christopher james

Poems and prattle

Category: Poetry

In the Bleak Midwinter – Review of Clive Carroll, 11 January 2017

To the Apex, Bury St. Edmunds to witness a remarkable performance from Clive Carroll performing songs from his album, The Furthest Tree and beyond. Mixing influences of early music (the kind of folk baroque made popular by John Renbourn, more of whom later) with huge, almost prog-like bass-lines and complex patterns, he transfixed a packed house on this freezing winter night.

With his clean lines and superb technique, Clive’s compositions resonated powerfully inside the wooden cathedral of the Apex – a new and usually beautiful venue, both ancient and modern at the same time, much like Clive’s music. At one point it felt as if we were all contained within the body of an enormous acoustic guitar, and it certainly sounded that way.

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Taking a few moments to gather himself, an insight perhaps into his classical training and level headed temperament, he began with The Abbot’s Hymn, a beguiling tune, named after both the local Abbot ale and much missed John Renbourn, who acquired the nickname ‘The Abbot’ while touring with Clive in the early 2000s. Mention of John got a cheer of its own and the local reference was appreciated by the Suffolk crowd; they gave the piece their rapt-attention. It brought back memories of John playing on the Old Grey Whistle Test, a glass of red wine perched on his amp while he picked out the tunes.

Next up was In the Deep, a swampy, lugubrious piece that floated high into the rafters, before being grounded by a thunderous bass line that seemed to shake the building to its very core. The portentous mood was dispelled when Clive chatted to the crowd; with his head-boyish demeanour, he is as far removed from a rock and roll stereotype as you are likely to find, but his patter is hilarious, both learned and irreverent. He mentioned that he had recently played for both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York before confessing they were pubs not people…

Establishing a bond with an audience both musically and emotionally are Clive’s key strengths and we certainly invested in the music. He later acknowledged a debt to Shostakovich in an astonishing waltz, giving us a lesson in three-four time and its various permutations for good measure. Only once did he seem to lose the audience: mention of his Essex roots drew an element of unbecoming inter-County nose-holding, although he put paid to any stereotypes by reminding them that Holst himself made his home in Thaxted, the subject of a mind bogglingly pretty tune, Thaxted Town. It somehow managed to accommodate both Morris dancing and the melodic theme to Holst’s I Vow to Thee, My Country and was played with great affection.    

The centre piece of the set was a performance of Clive’s Renaissance Suite, based thematically on the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. The difficulty that the piece was written for two guitars (second guitar on the record played by John Williams, no less) was surmounted by a ‘second Clive,’ previously recorded. The melodic intricacy of the piece and the fact that he had to both add a capo and retune mid performance without stopping the recorded part made for a thrilling bit of theatre. Suffice to say, he made it through without mishap. The Green Knight, a galloping tune was a superbly dramatic climax to this piece and was greeted with some open-mouthed astonishment. The poet, Simon Armitage has recently translated the 14th century poem to great effect and a collaboration between him and Clive would hold some wonderful possibilities.   

Perhaps the highlight of the evening however, was the final piece, inspired by a trip to northern Canada. With its icy, haunting melody and unpredictable dynamics, it was perfectly suited to this bleakly cold evening, full of talk of thunder-snow (that in the event would fail to materialise.) It would make for a fitting theme to a Nordic detective TV series. Has Clive explored such avenues you wonder?

With his wonderful poise, generous spirit and boundless musicality, Clive eventually made way for the swashbuckling Tommy Emmanuel, who was reliably astonishing. It would be too much to try and cover Tommy’s vivacious set here (perhaps another time) but Clive left a lasting impression, filling this dark, midwinter night with an ancient kind of magic.  

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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.

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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.

The Scarecrow in the Rain

Each day on the drive to work I pass three scarecrows, their old shirts and trousers flapping in the breeze. They all stand in the same field, suspended on their poles as if they are three friends (or three wise men/three fools/three thieves?) who have fallen out with each other. What are they thinking? What are their hopes and dreams? Why have they fallen out? Here’s the song it inevitably inspired.

Scarecrow rain

For poems about scarecrows, fools and mythical London detectives, take a look at my poetry collection, The Fool, available from Templar Poetry.

