christopher james

Poems and prattle

Category: poems

Dizzying audacity: A review of Paradise Road by Bob Mee

Surely one of the most neglected poetry collections of the last fifteen years or so, is Bob Mee’s Paradise Road (Blue Fish, 2003). Known to many in the poetry community as the tireless editor of Iota (until he tired of it) and publisher of the redoubtable Ragged Raven Press, Bob spends a significant portion of his life championing other poets. Such generosity is rare in the world of contemporary poetry. As such, there is a deep streak of both humour and humanity that runs through Paradise Road.

Paradise Road

I’ve had the privilege of hearing Bob read some of these poems live and many are purpose-built for the upper room of a pub on Friday night. I’ve seen him wrong-foot an audience with a comic line, then deliver the knock-out blow. Comedy of all kinds runs through his poetry, from the slapstick to the darker stuff, but of course, it’s never the only thing going on. He certainly knows how to deliver a line: ‘Bob from the bookshop has eight widows on the go/three of them named Joy.’ The brilliance is not only the specificity, but in the deadpan bathos of the line break.

Bob is not afraid to break the rules – including writing poems about writing. All contemporary poets will be familiar with the two-hundred mile round trip to read to seven people and the compere. And Bob has done his fair share of this, but he’s also hit the big time too, as an author of celebrated books on boxing.

One of his set-pieces here is ‘Doris Lessing at the Harper Collins Christmas Party’ – a prose poem that recounts a disastrously surreal trip to a publisher’s party, after his book on bare-knuckle boxing hit the big time: ‘I don’t know anyone and nobody knows me.’ He’s hardly there ten minutes before he’s back on the M4 heading home, but not before witnessing a surreal punch up at a service station between two skinheads and an old man waiting for his tea, who, it turns out, has a few surprises up his sleeve: ‘The old guy drags up a memory of a stiff jab that’s not a prod or a poke but a real-step-in-behind-it and drill-it through your face jab’. It’s oddly in keeping with the book that sent him to the party in the first place. But like so many of the poems here, the poem has a luminous centre – the beatific vision of Doris Lessing herself at the party ‘in an overcoat with a big brooch and she’s smiling and nodding and her eyes are twinkling.’ This feels so typical of Bob’s work – finding moments of truth and beauty among the comedy and chaos of life.

Other poems are celebrations of both life and poetry, as in the glorious ‘We Didn’t Cross the Road to See Dannie Abse.’ A trip to see the feted poet is aborted in favour of ‘a swift one’ at the Prince of Wales, that turns inevitably into an epic session with digressions on second-hand Volvos, cress and Morecambe and Wise. It’s not that he doesn’t like Dannie Abse or his work – just that the randomness of life suddenly seems more important the other side of several jars.

There’s plenty of technique on show here, and for a novice poet learning their trade, it’s a primer in how to turn an idea into a keeper. ‘The Dinner Party’ uses the repeated line ‘We are not supposed to know’ as the set up for a series of secrets and subtexts beneath the veneer of a middle class dinner party: ‘We are not supposed to know Wilf has an alternative wife in a corner shop in Warwick’ then later: ‘How are we supposed to know any of this… as Wilf cheerfully uncorks another red and/Catherine serves seconds of mousse.’

Then there’s the nurse ‘who unbolts my head and lifts the lid.’ It’s a brilliant conceit and as she ‘plunges in her hand up past the wrist’ she discovers the memories and detritus of a lifetime: ‘sunsets, women and a bottle or three of Barolo.’

If the collection has a fault, it’s only that there’s too much of it. If it was a Beatles’ album, it would be the White Album, or even George Harrison’s triple All Things Must Pass. Again, in the Beatle-esque way, it veers wildly in style and substance, from tender family vignettes, like the Way it Is, where father and son dig potatoes together, side by side, to extraordinary flights of fancy, such as discovering Elvis at a bustop in Texas.  There’s an urgent sense of catching up – as if two or ever three collections are bundled into one.

Some of the most impressive work is the sequence written in and about the USA. Atlantic City is a vivid portrait of the State-side Blackpool at Christmas where ‘the piano plays itself’ and ‘the limbless woman lies on a cushion/and plays Amazing Grace on a keyboard with her tongue.’ It’s a surreal culture shock – where Bob doesn’t so much as interpret any of this, but simply presents it back in the spirit of Louis MacNeice’s famous phrase: ‘the drunkenness of things being various.’ Ultimately it’s a poem about loneliness – not just the lost souls ‘dying just a little bit in the backs of cabs’ but his own too, reflecting on ‘distances between you and I.’

Driving, USA is a magnificent road trip of a poem: a version of On the Road, where we get a blurred snapshot of American life: ‘I drive into cities where beggars dance to the tunes of their bones’ and ‘I stop at a gas station and a clown in full make up pours the gas.’ It’s both brilliantly observant and dizzyingly audacious.

