christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: January, 2014

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

This is a sequence of poems, a year in the making, inspired by the seven wonders of the ancient world as compiled by Antipater of Sidon. He described the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus as follows:

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand”.


I awoke in a dream of angels:
Knight of St John, said one, go to the window
and see the mausoleum restored from ruin,
like a palace of heaven, a castle on the moon.
I seized my sword, threw on a scarlet cloak.
The moon hid in the branches of a Hazel Tree.
I tied up my horse and crept on foot to the place
where it blazed up like an apparition.
The marble glared so bright it burned my eyes.
Lions of winters stood guard over the stairway
and robed figures roamed the ghostly halls.
Columns rose as proud as the bones of Apollo
and at the top were the four horses of Artemis
and Mausolus riding the clouds to the stars.



Once, in Edessa, an old man stayed my arm.
This vase of brass, he said, was forged
from the hand of the Titan, the god who calmed
the seas of Rhodes; who for fifty years gorged
on clouds with a lamp on an upturned palm.
I saw it myself, the fractured colossus, broken
in the quake, Chares‘ folly, toppled from his plinth
who lay a thousand years, so it is spoken,
before sold on for scrap, to my master’s gain,
who swore: I will move this giant of Corinth
on the backs of nine hundred camel, a train
so vast we will gleam like a snake of brass.
So take this vase, you sailor, whose name
will be he who holds a wonder from ages past.



Nebuchadnezzar, his name widely known,
planted lush palms on a hillside of stone.
On pillars and beams and columns of white,
a new Persia bloomed to Amytis’ delight.
A garden for a queen, a folly of love,
where bountiful vines spilled down from above
On blue stone steps, water constantly ran
quenching the trees where the nightingales sang
An orchard of plenty, the bounty of heaven:
pomegranates, apricots, dates and melon.
It was evergreen forest of exquisite shades
with fountains of light and sunlit glades
A thousand men worked for thousands of hours
tending the roots, sewing oceans of flowers.
But the queen grew tired of this fake paradise,
leaves cease to gleam, fruits failed to entice.
So the king built it higher, knowing she’d rather
walk the mountains of home, the lands of her father.



Oh Khufu, my Pharaoh,
think again on your tomb
and let me build instead, Pharaoh,
a tower of a thousand rooms
adorned with the likeness of Bast and Qebui,
stone gods of Egypt, giants in the sky.
It will stand like a needle, its shadow on the Nile
reaching up a mile!

And if you let it be so, I can begin within weeks,
and the scaffold alone will be envied by Greeks.
They will marvel at this spear rising from the sand
and wonder at the miracle of levitating stone
with balconies on the stars and views of all your land.
Your enemies will quake at the very sight
at the peak of your ambition, your terrible might.
And when the bricks are all in place
you will travel far up into space
on an elevator of rope and wood.
Why have a pyramid, when it could be this good?



She returns at night
with her four golden deer

to the field at Ephesus
where her temple once stood:

the broken stone,
the purple flowers.

In the long grass she stands,
her bow at her side,

looking up at the lines
of stars that remake the roof,

the beams of moonlight
which shine through the clouds

that rebuild the columns.
She will not stay for long

just until she finds
the belt of Orion,

and the bright wound
at his heart, where she shot

her lover and lost her soul.
Then she turns and flees

and there is nothing
but the fragments,

and the wind blowing
through the Cyprus trees.



Wake, noble Phidias, sculptor of Greece,
and drink from your cup of black glass.
The sun has warmed my ivory feet;
your hands have built me to last.

You have toiled these years on my wooden frame,
and clad me in panels of gold,
I have held this sceptre and wore these robes
I am the god that will never grow old.

I have heard you whistle your tuneless songs
while gilding my olive wreath,
and working the metal I hold in my hand,
and chipping away at my teeth.

These years I have known you and watched you work
I have some advice for you now,
It is not good for a man to make a god
But I envy the sweat on your brow.

When they find your workshop two thousand years hence
your name will be found on your cup
I am pleased good Phidias with the work you have done
So sing your songs, pour your wine and sup.



