christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: England Underwater

At Sea

Perhaps it’s the floods or the fact that it’s been the wettest winter for 250 years, but I’ve had water on the mind lately. I had a dream about our house floating out to sea, then encountering my younger selves at various stages of my life, and in various houses, rescuing them and bringing them aboard.

110313-N-SB672-164

I sailed my house across the Atlantic,
a ship of brick, adrift in the doldrums.
From my deck of floorboards, I saw a sail
and met myself coming the other way
twenty years younger piloting my student digs,
the one in Norwich, without hot water
or TV. I was a worrier, still smoking,
typing on my grandfather’s old Amiga.
I was taking on water, had a shark
in the attic, did not know the trouble
I was in or how easily it could be solved.
I threw over a line, welcomed him
aboard, admiring his full head of hair.
Then we found my first house in Leeds:
no less seaworthy, water sloshing
from the inside against the bay window.
We took him in too, rescued from
a purgatory of ad sales, bad food
and Sundays in the launderette.
At night, we watched the ghosts
of other selves pass by, too far out to reach.
Then came my London flat, sitting high
in the water, the shop beneath still trading
in the deep selling fan-belts to mermaids.
I was the boy at the first floor window,
dressed in cords and a Beatles t-shirt.
I told him to use the sofa bed as a life-raft,
and save only our gold pocket watch.
We picked just him up, just as the block
went under, the four of us drifting on, beneath
a waxing moon, floating on the sea of selves.

Imaginary kingdoms in Bethnal Green

A beatific night at the London Buddhist Centre for the launch of Maitreyabandhu’s pamphlet, wittly titled (considering its length)Vita Brevis.

As it’s Valentine’s Day, Bethnal Green is full of flowers; almost every man and woman clutches a single stem or full bouquet like some sixties vision. Greeted by smiling young people at the door, the air of serenity continues down to the basement studio which is all cushions and flower print screens.

Organised by Alex McMillen of Templar Poetry, the bill also featured the precise, accomplished Myra Schneider (her recital of Forward Prize shortlisted poem ‘Goulash’ was an undoubted highlight) and the always fascinating Jane Weir, continuing her odyssey into the lives of textile designers of the early twentieth century. Her outlandish titles, breathless long lines are filled with the obscure vocabulary of dyes and textiles but are shot through with a colloquial wit which prevents them from disappearing too far into the esoteric.

I also read, from England Underwater – although managed to wear exactly the same blue flower print on my shirt as was printed the screen I was standing in front of – resulting in the odd spectacle of a disembodied head delivering the poems. I was losing my voice, but made it through to the end, trying out a new poem about meeting King Lear’s Fool – making me realise it needs more work. Funny poems go down well. Note to self – always end on a golden oldie rather than something new.

Vita Brevis by Maitreyabandhu

Maitreyabandhu’s collection is a Poetry Book Society pamphlet choice and deservedly so; it is full of delicate, visionary poetry – a tiny ship made from a fingernail of bark and the shell of a walnut; an encounter with a matronly giraffe at the zoo and a meditation on the suffering of animals in Mule – a beast tormented by the heat and flies. It also features a string of prose poems – surreal wanderings through imaginary kingdoms where ‘criss-cross avenues’ are ‘lined with lemon trees and pears’ and toys hover eerily above the ground. It’s a lyrical, magical masterpiece. With a Bloodaxe collection on the way too, as I said to him after the reading – his time is now.

Three poems from England Underwater

In the great spirit of try before you buy, here are three poems from my new collection, England Underwater – seventy five pages of sonnets, rondeaux and freewheeling ramblings. Enjoy!  

THE BROTHER

‘All my life I have done nothing either great or good.’

