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.

The_Outsider_Tom_Weir_1024x1024

‘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.

Lamb

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.

Archangel

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.

Archangel

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 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”.

THE CRUSADER AT HALICARNASSES

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.

mausolus-thumb-275x323

SELLING THE COLOSSUS

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.

Colossus-of-Rhodes2

THE GARDENER

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.

babylon-sm-320x240

THE GREAT TOWER OF GIZA

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?

Giza

ARTEMIS AT THE TEMPLE

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.

Temple

STATUE OF ZEUS IN THE WORKSHOP AT OLYMPIA

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.

Statue-of-Zeus-at-Olympia

MARK ANTONY AND THE LIGHTHOUSE

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.

lighthouse-at-alex_2266242i

 

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.