But perhaps it’s the simpler, lucid moments where Bob’s poetry succeeds best. ‘Five Minutes Near Milton Keynes’ is a contemporary version of Edward Thomas’ Adlestrop, where he is sat opposite a woman on a train, lost in her own thoughts: ‘The train has stopped again/I count the young birch trees on the embankment.’ He notices her ‘tap her lips with a pen, turn a page.’ She ‘slides her wedding ring up/and down her finger. It’s a moment in time, a freeze frame as the universe hurtles ever outwards.

All this barely scratches the surface of a collection that brims with passion, humour, reflections and regrets. Its all delivered with an élan that few of Bob’s contemporaries could muster, which is why it puzzles me why it’s not more celebrated. I’m heartened to see that you can still buy a copy on Amazon and I can also report that the poet himself is in rude health and still producing excellent work that continues to build on these themes: the solace and stability of family in the face of an increasingly chaotic and inexplicable world.

When the going is good: momentum in poetry and what to do with it

A few months ago I wrote a blog about whether it was possible to retire from poetry. I was reflecting on that sense of the uphill struggle – that feeling that you’re writing some great things, but for whatever reason they aren’t connecting. The reasons could be manifold. It could be that you’ve lost perspective – the cure is always to read more; young, old, or dead poets, it doesn’t matter – just immerse yourself in something new and different. It will restore your sense of what’s good. You often do not apply your usually reliable critical judgement and reader’s ear to your own writing. Revisiting your work after reading others’ best work can be a revelation. Weaknesses previously quite invisible suddenly reveal themselves.

It could be that your poems are too niche (I wrote 65 poems about polar explorers and expected them to sell like Death of a Naturalist for goodness sake). It could be that you’ve forgotten how to ‘socialise’ your poem – something Andrew Motion encouraged me to do when he taught me briefly at UEA. How do you let your reader in? How hard to you expect them to work? How will you reward them for their efforts?

For whatever reason, everyone hits that brick wall at some point – that feeling that no one’s listening. Simon Armitage, famously described this state as ‘talking down a toilet.’ And coming from one of the most gifted and popular poets in the land, this was depressing indeed. He said this at a time when poetry was more marginalised than it is now – sales of poetry are at an all time high. Now, as Poet Laureate, he can hardly quibble about lack of audience. His excellent poems deserve to be read and I’m pleased that they are.

But there’s a quite different state to that feeling of dejection. It’s called momentum. Suddenly things start happening for you. There’s an unexpected invitation to read. There’s a competition win, or a good placing in a major competition. You land a poem in a magazine like Poetry London or the Rialto. You finally get that offer from the publisher. You’re asked to write an article or run a prestigious workshop.

It’s a giddy feeling and I was lucky enough to experience it. In March 2009 I won the National Poetry Competition for my poem Farewell to the Earth. The incredible shock and delight of the recognition was intoxicating. As was the champagne. The prize giving at a London club was deliriously enjoyable. Gryff Rhys Jones was there with a camera crew and interviewed me. He asked me how I started off writing poetry. I told him I thought it was a symptom of adolescence. ‘What,’ he said. ‘Like spots?’

Merseybeat legend, Brian Patten, presented the prize and sent me a postcard the next day of him and Christopher Reid sitting in a tin bath. There was an article about me and my poem in The Guardian. Someone made me a Wiki page. I had barely banked the cheque (not lost it on the Tube home as Carol Ann Duffy did when she won the NPC) when I received a commission to write a poem for the Tate based on a First World War painting. I was invited to a party on the South Bank by Alan Yentob and shook Valerie Eliot’s hand. The winning poem ended up in the Forward Book of Poetry and the high point was an offer from Arc Publications to take my second collection. There was nothing more I could wish for. I’d made it.

Christopher James and Brian

Then? Nothing. 2010 was my slowest ever year for poetry. The Arc collection was taking much longer than expected to appear. My previous book had appeared in 2006 and I had a pile of poetry that was gathering dust. The initial euphoria of the win had worn off. I was still plugging away at work doing exactly what I did before. I went to a few readings and felt a modicum of resentment. One poetry publisher I met at a festival looked me up and down and said: ‘Oh, so you’re Christopher James’ and walked away. I’m not sure what I expected to happen. TV? Radio? An offer to become a poetry lecturer or critic? Perhaps my expectations were set too high. This was poetry after all. Remember the rules – no one gets rich on it. You can dine out on it, but someone’s got to pay the bill.

Things picked up again – I’ve some other collections. There were other wins and enjoyable festivals, readings and workshops. Fortunately I wrote some more good poems too. But I never gain quite got that extraordinary feeling of being plucked from ‘the crowd’ that ‘flowed over London Bridge, so many.’