Branwell Brontë, you died standing up,
your talent eclipsed by whisky and genius.
A station master’s assistant, you were
let go for translating Horace in the ticket office;
you made announcements only in Latin.
As a tutor, you were driven to distraction:
Mrs Robinson, seductress of Thorp Green,
she became your one blaze of excitement.
On Sundays you had the hall to yourselves;
you drank tea in the nude and read Keats in the bath.
She always said the maid was not to be trusted.
You took to the hills with your brushes
to escaping the chattering of your sisters
and the prison of your father’s love.
You chased phantoms across the moors.
Merely gifted, you painted yourself out of life
and could not remember setting fire
to the bed or Emily dousing you with a bedpan.
Branwell Brontë, King of Angria, forever cast
to the shadows of history, you found laudanum
no cure for heartache or mediocrity. Your sisters’
greatest love: the brilliant boy, who never shone.

THE MOTOR CARS OF THE COWBOYS

Gary Cooper drives
a ’Fifty Mercury in midnight black
that cruises under a spotlight moon
and reappears around High Noon.
His final mistress sent it back;
Gary Cooper dies.

John Wayne drives
a cream nineteen fifty three Corvette
with blood red seats and a manual shift.
Too small, he gave it away as a gift,
to an extra who had lost a bet;
John Wayne dies.

Jimmy Stewart drives
a yellow Auburn Boat-tail Speedster
that stretches like sunlight across the road.
They didn’t have these in Shenandoah.
In Hollywood he thinks he needs her,
Jimmy Stewart dies.

Paul Newman drives
a 914 Porsche the colour of blue skies.
He eats boiled eggs behind the wheel
and pool balls clack against the steel.
He chose the car to match his eyes;
Paul Newman dies.

Clint Eastwood drives
a Grand Torino the colour of buffalo.
It races horses across the plains
and marks its trail in desert rains.
At dusk he leaves the sky aglow:
Clint Eastwood drives.

OLD SHOES

Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.
W.B. Yeats

You kept all your old shoes,
an unbroken footprint into the past:
the pumps left at high tide
that filled with sea water;
the single stiletto left behind,
when you flung the other down
an Italian hillside; even the wellingtons
in which you planted tulips
every year of primary school,
you washed and preserved
at the bottom of your wardrobe.

You were the one who spared
the flip flops worn to a wafer
that carried you across France;
the thick lipped sandals you kicked
against the school desk, and even
less forgivably, the six pairs
of verruca socks hung up like
chickens with your husband’s ties.
Nowadays, after work, you prefer
the barefoot life; of wood under foot
and the sands of summers to come.

Setting fire to the moon

‘You should not launch your book, dad’, my five year old advised, ‘because it might take off and set fire to the moon’. Despite my son’s warning, the book was indeed launched this weekend in Matlock Bath and thank you to Alex McMillen and his team at Templar who did such a terrific job with the production.

The Derwent Poetry Festival, up in a bitterly cold Peak District, brought poetry of all kinds to Masson Mill, which was otherwise full of Christmas shoppers carrying out armfuls of knitted woollens, shortbread tins and model railway sets. However with the shops closed and a northern moon hanging in the sky, the atmosphere inside the old mill was eerie – you could hear the faint echo of the looms and spinning jennies still working away down the centuries.

The Peaks were as breathtaking as ever – we tracked down the original Bakewell Pudding Shop (in my opinion, the tart and slice are still superior to the pudding, but maybe that’s just me) Chatsworth seemed as regal as Versailles and the whole place was carpeted in autumn leaves. Poetry doesn’t pay, but this weekend at least the streets were certainly paved with gold.

I read from the book on Saturday night; salutations to Jolyon Braime who diverted his troop of hikers our way to soak up some culture. It was also pleasure to meet Cristina Navazo-Eguia Newton whose collection was launched at the festival on Sunday. Her book Cry Wolf is full of a lyrical, ethereal poems that cross borders of language and geography; strongly influenced by film, her poems evoke moods and sensations as much as images – and a ghostly, uncanny world that lingers behind this one. Take her poem: ‘Elements for a Hungarian Story’ where ‘a stray dog nozzles a bucket. It doesn’t rain.’ She shouted encouragement and appreciation from the second row. It reminded me that poetry readings can sometimes be a little too polite. A bit of audience participation, without actually reaching the level of heckling, is a very good thing.

