christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Christopher James Poetry

The Polar Pioneers

I’m currently reading Cherry-Garrard’s riveting account of the 1910-1913 Terra Nova expedition, The Worst Journey in the World. It’s written in the most elegant prose, with plenty of gripping detail and captures that great spirit of noble hope that characterized the whole enterprise.

Terra Nova

From motor sledges falling through rotten ice to killer whales almost gobbling polar photographers, it reminds you that there was a great deal of incident beyond the central drama of the doomed five man pole party. Almost every member of the expedition was involved in some astonishing drama of their own. And of course the expedition was not just some desperate lunge for the Pole, but a floating university, with a huge agenda. There were almost as many scientists aboard as sailors.

I’m currently working on a poetic sequence about this, more of which later, but for now, I have cooked up a little song as an interim tribute to these gallant men.

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.

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.


‘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 Levitating Farm

Running up the lane,
and I find a barn
suspended above the field:
no pillar or post,
just a lid of tin and moss,
an attic of timber
and hay; no mirrors,
no wire, no trick of the eye.
Then I see cows, peddling
the air, stirring it
with their hooves,
licking knats from the wind.
Across the yard, a tractor,
driverless, scoops
mist in its shovel,
shifts down the gears.
The farmhouse floats
like a balloon tethered
by invisible thread.
Inside the chairs
drift through the kitchen.
I catch my breath,
while the wind slowly juggles
six bales of hay.
A pitchfork and saw
edge towards me
like the cutlery of a giant.
Then I see the notice
of auction, and later
up by the church,
a single cauliflower
laid on a brown dirt grave.


New song – The Badger

In celebration of my favourite animal, not to mention my favourite craft beer, here’s a new song in the open tuning CGDGBC. Best enjoyed with a bottle of Golden Champion or Tanglefoot. Ad break over!

 Badger Beer Silver


The Dickens Impersonator

All that year, I wore dead men’s clothes:
Victorian trousers with a button fly;
white shirts that billowed like spinnakers.
At night I heard ghosts clink in the kitchen,
rummaging for whisky and cufflinks.
On buses I was like a time traveller,
my pocket-watch ticking like a heart on a string.
I overheated in matinees, left top hats
on top decks and watched the world through
a clouded monocle and a pair of pince-nez.
My overcoat belonged to an undertaker,
a monstrous blanket of darkness with pockets
as deep as graves. So I left it all in an attic
where my suit now waltzes with a scarlet gown.

Charles Dickens


Christopher James’ latest collection of poems: England Underwater is available now.


This piece is called Archangel – partly because I like the name, and partly because Michael is a name that features quite a bit in my family. Michael the Archangel was heaven’s superhero, muscle-bound, hair in ringlets, sent to quell Satan and that kind of thing. The other Archangels were Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. Think of them as the Biblical Avengers.


My first daughter’s Godfather is called Michael – as generous, funny and kind man as ever you’ll meet (hello Michael!), it’s my son’s middle name and my wife’s two grandfathers were both called Michael, neither of which she met. They were both storytellers and characters and of course without them I wouldn’t have my wife. So this piece is for all the Michaels and all the Archangels.

Starling Wonder

I wrote a poem about a long lost Beatles album and had to think of names for the songs; there were things like The Party At The Centre Of the Earth and Carnaby Streetlights. There was also one called Starling Wonder which might have sounded like this. The tuning is BGDGAD with a capo on the fifth fret.

starling murmurations taken at RSPB Minsmere nature reserve in Suffolk. @RSPB


The Emperor of Autumn

We saw him skulking on the horizon,
his crown a bird’s nest of amber and lime.
He wore beneath his burnished cloak
a rusting chain mail of fallen leaves.
His staff was the trunk of a Scot’s pine
clipped of its limbs; he littered gold
like a thief with a bag split at the seam.
His eyes were the red leaves of a maple
and his beard, a tangle of blackthorn.
Tied in his hair were firecrackers of light:
the dark and the bright of an autumn sky.

That night, the storm came; torn trees,
gates swinging from their hinges, fruit swept
from branches and birds flying backwards.
We knew it was him, the Emperor of Autumn,
his reign almost at an end, sent into a fury.
His robes crumbled about his shoulders
and in the morning the fields were frosted
white with the hearth rugs of the Winter King.


