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Review: Farewell to the Earth, by Christopher James

As noted in a blurb to Christopher James's Farewell to the Earth, this superb collection begins with ashes and ends with ashes. Without any liturgical gloss, this formal choice suggests to me not only farewell, of life into death say, but also faring well, a kind of renewal and flourishing via the poetic act. Indeed this doubled story is in a sense the story of poetry itself, of human/symbolic language. Human beings configure their identities via meaning, via story: a dialectical result of not just knowing but knowing that they know as well. And this is borne out in James's collection: lyric feeling, spontaneous individuality, sheer exuberance of play and wit, are dramatized throughout via story-telling; at times direct, at times overtly symbolic; but always effective and affecting. There are similarities in this respect with the subtle, masterful and eminently fluent lyricism of Don Paterson.

The opening eponymous poem, Farewell to the Earth, is an overt palimpsest or rewriting of Heaney's notorious poem Digging. The Latin root of culture is busy with husbandry, tilling, cultivating the soil. As in Heaney's conceit of ancestral pursuance via discontinuity (farmer to poet), James bids adieu to the earth in a, similar division of labour: his father is buried in the first stanza of this opening poem, and potentially alive in the last: the symbolic story being that poetry or the poetic process redeems or (as in Seamus Heaney's Oxford Lectures) redresses or (as in Geoffrey Hill's insight) at-ones. This arch redolence is evinced throughout the collection: the second poem, 'The Retired Eunuch' has direct evocations of Camus's L'Etranger.

Indeed, James makes use-at times with playful flair, at times with more serious intent-of already-told stories and implied mythoi (Noah, The Flood, Heaney's Blackberry, The Lakeland Poets High Jump Contest) to situate himself: it is a kind of romantic (or post-modern) dalliance with otherness in order, quest-like, to find his own, more unique place in poetic space. Thus, if there is exile from the earth, it is self- imposed, what Yeats might have called James's secret discipline.

And so the trigger and process of poetic making (faring), or story-telling in its broadest sense, is lived-out in the opening stanza of You Do Not Need Your Wristwatch, There Is A Clock On The Wall:

You had not planned for this,
these empty afternoons, the slow hiss
of the black cylinder, the white glare
of this antibiotic room -
somewhere something went wrong.

There are no such things as the tense arcs of story or storied poetry if nothing is wrong: if there is no functional gap in the automaticity of our otherwise demotic lives. In this sense-much like Don Paterson's critical notion (in The Lyric Principle) that poetry is the norm, both historical and logical, of all and any language and language-use-James's excellence is to delineate a/the (wristwatch / clock on the wall) human condition with each sveltely poised poem in this charged collection.