Friday, June 1, 2012

John James's new pamphlet

John James: Cloud Breaking Sun. Oystercatcher Press,
£5.00 A5 32pp. ISBN: 978-1-905885-51-0

The great thing about pamphlets is that you can roll them up and shove them in your back pocket and read them while eating your sandwich at lunch time or waiting in the rain for your train to work. Another great thing is that you can get a buzz from the contrast between the fragile and ephemeral nature of the stapled pamphlet and the sometimes astonishing beauty of the contents, as I did with my two latest Oystercatchers, one containing the luminous, spare wordcraft of Carol Watts, and the other new work by the great John James.

The poems by James are in his trademark laconic style, in plain language, set in France and Bristol, and containing a number of tributes to other poets - Barry MacSweeney, Apollinaire, John Temple and others. But the tone is a long way from the patrician "hail fellow, well met"; instead, it's cool and ironic, full of lyricism and beauty. The opening poem is a tribute to the late Andrew Crozier (topical, given the new 'Crozier Reader' from Carcanet): the kitchen table I put a hand to my breast in sorrow
then reach for the wine still singing
& your book resonant of a life
neither following nor in pursuit
at the end of a line let me read it again...

The poems are full of named people ('I reach toward the poetry of kindred') - family, friends and fellow poets - and are distinctly elegiac in tone. The language is plain, the speech direct. Reading this pamphlet got me wondering about the difference between these poems and the typical first-person-anecdote poem that I find so dull. One difference is that these poems look outward - to the persons addressed and to the world of affairs and politics (though they're not overtly political). The poems feel open; they don't tell us how to respond; they don't sum things up neatly; the persona in them is vague and unemphatic, subordinated to the external world and to the other characters that appear in the poems. But in the end, these things matter less than the fact that the poetry is supremely well-written, the result of lifetime's attention to the art of language; they have that undefinable quality which tells us we're in the presence of the real thing:


Stop on the turnpike in the month of May
& after breakfast head up country. From here on, says J,
grinning over a serious forkful of Red Lodge Special,
we're in the Texas of East Anglia.
Is that so, says, J, with mock sobriety.

The counter of the cafe painted cheerful red, the tea is hot & brown
& the heads of passing saints smile down
from the wall on these two pilgrims
laughing madly in the Hopper window
where space opens up into the blue beyond the red & white stripe canopy.

Years later swirls of sandy dust blow low across the truck park over the street.
At the next table Asterix the Gaul steadies himself above a dish of red meat.
HGV men return their empty plates and are gone.
It's a sunny afternoon. Drive on, they say, drive on.

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