Jessica Mayhew reviews
by James Arthur
James Arthur is quoted on the cover of this collection as saying, ‘I love writing about places, but only places where I don’t belong,’ and this sense of dislocation permeates the entire collection. ‘Charms Against Lightning’ rhythmically catalogues fears:
Against lupus and lawsuits, lying stranded between nations,
against secrets and frostbite, the burring of trains
that never arrive
(‘Charms Against Lightning’)
The delayed syntax lurches towards fears that never come true, until the lightning finally cracks:
...the shutters swing, and clack their yellow teeth;
the deep sky welters and the windows quiver
(‘Charms Against Lightning’)
Here, the root of the unease materialises and shatters, leaning towards the Romantic Sublime. The lack of final punctuation means that it flows straight into rest of the collection, just with a slight pause like the breath between the flash and the thunder. This same hint of the Sublime resurfaces in ‘Swimming Pool.’ Arthur uses half-rhyme and consonance to great effect:
...aqua beetles made merry, and the pine stand
Stood. Weed clouds wandered. Float...
The description of the weed begins the mirroring between sky and water, while the gentle command to float leads to a chiasmus-like evocation of the sky, ‘[a]nd the sprung floss of clouds/ spun darker.’ When it begins to rain, the reader catches a glimpse of the Romantic Sublime. However, these moments are always coloured by an awareness of mortality: ‘afraid of dying/ he went for a swim...’
James Arthur is skilled at tying unsettling wonder to the fragility of the body. In the poem ‘At Klipsan Beach,’ the mark of time is recorded on the beach ‘like a sundial’s arm.’ This is linked to the delicate bodies of jellyfish washed up on the sand. The poet sums up the approach of death with the brilliantly understated: ‘we are, and then we aren’t;/ that’s the mortal art’ (‘At Klipsan Beach’). This couplet suggests the precariousness of the balance of existence, which is taken up again in ‘The Names of Flowers’:
Do you take these things named after us –
this carnation, grown of carnality
pledged at its root to the flesh?
(‘At Klipsan Beach’)
Arthur writes a correlation between the fallibility of the body and plants. The first three couplets take the form of questions, a common occurrence in this collection. The poet seems keen to encourage the reader to explore doubt in Charms Against Lightning, to get them to plunge into a state of unknowingness. This is shown in ‘Sympathy of Angels,’ in which, ‘[e]qually to all men, we/ have nothing to say.’ By removing authority from the voice of a written being, the reader is instead invited to find meaning for himself.
Section three opens with ‘In Praise of the Indeterminate,’ which revolves around images of space and history, while maintaining its vagueness:
impregnable, a Sing Sing, a jukebox
grinding out the tune
that you yearn for, and can’t name
(‘In Praise of the Indeterminate’)
The frustrating allure of just not being able to name what is on the tip of your tongue persists as you turn the page to ‘Disconnected Man,’ in which fears about the environment steal into the domestic through can openers and coffee machines. Arthur encapsulates a very modern annoyance-made-paranoia in the final lines: ‘the phone rings./ No caller only dial tone.’
Figures in the poems are frequently solitary, and this state appears to crystallise Arthur’s explorations of the things that can’t be known. ‘The Land of Nod’ takes the biblical figure of Cain in Nod which:
never was a nation – of Cain’s offspring, or anyone –
but a mistranslation of “wander,” so Cain
could go anywhere, and be in Nod
(‘The Land of Nod’)
Cain becomes the archetypal figure of the collection, who ‘in any city/ could have his wish, and be alone.’ Charms Against Lightning has a distinctly modern take on Romantic themes. Figures in the poems wander lonely as clouds, but in cities, in foreign cemeteries, on beaches with a whiskey. The Sublime looms large behind everyday life, and the impressions of eeriness and awe merge, as shown in the final stanza of the collection:
I feel the strain inside the song,
the Atlantic in the shell.
I feel a tall wind rising up to take
and bear me far away.
Mayhew reviews regularly for Eyewear and is a young British poet studying at UCL at MA level.