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Review: Farewell to the Earth, by Christopher James

Amongst new collections I have enjoyed is Christopher James's Farewell to Earth, James's first collection. The Invention of Butterfly was rightly much praised when it appeared in 2006. This second collection is marked by the same fertility of invention, blurring the lines between the ordinary and the extraordinary. A few of James's titles suggest the nature of his wit: The Lakeland Poets High Jump Contest, Seamus Heaney's Blackberry and Disinterring the Archaeologist to name but three. In the first of these Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey compete at the high jump on an island on Grasmere. Coleridge attempts the Fosbury Flop (although as James observes, it is, or course, yet without a name ); Southey has the benefit of a considerable height advantage, but does not know of Wordsworth's midnight training. No clear winner is named, before

... Dorothy Wordsworth is seen rowing
over with provisions: wine, handkerchiefs
of crushed ice and lemonade; she is not beyond
criticism, her arms folded, tilting her head to one side,
as if judging a stanza or weighing up a metaphor.

The narrator observes that not a word of this must get back to London. James has a particular gift for the vivid simile which, if it doesn't quite yoke together the heterogeneous at any rate makes one acknowledge unexpected (and vivifying) connections:

Dusk in Newington Green
and there is the miracle of a cyclist
with a double bass on his back.
He is as fearless as an Oscar Pettiford solo,
weaving through the traffic
like a hand waltzing up the fingerboard,
as improbably balanced
as a Leaf Cutter Ant with a branch
held above its head.

James's invention is also impressive in an altogether unhumorous vein, as in the gracious and dignified quatrains of Cortege. While he may not be an especially profound poet, James is skilled, imaginative and highly readable.