They did not tell you this;
that Arsinoë was more beautiful than her
although she had her sister’s temper
and her father’s talent with the flute.
Even with Cleopatra, I thought
of her shimmering mouth, her eyes
like ochre and the mind that shone
like the Lighthouse at Alexandria.
I have not spoken of the night
we eloped, anointed by the great seas
of Poseidon; to the wonder at Pharos,
the fortress of light above the ocean.
I listened to her breath, as we climbed
like gods into the sky, her jewels
glittering like the aether, the river
of stars that sweeps through the heavens.
Halfway we broke pomegranates,
and shared arils between us like rubies.
Below we saw the corn barges,
their decks heaped with gold.
At the top, I told her we could not
marry, that all of Egypt looked to me.
She burned like the flame itself,
cursing us, hissing like the poison asp.
In the morning, Cleopatra lay on the pillow,
plainer than I had ever seen her;
as plain as the nose on her face.



Two moons and the planet Theia

Thoughts on science and cosmology have been scarce on this blog, and I suspect things will not change, but did you know the Earth once had two moons? It seems somewhat far fetched, but perhaps no less so than our own existence.

Most scientists now believe the moon was formed as a result of a spectacular collision between Earth and smaller planet, called Theia. The theory even has a true Hollywood sounding name: Giant Impact Theory. Theia, it is supposed, was roughly the size of Mars and lingering in an unstable orbit between Mars and the Earth. Gradually, it was pulled towards us resulting in a terrific crash. I used to have a teacher whose peculiar threat to enforce discipline was ‘I’ll bang your two heads together.’ The idea was similar.

Parts of the Earth and parts of Theia shot into space, and the matter was then captured in Earth orbit. Within a week or so, the bulk of this matter had coalesced into what we now call the moon. However there was still significant debris hurtling around the Earth, rather like the rocks that circle around Saturn. Eventually this debris joined together like the left over dough when you’re making scones, and ever so gently, caught up with the half formed moon, attaching itself to create the whole moon. Study of moon rocks has proved that the far side of the moon is indeed different in composition to the near side.

But can you imagine what all of this intergalactic turmoil looked like standing in a field in Suffolk four and a half billion years ago? Rather disconcerting, I’d say. However until this week, I had not given any thought to how the moon was formed and I suspect you hadn’t either, which is why I thought it was worth sharing.

The moon has never ceased to full us with wonder and aspiration. And what better cue for Ted Hughes’ marvelous poem: Full Moon and Little Frieda. The night and it’s silence is evoked in the most skilful way, and it has things to say about creation, how language forms and the simple miracle of existence.


St Joseph and the Mumuration

I had seen miracles before
but not like this; these starlings in flight
like a cloud of dust; this dance of the heavens.
Staring up, the sky bulged; it billowed
with a hundred thousand of them.
They swooped and for a moment
became a single bird; a kestrel
stumbling, my staff struck rock.

I cowered in a hollow as the flock
swirled like the gas at the start of the universe.
Then one soared up, led the others to a cloud
where they sketched the face of a man
a print on a shroud, before finally roosting
Like a constellation fallen to Earth.

starlings suffolk

From England Underwater by Christopher James

The House in the Clouds

We woke to starlings at the window
pecking at the glass; a rainbow sprang
through one wall and out the other.
Clouds slipped through our bedroom,
and brushed against the sheets.
We let blue sky paint the doors
and left the leaves to carpet the floors;
that summer we nested in the air.

It was a house perched in branches,
as if flung there by a storm,
or borne on the shoulder of a giant.
Watchman of Suffolk, arrow to the stars
we spent days adrift in the mist,
the sun like a bail of hay in a field.
Come winter and our shadow
was like a giant’s against the snow.

Rain scudded against the roof; the wind
shook us like a die in the palm of a hand.
Each morning, we imagined the Witch
of the East, crushed beneath us:
the striped stockings, the ruby slippers.
It was the house that thought it was a bird.
We dreamt of the sea, the windmill our
a companion where X marked the spot.

House in the Clouds 2