James Arthur’s collection is elegantly jacketed; an exquisite, somewhat Oriental-looking painting, framed in grey seems to capture the essence of that very lightning. Can we judge this book by its cover?
Firstly, that arrestingly beautiful image, La Mer,is by renowned American Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell. Perhaps all is not quite what it seems. On the reverse, we are introduced to Canadian/American Arthur as a “debut poet”. Whilst every new poet knows the need to place poems in various places before their first pamphlet, their editors understandably will want a strong showing of fresh material for the collection. Only a tiny number of these poems are not pre-published, some have appeared more than once, and some in high-profile publications such as The New Yorker. Several were in his chapbook, published two years previously. This in no way reflects adversely on the poetry, but debut rankles.
Charms Against Lightning opens with the very fine titular poem, with its well-considered list qualities, pithily plucked images, its rapping alliterative nods to Anglo-Saxon antecedents, ending open-ended on…
Against these talismans against lightning –
the shutters swing, and clack their yellow teeth;
the deep sky welters and the windows quiver [.]
Something of this continues in “The Kitchen Weeps Onion”, then “Ghost Life”, until somehow “A Safeway bag blows willy-nilly”. Wonderful though that first poem is, it is in “Utopia” that Arthur offers his key:
This is another country, not an ordinary place,
where a man, no matter how exceptional
he felt, would finally be erased.
This bears out the cover statement that the poet loves “writing about places, but only places where I don’t belong.” Additionally, we are told he “is known to compose his work in his head while walking, and the music of those footfalls and wandering skips can be heard throughout this exhilarating new collection of poems”. Whilst I remain unconvinced of “new”, these poems worked best for me not only read aloud, but on the move, so something of their origins is surely discernible.
I suspect this collection will divide readers, and much of that will be nothing to do with quality, but personal tastes. Don Paterson speaks of the whittled nature of Scottish poetry at its best, and perhaps Scots’ ears are also so tuned. Arguably what some in our small country find succinct may sound terse to many North American listeners, accustomed to more relaxed cadences… and a bigger country, perhaps? Where some will enjoy salmon ring echoes in Arthur’s lines, others will twitch their secateurs. Consider “Tyrrhenian Sea”, where stanza one opens with “In Pompeii, which was buried by fire,”.
More typically the poet’s very frequent use of repeated words will either entrance or infuriate … “he went for a swim: him to swim” and in another instance “[…] pulled pears/from the pear tree”. In a 40 word poem, some will find that repitition an uncomfortable indulgence.
Yet Arthur’s bright-burst imagery, his sometimes wonderfully bathetic last lines and his almost onomatopoeic use of rhythm, internal rhyme and alliteration are at their best marvellous:
until a bicyclist shot by, riding
like a backward birth, feetfirst,
which finishes , four stanzas on, with “I left in my wake, like afterbirth.” His crafted attention to sound is indisputable – “A teapot, a peacoat, a butter boat. Can you prepare for love?”, and of a dreamed-of daughter “a lover of ribbons/and toboggans” is evocative indeed. However “jellyfish as violet as violets” and a poem starting gloriously on
Fifty floors above the street,
you in a summer dress. Star shaped holes in a steel chandelier
giving shape to the stars elsewhereness –
which ends on “I feel a tall wind rising up to take/and bear me far away” will induce teeth-gnashing in Pictish types.
So, there is much to love, and much to divide. I wonder if, in truly new collections, there may be wisely-grouped challenges for different readerships. This lightning might yet strike forcefully.