christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Templar Poetry

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.

Chelsea

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.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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 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?

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.

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