Ahead of the 2014 centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I have chosen fourteen of the most powerful works of art from the time. Collectively, they are a testament to those who fought and died in the war and all have extraordinary stories to tell. I have then responded to each with a sonnet, of fourteen lines.


1919, John Singer Sargent, Imperial War Museum


A blinded procession, a party game of sorts,
bandaged eyes, still clutching helmets, rifles,
an ordered chaos, they hold shoulders after
the barrage, the bullets, the gas; most stooped
but one still defiant: upright, hands in pockets,
fair hair, dapper, jacket hung on one shoulder,
as if having lost a football match. Another
turns away, vomits, as the mustard sun yellows
their shirt sleeves. At each side is a sea of men,
nursing their heads, making sense, others are
drugged with sleep; one swigs from a canteen.
As if in a dance, a soldier lifts up his foot a little
too high to step onto a duckboard and sanctuary.
In the distance, another party, oblivious to the first,
makes its own stumbling way out of Hades.


1922, John Singer Sargent, National Portrait Gallery


Like men at the club caught between drinks;
a rubber of whist delayed while this duty performed,
they are immaculate.

Shirts pressed, ribbons bursting like flowers
at their breast; their riding boots never see mud.
They are without blemish.

Their coats need only fend off the wind
that blows down Whitehall and along Pall Mall;
their swords have never drawn blood.

Buttons polished, brass cleaned, they are
the great men of the England, reputations pristine
from the fields of Afghanistan, India.

They stand between columns that hold up the Empire.
Only one cannot look us in the eye.


1915, Christopher Richard W Nevinson, Birmingham Museums Collection


A barbed serpent, the column moves as one,
a beast of war, obliterating everything.
Its length is obscene, it has no beginning
and no end. It has wrapped itself
around the world: a snake’s embrace.
In its jaw is the forked tongue of victory
and defeat. It slides like an iron chain.
For miles there is the metronome of boots

moving east to west beneath
this Godless sky. Identically kitted,
there is no one man, only a repeated print
of trench coats, kit bags and rifles
like matchsticks scratching the air,
as the snake slithers further from Eden.

La mitrailleuse

 1915, Christopher Richard W Nevinson, Tate


An unholy trinity, three gunners plot
their kill; the triangulation of death.
Hard hats, cold hearts, they feed the gun
its magazine; it sucks and spits, hisses
and fouls like a genius in a fury, a dervish
drunk on its own laughter, berserk
with the perfection of itself.

They are welded together, a synchronicity,
like the parts of the gun, working in unison.
They cower beneath the scaffold of the trench,
eyeless, no longer men. In the chaos of fire,
only their aim is true. From here they cannot see
the smoke streaked sky or that their way
to heaven is barred with wire.


 1917, Alfred Bastien, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art


The mud is not brown, but green and yellow,
the muck of creation: a swamp of purgatory.
A field gun is lying on its side, gigantic, metallic:
a god of thunder crippled in the mire. We have
reversed creation, invented a new death,
a new way to pound earth into a hell.
The sky is sea of fire; men are shadows.
They struggle with their machine, prising it
with planks and boards trying to make it live.
An officer directs; the men obey; this is
the way things are. They work because
they must, and will fight until they die.
On the horizon is a strange blue, a trick
of the light, or the sea, the sea, the blameless sea.

New World

1918, Paul Nash Imperial War Museum


This is no longer Earth; these are not trees.
This is not the brilliant glare of a new sun.
These black stalks are creatures of a new race
grown from the blood of men; they hang their heads
for the shame of it. This world is not yet made.
The mud bubbles up, as if by the heads of infants
struggling for air, they meet the thin atmosphere.
The sky is a wall of dirt; the red dust of a thousand
fires still burning as the planet forms. Today
is the first day after the darkness, and now there
is no memory of hope, of love, of solace, only
this pockmarked world, grown on the skin of the old.
And what of the light? It comes from a poison star
that gives life to these beasts of the new Eden.

