ‘I’m not messing around down there.’ I try to assure him that it’s a very short hop and that Phillip’s are very close to Bond Street tube, but he isn’t having any of it. We flag down a black cab and are soon on route.

My grandfather is a patriarch of the old school. He carves the meat on Sundays and ignores you if you tell him you don’t much feel like seconds. He speaks in absolutes and his views and values are immutably fixed. For example, he has not yet forgiven the Japanese for wartime atrocities and believes The Beatles just produce a lot of shrill noise. He raises his voice when he is angry and he is not to be crossed or contradicted in public. If you are late you better have a good excuse. On the other hand, he is silly and childish, whimsical in his thoughts and ideas. He worries he may be reincarnated as an amoeba and that he does not generate enough motion to power his kinetic watch.   

The meter on the taxi ticks over while the cabbie makes exaggerated sighing noises. The traffic hasn’t moved in five minutes. ‘It’s about time they sorted all this out,’ he tells us, without revealing what ‘it’ is. He winds down the window and leans out almost the entire length of his body to get a look at what’s happening down the street. ‘We’re on Oxford Street and at any rate not far from our destination. ‘Maybe we should get out and walk the last bit?’ I suggest.’ My grandfather appears not to hear me, staring out at the window displays, the gaudy signs and pavements crammed with shoppers. The meter ticks over twenty pounds and I take this as our cue to leave. ‘This’ll be fine,’ I tell the taxi driver. ‘It’s just round the corner,’ I tell my grandfather. He nods, then reaches in his jacket for his wallet, peeling out a twenty and a five. I see a fifty nestling in there too, which I’m sure is the same one he has kept for show for the last ten years.  

We start walking and I haven’t quite let on how far we still have to go. However my grandfather appears unconcerned. He still stunned into a sort of trance like state by the sensory overload of modern London. A woman dressed in an all in one silver cyberpunk outfit sticks a pierced tongue in our direction revealing a luminous blob of pink bubble gum. He gives her a rather mischievous smile. From a quiet street in Norwich, Oxford Street must be like visiting Mars, but he’s clearly enjoying it all.

A few seconds later and the bottom drops out of my world. I’m not carrying anything. I’m not carrying the bag. I almost push my grandfather to the side of the pavement and deposit him in the doorway of a jewellers. ‘Hang on,’ I tell him, ‘I think I’ve just seen someone I know.’  I race back down the street, weaving and dodging in the crowd in a delirious state of panic. I jump into the road and start running after the traffic, narrowly avoiding being sliced in half by a cyclist. I must look like a thief, except I’m not carrying anything. The traffic has moved on, but not a great deal and eventually I reach a line of taxis. I look in the first and second, but don’t recognise the driver. For an awful moment I wonder if he’s done that thing that cabbies do, which is spot a fare on the other side of the road, do a nifty u-turn and disappear off towards the east end. The porcelain could be half way to Whitechapel for all I know. Just then, I see the taxi, still idling up ahead. I pull up alongside and tap for the man’s attention. He waves me away and pulls off into a sudden clear road. I sprint after him, with a red bus behind me. I can’t think what I must look like to those sitting at the front. Eventually I get the man’s attention and he winds down the window.

When I catch up with my grandfather, he looks rather lost and bewildered. ‘Did you find your friend?’ he asks me. I tell him it wasn’t who I thought it was. Arriving at Phillip’s, we are greeted by beautiful women in expensive clothes. He becomes himself again, surrounded by his favourite things: antiques, glamour and money. We are directed upstairs and engross ourselves in the catalogues while we wait to be seen.

‘Mr Wells,’ a distinguished voice eventually summons us. He rises smartly to his feet. ‘I believe you were expecting my father,’ he says. ‘Unfortunately Mr Everett senior retired last year. I’m his son.’ My grandfather cannot disguise the disappointment and perhaps it is at moments like these that he feels the passing of time most acutely.

‘Well,’ my grandfather says, philosophically, ‘I hope he’s enjoying his retirement.’ He adds, rather waspishly: ‘He’s made enough money out of me.’  I lift the case and place it on the counter, waiting to hear the clatter of broken pieces.

‘Ah yes,’ my grandfather says, ‘this is my son, Chris.’ I correct his mistake. ‘Yes, well he’s following me in the business,’ he says. I leave this white lie uncorrected and hope that I am not interrogated on the origin of the porcelain.

‘Excellent,’ says Mr Everett junior. ‘Now let’s see what we have in the bag.’

I hold my breath.  


  1. Always make a cup of tea with loose tea, not a tea bag.
  2. Never apologise.
  3. Punctuality is the courtesy of kings.
  4. Don’t trust the bank.
  5. Check your doors are locked before you go to bed.
  6. Don’t settle for being a big fish in small pond.
  7. Catch your own fish.
  8. Always peel an apple.
  9. Listen to your mother.
  10. Old does not equal bad.

Walking on water with Billy Collins

I’m not the first to write admiringly, and enviously, of Billy Collins’ work. Like Matthew Sweeney, he delights in strange, self-contained narratives where the poet himself often figures as a bit part player, or witness. They play out at a relaxed pace – often in the poet’s own study – where a thought is informed by everyday objects – an orange, the sun on the grass or the steam rising from the day’s first cup of coffee. Collins’ work is full of small pleasures; the radio, the prospect of lunch; a delightful painting. The voice is fresh, unforced and not self-consciously poetic, as if the poem is an effortless daydream – you are merely following the poet’s own charmingly haphazard thought process.

I could talk about any of his poems – all are so easy to enjoy, but a case in point is Walking Across the Atlantic, where the narrator ‘waits for the holiday crowd to clear the beach’ before walking on water. How considerate of him, how modest, how downright nice of him not to want to want to alarm passers-by with his miraculous powers. The poem is not outlandish in its detail – his concerns are entirely practical, looking out for ‘whales, waterspouts.’

There is no grand-standing, just simple, albeit astounding, statement of fact, such as ‘tonight I will sleep on its (the Atlantic’s) rocky surface.’ Like many excellent poems, there is no back story, no final dénouement, just a set up, a stroll around the idea and an unexpected pay off. In this case, it is merely imagining ‘what/this must look like to the fish below/the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.’

Given that the poem is so slight – ten lines – what makes it so successful and appealing? The ironic detachment of the voice – the impossible given a deadpan everyday delivery certainly. Then there’s the clever cadence, mirroring the ebb and flow of water beneath his feet – the ‘rocking surface’ below his ‘shifting feet.’ But really it is just a delicious oddity; a wonderful joke perfectly delivered.

I would also encourage you to seek out another Collins’ poem: Candle Hat, rather longer and more developed, but equally wonderful, about a man painting himself by the light of the candles fitted around the brim of his hat. It’s poetry that’s lighter than air, exquisitely judged and rendered in a voice of astonishing poise and balance.