Just this last month or two, I’ve had a rash of successes. First place in the Crabbe/Suffolk Poetry Society competition, judged by Tiffany Atkinson, second place in the McLellan, judged by Sean O’Brien and I’m shortlisted for the Wells one too – judged by Mr Armitage himself. I’ve started to get that tingling feeling of momentum again. Except this time I’m wise enough to manage my expectations, to enjoy success when it comes and appreciate any good things for what they are: a bonus. The real reward of poetry is realising an idea – and seeing it, miraculously on the page in front of you. Paul Muldoon once said: ‘Most poets can achieve take off. Most can keep a poem at cruising altitude but very few know how to bring them into land.’

In Bloom: The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre by Mark Fiddes

A punk energy and an impish sense of fun suffuses this fine new collection from Mark Fiddes. His preoccupations range from the state of the nation to the state of the nation’s pavements in (see The Existence of Dog for more on this). At its centre is the predicament of a revolutionary who finds himself in suburbia, sprayed with ‘Nespresso’ and ‘junk mail.’ He feels, like a Shakespearean fool, that it is his duty to subvert, to out hypocrisy, absurdity and social injustice, albeit with an oblique detachment and stylish intensity.

Chelsea

The title poem sets out the stall, a polite tirade at the money that is threatening the spirit of the Chelsea Flower Show. It begins with a great gag: ‘The butterflies get in for free/like the Queen, ex officio,’ the pay off skilfully executed with the line break. Anger is too strong a word for it, but he rallies against the Prada ha-ha’ in ‘a cash-scented glade.’ The images and brand names come one after another, like the butterflies themselves, creating a kaleidoscopic sense of colour (following Hugo William’s maxim that ‘poems should be full of things.’ The cumulative effect is dizzying – as rich and gaudy as the overpaid guests themselves. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a comic tour de force of considerable panache.

At fourteen poems, this pamphlet has a sonnet-like brevity, but is equally compressed with wit and wonder. The conceits are thrillingly apposite and refreshingly original; his wife attempts to stack ‘metallic capsules of coffee/which tumble like command modules.’ A commuter meanwhile darts ‘as a trout over stones smoothed/by decades to a favoured spot.’ There is a MacNeice like air of unreality to the everyday; as if familiarity has rendered it strange and absurd. A dog is ‘more photocopy than dog,’ resembling a ‘Braque cut-out on whipcord.’ At this flower show, high and low culture frequently collide, Fiddes mixing the mythic with the mundane; Orpheus and Rembrandt rub shoulders with George Clooney and Hello Kitty.

At its centre is a beautiful and affecting poem about a father, Sons of the Golden Section. The man is a painter working in ‘a kingdom of turpentine’ who possesses similar anti-establishment views, always ‘marching/against the latest Dunsinane.’ It is about perfection and imperfection and the poem itself has a painterly quality to it. The father is drawn as a magician, a creator, a mythic figure almost, but he has human frailties too, which are now only appreciated as the son grows older himself. He admires his technique as one craftsman to another:

‘He works paint with palette knives
as if colour like a growing thing,
needed pruning and deadheading’

It is a marvelous poem, filled with reflections, parallels, love and fear.

Equally powerful is Have We Won Yet?, an Afghanistan veteran’s hollow rumination on an ill conceived war. His own sense of bewilderment and disillusionment becomes a critique of his home country:

In the terrible clatter of cups and saucers
he hears the chipped symphony of England
officially at peace with everything except itself.

The poem is full of ironies; he notices that the flowers (is he also at guest at the Chelsea Flower Show Massacre?) are the same as the ones that grow in Kandahar; the crippled soldier remembers how he pressed a flower for his Gran ‘in a copy of Men’s Fitness.’

But this collection is never po-faced. Just when it threatens to take itself too seriously, it lapses into absurdity. Ruminations on war, religion and family are the tempered with the levity of This is Not A Scam or Solo Doloroso. The Pontiff and his entourage in A Page of Revelation are portrayed like a kind of holy Mafia ‘in a miracle of flash bulbs with ‘spiritual muscle on either side.’

Elsewhere the poetry is without politics or polemics: ‘From Siberia’ has a simple grace to it, a little reminiscent in tone and construction to John Burnside’s dark lyricism: ‘these geese trail/winter like needles pulling/thread through sailcloth.’

Ultimately, like the flower show itself, the pleasure is not to be found in a single piece, but in the effect of the whole on the eye (and in this case the ear too). He uses the flower show as a metaphor for England: ‘more Abstract Expressionist than picturesque.’ Its ‘reckless foliage’ is hidden beneath ‘a patchwork flag’

There is so much to enjoy in The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre that to quote from it excessively would be to do Fiddes an injustice. Purchase a copy of this intelligent, immaculately tended collection and you will find yourself in the company of a tour guide at once wickedly cynical, bleakly funny and always colourful.