Mule Track

1918, Paul Nash, Imperial War Museum


The hour of the shelling comes;
the shells fall.
We lead the mules along the track;
the guns call.
The world implodes; collapses in,
the field is cracked
in a devil’s grin
and the sky is fired with a plosive din,
it compounds the sorrow
of our original sin.
The mules rear up, shake out
their bloodied manes
as the path buckles
and shells fall.


1916, Christopher Richard W Nevinson, Tate


In a moment, the world is shattered
sub divided into fractions of itself.
We freeze in its mathematics.
The trench floods with mirrors of light;
mud quickens into life and barricades
become the linked arms of children.
All of the universe turns on this point:
the second before the sun implodes.
It is not the moment after I remember
but the fabrics on our tunics, the accent
of light on our helmets, the spots of rust
on our iron belt and the olive green of the
subaltern’s eyes; the star drifts peaceably
to the earth and in an instant – gunfire. 

Hell image

1917, George Leroux, Imperial war Museum


Through an arch of smoke,
you enter the burning cathedral.
The altar is a water-filled pit
where a dead man presides
in an open jacket, his face to the sky.
The nave is sea of mud
and open graves; broken trees
hold up the blackened roof.
In the water is a reflection of the fire
like a golden cloth laid
across a tabernacle. But there
is no God, no feathered angel,
no blue Madonna, as these pilgrims
leave relics of themselves.


Eric Kennington, 1926, Tate


This is his Turin shroud, this sketch,
this impression; see how his neck
and shoulders fall away like dunes
how his eyes are lit with the grief of ages.
One side of his face in unmarked,
brushed by the light like the white sand
of the Negev Desert; the other is dark,
shadowed by the blood of Aqaba
and Tafileh. He knows nothing
of the future, but can feel history
all around him, the furrows of destiny:
of races at war, trains burning,
and the scowl of a dying star
throwing light on his thin, pale face. 

Over the Top nash

1918, John Nash, Imperial War Museum


They are drawn towards the horizon
bayonets fixed, eyes locked in a dead man’s stare.
A shot officer rests on his knees as if in prayer.
His sword is discarded in the snow; they fight on
as someone cries: ‘forward!’ Right or wrong,
they close ranks, to seal the wound left in the line
and advance to the abyss, the unseen divine.
They walk on as if hypnotised by song
and those that live become breathing ghosts
forever drifting in these fields of snow
clutching their rifles then watching as hosts
of countrymen die on this cold plateaux
The handful of witnesses think on this most:
They killed us like cattle, row after row.


1916, Eric Kennington, Imperial War Museum


Four days without sleep and then, Laventie,
a village of ruins, streets bedded with snow,
a place the shells for now, could not reach.
But still Wilson would not lie down, as tall
as he was the first day, his head domed
in a balaclava, watching the treacherous skies.
He carried the burden for us all, his rifle ready.
Sweeney lay in the ice as if on a summer
meadow, his cheek on a pillow of charred wood.
A purgatory of diamonds, a fiefdom of snow,
we were for a time the lords of all saw; kings
of the magpies that flitted through the rafters.
They eyed our treasures, our buckles, a crimson scarf
and the gold tipped helmet we stole from the Bosch.


1917, Sir William Orpen


Our sentries heard them first,
the clatter and groan, like threshing machines.
Then we saw them through the smoke:
a pair of Goliaths, monstrous, faceless
their tracks churning like mandibles.
They reared up like beasts, then flopped
into shell holes: cockroaches that had
survived the end of time, swelled to
nightmare size, unstoppable, unthinking.
We trained our howitzers, our pistoles,
then fled, as the rumble became a roar
and behind them, in shadows, we saw
the British come to claim our rotten soil,
Inside they burned in the grease and oil.

1917, Eric Kennington, Imperial War Museum


The beds are empty now, the soldiers gone
leaving only their impressions, the echoes
of their spirits and dreams; their mutterings.
The canvas smells of bleach and damp.
Somewhere a bird sings; voices are heard
outside, then drift away. In fields close by
men slump in their trenches, stuttering,
smoking, waiting for the whistle to blow.
But here, in this interior, we do not know
how many lived, how many died, only that
the beds are empty now and that morning
has come again and that a square of blue
French sky lights up the ward where men lie
in this church of whisperings, soft goodbyes.


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