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Steve Spence

John James - Sarments: New and Selected Poems, pub. Shearsman, 184pp, £12.95.

The one thing I truly regret on the degree course I undertook at The Cambridge College of Arts and Technology between 1980-83 was not opting for the Modern Poetry seminar run by John James. I can still remember the whoops of excitement coming from the fortunate members of that small group and even then I felt a bit jealous. James was clearly an inspirational teacher. He was also a very fine poet whose work may have been more widely known had he ‘taken it on the road’ because although he was influenced by the avant-garde his poetry remained ‘accessible’ (dreaded word!) to a broader audience even though it has its difficulties. Hopefully this latest collection – a mix of previously unpublished material and poetry which appeared in the earlier ‘Collected’ from Salt some years ago – will be widely reviewed and read. His work is political, sensual, very funny at times and filled with a wonderfully optimistic lyricism which seems like a statement of defiance in response to what John Wilkinson has called ‘a British suppression of the capacity for joy’. This is ‘out and about’ poetry, inhabiting Cambridge pubs and Eastern European streets, embracing non-sequiturs and apparently random thoughts into the smooth thought-flow of event and image and speculation. There’s a libidinal energy which resists gloom (‘hatred of the meagre portion / even the bars are closed when we leave the cinema’) and the occasional break into what could be song lyric. His wonderfully titled ‘A Theory of Poetry’ – ‘reading is often a big help / but wherever you turn / you are surrounded by language / like the air’ – was the starting point for an early poem of mine and I’m sure I’m not the only one to have been so enthused into action by his writing. He was a terrific live reader of his work as well and on the two occasions on which I heard him read, separated by more than twenty years, he was very impressive.

From ‘Good Old Harry’ we get the following:

          we have thirty eight rulers
          which is very economical
          they are well protected from
          tomatoes on the whole

          we call them the cabinet
          cupboard is the name of the land
          where everything is in its place again
          the natural rulers

          behaving like proper gentlemen again
          eating a bit of cabbage
          sausage now & then
          like the rest of us no doubt

          when Edward goes for a walk
          we take off our caps & wave them in the air
          England is a mature nation
          is not a bit like America


This is satire but of the gentle variety even though there is clearly an underlying bite. In ‘Craven Images’ (part 5) we have a brief description of the Paris landscape followed by the introduction of two  English males, Arthur and Douglas who are ‘sitting quite still’. The time is August 1970 and Arthur is speaking – “It’s high time I was getting back to England you know, Douglas.” I’ve no idea whether the date and the christian names have wider significance – it may simply be an observed cameo or entirely imagined – but I find its ambiguity both hilariously funny and quite pointed. James, a Welsh poet with an Irish background was also politically an internationalist, I’d guess, a Marxist for sure, a lover of France also but able to see the good in England, despite the bad politics which has now been with us at least since the late 1970’s. I’m reminded again of his comment in ‘A Theory of Poetry’ where he talks about ‘stress(ing) the written surface / with all its openings windows apertures  leaks.”  It’s this avoidance of ‘the didactic’ despite having a strong sense of an oppositional politics that makes James’s work so good, that and his delight in pleasure both for its own sake and as a way of being in the world. The long opening poem ‘Affection’ (in 9 parts), in the ‘New & Uncollected Poems’ section, seems to have an ‘anti-Brexit’ argument running through its inner-dialogue core, amidst food preparation, film references (Rod Steiger as Napoleon) and a mesh of interrelated thoughts which are simply a joy to read. The quote from Barry Flanagan at the outset – ‘one does not work out of a reaction against but rather / out of affection for something’ – is telling,I think:


                    Bite off the
          top of the morning on the high road to the bank no froth
          or gain to see the pitiful junky lost to the world beside the path
          would you believe it yes it is there tension of neck muscle
          can’t wait to get back home make fast the door rewind
          the dread & disarray of the street to climb the stair
          to application love of the creatures seen from the window
          at the secretaire you will continue till you ache the line                                                                           
          will turn & turn again in ascending barometric pressure
          before you rest to reconsider what is done a draft
          a pattern showing how it’s made

