Christopher James, Farewell to the Earth

I loved the imaginative and technical panache of this collection.

Rooted in humdrum contemporary actualities James’s poems flower into bizarre fantasies of hallucinatory vividness. In an interview after winning the National Poetry Prize the author himself described such poems as “small rebellions against the mundane” and for me it was poems of that kind that supplied the keenest pleasure in the volume. Take “The Windmill Conversion Neighbourhood Watch”. Perhaps there’s already a flicker of imaginative life when you put the lethally flat phrases “windmill conversion” and “neighbourhood watch” together, but the first line of the actual poem blazes with unexpectedness: “We patrolled the wetlands like weather-beaten Daleks”. Rippling with humour, the whole piece is as visually arresting as Doctor Who has become in the age of HDTV and it takes in equally strange perspectives, but – as in Doctor Who – always with one foot in our everyday world. Even better, to my mind, is “The Flood”, which I think alludes to and plays itself against Edwin Muir’s fine “The Horses”, though it relates to ecological concerns rather than fears of nuclear war.

I thought of using a list of single lines to illustrate James’s wit, the physical evocativeness of his writing, his ability to turn a fine lyrical phrase, his genre-hopping. Here are a few tasters: “We buried him with a potato in each hand”; “In its last throes when the earth huddled back together”; “Our navigation implants made our heads ache”; “escaping the vast loneliness of the sea”; “She sprawls on the dashboard like Marilyn”. I could multiply that many times but it’s a peculiarly unsatisfactory process not only because fine phrases alone do not a poem make but because I keep wanting to break my rule and go over the end of the line. It’s James’s power of unexpected combination that really makes these poems, the fusion of disparate ideas and also, once he’s put together the miniature world of a particular poem, his power of inhabiting it imaginatively, of giving it its own strange consistency, and also, in the best poems, of suddenly sharpening the way the fiction bears on our own non-fictional lives.

Pretty well all the poems are shaped as narratives and this gives them a clear through line that makes individual poems and the book as a whole easy to take in quick bites. At the same time, I often found myself rereading pieces, not to understand things that were obscure but to pick up resonances and ambiguities of tone that I’d missed first time through. “The Retired Eunuch”, for example, is full of exuberant fantasy (distantly reminiscent of Jenny Joseph’s “When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple”). From the beginning this is combined with a pathos that pulls it more into the orbit of Yeats’s “Are You Content?” but it was only on rereading the poem (after the devastating last line, “I will leave behind nothing but yesterdays”) that I fully registered how intense this pathos was.

James’s imaginative powers and quicksilver intelligence are supported by a fine mastery of and ranging interest in verse technique. He plays with many different devices in a way that is almost always successful. He is expert in handling stanza units (perhaps this is related to his acute sense of timing as a narrator) and usually makes sensitive use of line endings, though there were a few poems where I thought his technique in this respect was a bit rough. He has an excellent auditory imagination.

There were a couple of proofreading slips that bothered me. “Ails” is used in “The Flood” where “aits” is surely meant, and “ice flow” seems to be used for “ice floe” in “Captain Sydney Smith (1874 – 1911)” but the attractiveness of the printing makes its own contribution to the pleasure of the book.

Farewell to the Earth is published by Arc Publications, £11.99 hardback, £8.99 paperback.


One Response to “Christopher James, Farewell to the Earth”

  1. Christopher James said:

    Aug 22, 12 at 9:20 pm

    Hi Edmund,

    What a generous, perceptive review – much obliged, sir!

    I enjoyed your poems too, particularly Egrets; it’s so difficult to strike a natural, lyrical tone and maintain a strict(ish) formal rhyme. Congratulations and all good regards,


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