Sherlock Holmes in the Lavender Field

Retired now, he spends his days beekeeping
and playing Bach’s sonatas on his violin.
At night, he feeds his case notes to the fire;
allows old enemies to slip from his mind.
But today, he is standing in a field of lavender
showing me the sky: how the cirrus uncinus
is a blur of angels returning to heaven; why
the altocumulus floccus is the pipe smoke
of a thousand problem. At the edge of the field
is a man in a bowler hat, a statue of Holmes
in one hand, a pistol in the other. Look, my friend
says: a single bee buzzes inside a gold snuff box.
Holmes lifts the lid and lets it spiral into the air,
woozy with freedom, as the bullet hits home.

Bees

This poem is taken from my collection The Fool, published by Templar Poetry in 2014.

Solstice

On the shortest, darkest, coldest day
We pulled on our winter socks
Under frozen skies of grey
We saw the flash of a winter fox.

As we walked out into the cold
And stepped on ice and dreamt of snow
We thought of Christmases of old
The holly and the mistletoe.

And for a while we saw the sun
Its rays like wings for all to see
Above the Earth when day was done
Like the angel on the Christmas tree.

Winter sun

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.

MEMOIR

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.

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.

The Fool – My New Collection

Just preparing to set sail for Masson Mills, Matlock Bath in the Peak District for the launch of my new book, The Fool at the ninth Derwent Poetry Festival, hosted by the inestimable Alex McMillen of Templar Poetry.

I’ll also be running a poetry workshop at 10.30am on Saturday morning on the theme of collisions. If getting to the festival is an issue, due to living in New Jersey, Australia, or other good reason, and you’d like to have a go at this at home, you can find the details here.

The Fool cover

At 2pm I’ll be reading from my new full collection, The Fool, which is also available to purchase from the Templar website, with, I believe, free postage and packing. It includes the award winning poems The Ancient Egyptian in the British Library and The Medieval Flood, plus many more. It’s a little darker in tone than some of my other books, but there’s still plenty of humour and surreal adventures aplenty. Hope you like the arresting cover, painted by an unknown Finnish artist two hundred years ago. Suitably spooky for Halloween, don’t you think?

Kettering Goes into Outer Space

At first it was simple things:
a policeman’s helmet levitating above his head,
a post-box that floated like a Dalek down the street,
the frog that leapt and never came back.
This was the town that came loose
at the seams, that lost its centre of gravity.
Only when the clock tower shot like a firework
through the clouds did they ask people
to keep pets indoors and travel
only with stones in their pockets.

The spire of St Peter’s and Paul’s
went the same way: fired like a missile
into the heavens; the vicar followed it up,
ascending like a rocket man in a dog collar.
The townspeople, steady folk, kept their feet
on the ground and wore crampons to the shops.
Kettering FC would only play with all eleven
roped together and tethered to the goal post.
At the offices of the Northants Telegraph
they placed a large order for paperweights.

In the Old Market Inn there was talk
of military experiments: science gone wrong;
reversed polarities. They chained the mayor
to the Town Hall lest he rose above his station.
They played only heavy metal on Radio
Northamptonshire. When it finally happened,
one night at the end of June, there was a groaning
like the day the Poppies were relegated.
A moment’s resistance, then the town sprang
into the air, like a plug, popped from a drain.

Showering bones and sewage pipes,
it picked up speed, a town banished from the earth.
Far below the A14 swerved around the gap.
They navigated from the Corn Exchange,
issuing handouts, travel sweets and copies
of The Usborne Guide to the Solar System,
And you’ll still see it now, on summer nights,
crawling like a comet across the sky, up there
without a sound, the old shoe factory, the theme park,
the lights still winking on the rugby ground.

map-kettering

The Butterfly Revolution

This was the year the butterflies left us,
when we discovered they had impersonated
every flower on Earth. They fluttered up
one morning like a reverse waterfall, a ribbon
of colour disappearing into the heavens.
They left us nothing but empty fields,
bare hedgerows. Lovers handed each other
stalks and leaves; bracken and shrubs.
At sunset, under indigo skies, we thought
they had settled on clouds; others believed
they were in the mountains of Tibet,
scattered like wild orchids on the summits.
We searched from space, scanning the colourless
Earth, the painful symmetry of continents.
We looked up to the Moon, the shades
of green and gold on the Ocean of Storms.
Then just as soon, they came back: a confetti
one day, a blizzard of wings that had us
rejoining in the streets; we threw carnivals,
fiestas, until the colour returned to our cheeks.
We revered them like gods in our hands,
lifting them gently from our windscreens.

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