In ‘Inaugural Address’, a three-page poem, we have an elegant rant-come-rap which contains a whole range of reference to art, music, architecture, popular culture, city life and politics, an ongoing celebration, yet steely in its resistance to the hardline machinations of the political right and the failures of Capitalism. There’s a listing section here which also reminds me of a sequence in Ken Smith’s magnificent Fox Running, a mix of elegy and expansive energy-fuelled cornucopia of sound and vision – ‘Good-bye Savonarola, Brunelleschi  Alberti  Bramante / Good-bye Dublin The Centre Pompidou The Guggenheim / Ghiberti’s doors are the doors to the biggest bank / The Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art The Hayward / The National Gallery “West” Berlin & Hello Tokyo / …’

‘Craven Images’, with its mix of street life, apparent non-sequiturs (‘Where are the hatters of Luton?’), sexual excitement and a sense of possibility, both in terms of its range of language and its range of location, retains a smooth surface which is so pleasurable to read. Take this central section, for example:

                                        her back is arched
                                       & her breasts are bare
                                       I feel a rose down
                                       In her hair

          the inimitable life of hotels
          a rich display of feminist cactus in the lobby
          lingering crows on the steps of Brompton Oratory
          the poor animal life of the region we
          will try the grand gesture the sag-arsed manner
          the sculptors throw cat & rip off cock manner
          tails the piece the hands of me manner
          up to a certain point manner
          a couple of borzois on a leash manner

                                                                                 o baby what
                                                                                 a dog to be
                                                                                 in the Suck Age
                                                                                 of the bourgeoisie

In fact you can almost imagine Adrian Mitchell doing the last stanza as a song. James certainly had that ‘popular touch’, for want of a better phrase and his ability to mesh this aspect within a more ‘considered poetry’ is an appealing feature of his work.  It’s hardly surprising, given the above, that James was a fan of Barry MacSweeney’s poetry and ‘Reading Barry & Guillaume in Puisserguier’ is a poem which celebrates both James’ love of France and its literature, and his admiration for MacSweeney’s work. The reference is to MacSweeney’s late collection – Horses in Boiling Blood  – which is loosely based on Apollinaire’s wartime experiences. There’s an hilarious if somewhat bitter sweet ‘dream sequence’ towards the end of the poem where James imagines an act of ‘literary restitution’ at a poetry reading in a Cambridge college:

          you received an ovation from the crowd
          all seated on the ground
          they took the prize away from Carol Ann Duffy
          awarded it to you
          but you were not there

If there’s a degree of sentimentality here then I think it’s forgiveable.

In ‘The River’ we get all the celebration of the natural world you can find in Ted Hughes, minus the dour introspection, a celebratory meander through the countryside via many rivers, taking in history and the industrial landscape along the way – ‘the surface glints / an ebb tide running / under soft grey light’. James has a painterly eye and is often to be seen in galleries, as in ‘Pimlico’, where there is also an amusing reference to Andrew Duncan (or a lookalike) reading Marx – ‘the mystery of the fetish’, a suggestion of Jackson Pollock and an overall feel of ‘engaged leisure’ which is life affirming and somehow resistant to the daily grind, our ‘expected lot’ in life. The closing lines of the poem provide more humour of a thoughtful and expanding kind – ‘our ancestors visit us in dreams / God don’t’. In ‘Poem for Bruce McLean’ we’re given a wonderful mix of the sensual and an unexpected way of ‘coming at it’ – ‘we live so much by the eye / but the ear’s an organ too / which sticks out neatly from the side of your head / & carries an earnest of desire in the ring that dangles there’. Brilliant! It’s worth quoting Simon Perril here as he succinctly captures so much of what is so good about James’s poetry: ‘This is a poetry deftly attuned to various musics, overtly engaged with the visual arts, yet just as happy out in the streets and abroad – and more than partial to a walk in the countryside’.

There’s so much more material of interest here, from the ‘Lines for Richard Long’ (James was a fan of Long’s work) through ‘The Postcard Sonata’ (playing with repetition and variation and with the link between ‘sonnet’ and ‘sonata’ I think) to the long sequence ‘Letters from Sarah’, with its wonderful lyrical resonances but you’ll have to discover these for yourself if you’re not already familiar with James’s poetry. It’s well worth becoming so because his material, with its European influences and its relation to modern American poetry is fairly unusual within a British tradition, and this substantial book is filled with gems and firecrackers and a multitude of good things. Here’s a miniature from the end of the collection:


          God bless us & save us
          says Anthony Davies

          I never knew bloaters was fish

          (from ‘Colonial Medley’)


Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018