Alex pinned a mike to me to record the launch reading, leaving me feeling a little like an FBI agent wearing a wire tap – unfortunately I fluffed a line in almost every poem, so not sure how useable the results will be – but the night was massively enjoyable all the same. It was great trying new things, as well as relying on old favourites, and I stuck mainly to the new book.

We stayed in a cosy house at Study Farm, with friends Nick and Catherine, their children and our children in Bonsall, a little village in the hills. The kids (five in all!) loved the rabbits in the hutch and the white kitten creeping across the yard. On the Sunday, walking off the Limoncello, wine and beer from the previous night, we took a tour of the village, which slopes in all directions on the side of the hill. We took in the dark stone walled buildings, which have a kind of grim beauty, the church, the autumn flowers and the Sunday morning quiet – just a few plumes of chimney smoke rising into the white sky. We found a brilliant map that showed some of the history of the place – telling the story of the minors who built a road called the ‘Clatterway’ who were paid in ale, and the location of ‘Sue’s Panshine and Pickle Shop’ which sounds like just the sort retail experience Mary Portas is always encouraging.

Well the book is out there now – I’ll be doing some more readings, including in the Cotswolds in December, but to some extent, the book will now have a life of its own. Buy your copy here.

Book launch – England Underwater

Off to Matlock Bath this evening for the start of the Derwent Poetry Festival and the launch of my new collection England Underwater, on Saturday night. If you fancy a mad dash into the hills for a night of wine and poetry, it’s 7.30pm on 17th November at Masson Mills, Matlock Bath, DE4 3PY.

The title poem is partly inspired by one of our wettest years on record – we had the fourth wettest summer since 1727! It got me thinking about what would happen if it just kept raining?

ENGLAND UNDERWATER

They took us into sunken Albion, down shafts
of moonlight through forests of floating oak,
where the sandstone of Bath still glimmered
like bullion, thirsting for the sun. We shone
our mustard light on the signs of the old M1,
Stadiums rusted like bathtubs in the silt.
We plunged on, and saw all of England’s meadows
plundered by the waves; tractors with nothing
left to plough; stately homes appeared like
tacky ornaments at the bottom of a fish bowl.
Sharks swam through the bicycle wheel
of the London Eye; The Ritz was like the dining saloon
of the Titanic; crabs clung to the hands of Big Ben
left at quarter to three, the hour the nation fell.
In Shropshire, we saw the Iron Bridge adrift
like a grater at the bottom of a kitchen sink.
Eastwards, in the spire of Norwich Cathedral we found
the bones of the bell-ringer sounding the alarm.
Further still and we met the Angel of the North,
now a deep sea diver, patrolling the Dales.
We found squid nesting in the Brontë Museum;
The Fenlands were returned to their natural state.
Then finally, the Lakes, still as beautiful as they were:
Skafell a dark shadow looming before us
and at the shorelines, there was the ghost of Canute
now more like Neptune, holding back the land.

What to expect from the new collection . . .

The pubs are closing, our ancient saints are roaming the streets and there is devolution talk in the air. But England refuses to go under. From a horse running free through the City of London to the Fenland pole vaulters, there is plenty of evidence that old Albion hasn’t given up the ghost just yet. Take a trip to Wasteland, England’s first poetry theme park; look up as the English novelists take to the trees and wait around long enough to discover Queen Victoria’s darkest secret. Other parts of the United Kingdom might have their melodies, but England’s song is all her own. Keep your life jacket handy and look out for King Canute as his throne sinks deeper into the sand. The flood waters are rising, but the birds are still singing.

 
‘The Invention of Butterfly was much praised when it appeared. Christopher James’ second collection is marked by the same fertility of invention, blurring the lines between the ordinary and the extraordinary.’
Glyn Pursglove, Acumen