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Review: Farewell to the Earth, by Christopher James

Christopher James' narratives are held by and, in turn, hold rich detail. Such detail is often layered by narrators, as in the opening, title poem of the book. The poem describes the funeral of a friend's father; a funeral for which James supplies quirky, somewhat self-conscious particulars;

In his breast pocket we left a taxi number
and a packet of sunflower seeds; at his feet was
the cricket bat he used to notch up a century
against the Fenstanton eleven


from Farewell to the Earth

In this poem, James adopts the narrative voice of the dead man's son. And James clearly enjoys playing with the idea of the narrator, such that, from time to time, the narrations seem almost over-fictionalised. This does lead to the kind of self-conscious writing which occurs in a poem like Exile Blues:

It didn't seem to bad, a chance to see the world
where the ocean spilled across the desert.
I had a gourd of water, a mandolin with three strings
and a locket of my father's hair

In such poems, James' nod to a writer like Borges shows to his detriment.

Where James undoubtedly scores, however, are in the poems where he doesn't try so hard, where the details seem both personal and organically accreted within the overall texture of the individual poem. Such a poem is Fresher which neatly and precisely evokes what it is like to begin university, and absorb the exoticism of every thing that is going; for example, a new friend, Kumesh, describes the hot girls of Sri Lanka.

Another more personal piece is the lovely Amends, in which James carefully describes flying a kite with his father on Cromer Beach. James uses the procedure of launching a broken kite against the Easter winds as a metaphor for the relationship that he wants with his father. And, at the end of the poem, James breaks out of the metaphor to confront his father:

I bring it back down and ask him why
he never bought me a kite; I'm ribbing him,
but I want to know. He pulls his cap down
shakes his head and tucks his hands into his jacket.
He walks ahead of me, his face into the wind.

With such moments of unadorned narrative, James shows a personal precision and control that is beguiling and adept.