christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: November, 2014

Playing The Fool

Thank you to everyone for their good wishes on the launch of the new collection, The Fool. We had a brilliant time on Saturday at the Derwent Poetry Festival and the warmest of welcomes from Alex McMillen and his team.

Matlock was at its most beautiful, resplendent in autumn colours; red, orange and gold leaves lined the pavements and leather clad bikers roamed the streets eating candyfloss and ice creams. I arrived just on time to run the poetry workshop having been stuck behind a traction engine being run by two ladies in oil spattered dungarees.

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The workshop participants worked incredibly hard and came up with some extraordinary pieces – including poems about John Lennon on the Moon, JFK in a brewery and Mohammed Ali in old age. I joined in and wrote a poem about the Queen writing her autobiography in Siberia. See below.

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At the reading itself we were treated to a feast of poetry and poets from England, Ireland, the US and beyond. Fiona from Ireland was particularly good with feisty poem about French food.

As it was so close to Remembrance Sunday, I closed my set with a poem from memory: Seigfried Sassoon’s Everyone Sang, which my ten year old daughter and I have been learning together. I was only saved from disaster by a kind poet in the front row who knew the words and was able to give me a prompt. Thank you, whoever you were.

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She wears a cloak of bear-skin,
in her hand the pen of the old king.
The story must be told and this
is where she will tell it: Siberia
where the snow plains are as blank
as an empty page. At the door,
the Corgis’ coats are frozen hard.
The windows are jewelled with frost.
Outside, her footmen sip vodka
and watch for the ghost of the Tsar.
Her memory thaws, her hair darkens
and soon there is the scratch of a nib,
a line of trees and she is at Balmoral
at Christmas, walking with her father;
the smell of pine and tobacco.
Up ahead, in the trees is a stag
with his ancestral crown. The wind
blows through and she feels its hand
at her shoulder, turning the page.

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The Outsider – by Tom Weir

Tom Weir is an exciting new voice; candid and assured, with enough in the way of light and shadow to fully intrigue. The cover of his pamphlet, The Outsider, published by the ever-excellent Templar Poetry, is a statement of intent with its arresting image of a barnacled man staring out to sea. It has the ghostliness of an Anthony Gormley. If the figure is looking to foreign lands, then it is well chosen. Weir’s poems range from corners of English fields to hotel rooms in Hanoi and the psycho dramas that play out are as dramatic and finely judged as the language chosen to tell them.

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‘Monsoon’ is set in a cheap room at night, in the middle of a Biblical storm, a frightened partner barely reassured by the narrator, who confides: ‘I don’t tell you this isn’t normal, that it’s never been this bad before.’ Weir conjures the storm with it’s ‘shock of noise’ while the ‘lightening threatens to break the sky in two.’ It is highly evocative and with its apocalyptic images of women crying and ‘men up to their waists in water’ hint at worse things to come. The size and power of the storm is beautifully offset by the intimacy of the voice and fragile bond between the two people.

The title poem is an altogether smaller drama: an attempt to free a sheep caught on barbed wire, but again it is a couple that face this crisis and their reaction becomes a telling way to read the relationship. Weir has a great empathy for the natural world and his description of the sheep is both sensitive and visceral: ‘its muscles quivering /somewhere beneath all the wool.’ After it escapes, it leaves ‘clouds of its frantic breath/turning on the air.’

My favourite piece is ’The Light-Collector,’ perhaps because it is close in sensibility to my own work. It is a ‘bright idea’ poem in a literal sense, with its brilliant opening gambit:

I have been collecting pieces light for years,
like scrap metal, in case one day we run out

Weir maintains the conceit with great wit and invention, and the language glints and flashes as he ‘unpicks stars like stitches’ from the ’unpolluted dark.’

There is plenty of risk taking here, mainly in the trust he places in the reader with his intense narratives, charged with strong feeling and threatening landscapes. But it is Weir’s skilled narrative voice and lyrical gifts which makes this short collection so distinctive. ‘The Search’ is typical of beguiling qualities: a search through the snow for a loved one after an argument of unknown providence, while in the distance there is
‘…the light of a single car/that slides by, fastening the horizon like a zip.’

Surely a full collection cannot be far behind this one, and there is every chance that it will be a major statement.