christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Original Poetry

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.

Looking for Absalom

On little more than a family rumour, four of us pile into a jeep late afternoon and head off into the gold edged Norfolk countryside in search of a long lost relative.

A name on a scrap of paper, and a subsequent search of the records had revealed that my Great Great Grandfather Absalom (d. 1798) and Tabatha (some time after) – both good fire and brimstone Old Testament names – were agricultural workers in the small village of Wickmere, near Alysham, Norfolk.

Finding a village in East Anglia, without a map or phone is a little like collecting water without a container. For every helpful sign post, the next sign along has no mention of it whatsoever, as if it assumes you now have the general idea. You soon find yourself doubling back on yourself, driving into someone’s garden or heading towards Norwich, sometimes all three at the same time. We bump around the sharp, blind corners, churning up mud from the recent rains.


We know from a painting that we are looking a for a church with a round tower and so resort to navigating by sight. Eventually Roberta spots the church, some way away from the village itself. Like many other small, ancient villages in the area, presumably the people moved away from the church and its yard around the time of the plague. It transpires we are not the only ones who found the church difficult to locate, as reported on the Seven Church website:

‘To find Wickmere is something of a challenge. The nearer one gets, not only do the signposts become disconcertingly vague as to its whereabouts, but its splendidly named Regent Street nestles in a fold in the land.’

The road leads us to Wickmere church, described beautifully as one of the ‘high and lonely churches’ where we split up and search for our ancestral family name ‘Carr’ in the graveyard.

A shriek from my mother tells us she has found a Carr, in this case a Horace, perhaps a great uncle, and also an Elizabeth Carr, a Maria Carr, as well as a Henry and another Horace – the ubiquity of the name we suspect is due to the enduring popularity of local boy Horatio Nelson. The graves are covered in white and orange lichen, and are almost undecipherable, but we get the dates and a few words. These people’s lives feel frustratingly opaque and the record of their memory is fragile as the names fade from the stones. As the sinks lower on the horizon, we decide to continue our search for Absalom himself another day.


I am Absalom
father of the fields,
friend of birds,
master of the soil
This is my world:
the clouds above me,
the sea around us.
At dusk, the sky
is like a lid of gold;
old windmills
are thimbles
on the horizon.
Churches are
ships at anchor.
I think of the past,
of Tabatha at the hearth
of the sun burning
through the pine trees.
Jewels of light
are scattered
across the land
I think of the future –
my son, still
scratching the earth,
spinning in space,
in seventeen
ninety eight.


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”.


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.



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.



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.



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?



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.



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.



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.