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Review: Farewell to the Earth, by Christopher James

from the article Change, return, success

If deadlier languages will one day speak of the nature of war, Christopher James's livelier language exists now, to be enjoyed for the unlikely, sometimes surreal, ways it makes ordinary things happen, in-deed, a little beyond the ordinary. Look for the pertinent detail in the title poem, celebrating the life of an old plot-holder buried so near his allotment that a trowel and seeds are thrown in as grave goods. It won the UK's National Poetry Prize in 2008. (Caroline Carver won it with a similarly physical evocation of a shark strike in 1998).

All fifty five poems are generously peopled, action-packed vignettes that bring life to life and to death. It is the right size collection to read in a sitting, extremely entertaining, with something of the Dickensian in its episodic pageants, rich in characters, evocative of conversation, music, musicians (Lennon, Dylan, John Martyn, Dean Martin) and ambient sound: the doo-wop of the dustcart... the violins of shutting gates. (Unheard Music). His feel for the thumbnail sketch, writing a character in a nutshell, is as good as Dickens.

He has called his poems small rebellions against the mundane spreading their alternative-inspired influence into the wider world, mingling historic and contemporary details. Thus he reinvents St Christopher's walk You would have begun with a phone-in, / a nominated charity and a sportsman's diet (Wading the Humber). Many poems depict road journeys with a spaced-out internal logic - Matthew Sweeney sees this as a mark of a good poem - nowhere more so than in The Mist. Usually in James's own company, for it is a book full of personal experiences, we visit sites of pilgrimage, his early rented London homes, local landmarks and monuments of Britain engaging anthropomorphically with the poet. ...we patrolled the wetlands like weather-beaten Daleks say the converted windmills manning the Neighbourhood Watch of East Anglia.. An underlying sense that landscape lies like an untidy blanket pulled over old lives, old yarns, makes every scene extraordinary, as in Disinterring the Archaeologist:

We found him at the wheel of his cherry red Morgan Eight
...
with what remained of a pair of driving gloves.
...
His communication device was well preserved
and from this we now know that all men of stature
were buried with their personal transport.

One's appetite for the fantasmagoric is awakened early and plentifully fed especially in a poem like The Flood, a Thames re-populated by marine creatures, to be de-populated by us landlubbers. The apocalyptic ring of the tide is not ominous - instead there is a seam of amused and gentle regret running through poems, when James addresses family members in Waiting for the Stick Man and Amends, and in another valediction which traces steps in a process of dematerialisation to its beautiful conclusion, I will leave behind nothing but yesterday (The Retired Eunuch).

I'm impressed by poems that wear their pentameter lightly, four that take on the sonnet form but don't hammer it, and that conjure a torrent of images, invigorating the reader, making every image fresh - or nearly every image. Swans recur a little too emblematically and in the moon, a five franc piece / behind the skeleton of a tree / we see small change, a coin flipped at a busker / that freeze-frames in the sky.

Nowadays we can enjoy blog reviews to extend what is skimmed by critics in journals, I would recommend you to browse since this book was received with delight by many others who draw attention, detail by detail, to its kaleidoscopic imagery, its head-spinning animation and lightness.