Christopher James won the National Poetry Competition 2008 for his poem ‘Farewell to the Earth’. He also took the Bridport Prize in 2002 and the Ledbury Poetry Prize in both 2003 and 2006. His previous collection, The Invention of Butterfly (Ragged Raven Press, 2006), was listed by The Independent as one of its top ten poetry books and he is described by Poetry Society’s Judith Palmer as ‘the UK’s brightest newcomer’.
Christopher is the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors. His poems have appeared in The Rialto, Smiths Knoll, London Magazine, Iota, Magma, The Spectator and other periodicals. He has read at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, the Ledbury Poetry Festival and twice at the Aldeburgh Festival, has hosted poetry workshops and has been commissioned by the Tate.
He was born in Scotland in 1975 and educated in Newcastle and UEA, where he graduated with an MA in Creative Writing. He now lives in Suffolk with his wife, guitar and three young children.
“Dust to dust, that much we know. But it’s what happens in between that counts. In Christopher James’s mercurial second collection, Farewell to the Earth (Arc Publications, 2011), Seamus Heaney breaks down in a lane; John Lennon haunts the Great Wall of China while an archaeologist is exhumed sometime in the distant future. This is where the living and the dead intermingle like passengers waiting nervously for a flight.
Reaching from the Humber to the Thames; Cromer to Kathmandu, it’s a dizzying and unpredictable world tour that veers in and out of reality like a plane passing through a cloud. In the shadow of environmental disaster and the possibility of dragons, there are more mundane dramas to face too: house moves, family secrets, marriage proposals that do not go to plan, and children woken in the night by rain.
Farewell to the Earth begins and ends with ashes, but in between a Technicolor epic unfolds, throwing its glinting light on the everyday.”
“The title poem, a wryly affectionate reflection on the funeral of the father of a friend, won the National Poetry Competition in 2008 for Christopher James, who was born in Paisley in 1975, educated at the University of East Anglia, and works as head of corporate communications at the Scout Association in London. His references run wide – Ben Jonson, Thomas Hardy, Harold Pinter, Nick Drake and “Suzie Rotolo on the cover/ of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” – as he roams from Cromer to Kathmandu, writing about the hills of Matabeleland, dusk in Newington Green and, in Norfolk, “the spectres of marsh men and mill hands/ marching across the fields with their galoshes/ and pitchforks; come to reclaim their own”. He can be funny, feisty, but serious, too; “My soul/ I give to the stars, my eyes to the orphans./ I will leave behind nothing but yesterday”.
– Keith Richmond, Tribune
The Retired Eunuch
Today I crashed my last wedding, hung up
my bells, kissed goodbye to my maracas.
From now, I will dance only for myself,
choose turquoise stones from the village bazaar
and walk between the grass and the green wheat.
I will wear a yellow turban and striped shirt
and, when I draw my pension, will put aside
enough for the silver stilettos I saw in the shop
in Chandigarh to be worn on the anniversary
of my mother’s death. At night I will wear
the white headdress shaped like a swan,
dream of the City Beautiful and Lucky Ali
with his denim shirt and Dean Martin eyes.
In spring when my skin is still as pale
as the palace of the ambassador, I will walk
the high paths, pick the yellow flower
and feel rain on my feet; I will not speak of the past.
In my last days, I will play at high volume
the big hits of Daler Mehndi, the Bhangra King,
learn the sarangi and, once every year, journey
to the shores of the Bay of Bengal. My soul
I give to the stars, my eyes to the orphans.
I will leave behind nothing but yesterday.
It was a strange day to begin with:
as I left the office I found a fifty dollar bill
gummed to the bottom of my shoe.
Good luck, you’d think, but it just didn’t feel right.
It was like a beautiful woman you didn’t know
blowing you a kiss across the room.
On the street a sheet of newsprint
was frozen to the sidewalk laminated in ice:
the headline read: Detective found dead.
I went down to the park, where I saw
Liwina, the poor sick Dutch girl in her bonnet
and long skirts, still skating on thin ice.
I had to clear my head and went
to the sanest place I could think of – the zoo,
where I shared a bag of nuts with a polar bear.
This was some mean December, I thought.
My hands were like spiders dropped
in the deep freeze.
I hailed a cab and went down to Forty Third
where I door-stepped an old friend of mine
who fixed me an espresso as thick as tar.
I explained about the fifty dollar bill, about Liwina
and this crazy bear who chewed up my cashews.
He nodded and poured me another.
Maybe there’s some connection, he said.
Blackmailers sometimes like to scare you first.
I looked down at my cup
then up at the crystal chandelier; we listened
to the cars as the windows frosted over with ice,
like eyes passing from life into death.
Backpacking Across Pangea
In its last throes, when the earth huddled back together
for warmth, a single crust floating in a soup bowl,
you could walk ten thousand miles and never reach the sea.
We packed The Rough Guide to Pangea, a work in seven parts,
a stack of t-shirts, and a compass that did nothing but spin.
We crossed the great land bridge that rose out of the Channel.
We stepped from Eurasia to Gondwana while they scanned
our retinas and rummaged through our DNA.
In the mountains of Oman, we met musicians
who plied us with Yak blood and sweet potatoes
while we listened to their songs of a separated world: the spindle
of central America; the anachronism of island nations.
In the old Aegean, the sole of my boot peeled off
like a transfer; within six steps the other did the same.
Our navigation implants made our heads ache.
This was many years ago, before the mantle
began to melt, when you could tread the earth in bare feet,
all of the world a golden outback.
In the hills of Matabeleland, the devil appeared to us
in the form of a toad, while an angel drove by
disguised as a tractor driver with a swollen hand.
It was possible we had skipped an injection or two.
When we awoke we found ourselves on a white headland
with a single red hut selling herring and Coca-Cola.
We returned on the Trans-Pangea Express – forty three days
without a stop. On the train a beautiful old woman smiled at us
with our golden hair and brown skin
while we drifted into sleep; we dreamt of the slow dance
of the continents joining hands in a ceilidh of lithospheric plates
parting and drifting back together.
We arrived on The Last Night of The Proms
and sang ‘Rule Pangea, Pangea Rules the Waves’.
As the waters rose, we waved our single flag of woe.
The Lakeland Poets High Jump Contest
From the air they resemble a flea circus
hopping a cedar branch wedged between two yews
on an island at the centre of Grasmere.
It is ridiculous to assume that they wrote all the time.
Wordworth’s stockings are pulled up past his knees
while he rocks gently back and forth, waiting
for good light and favourable wind conditions.
Coleridge attempts the Fosbery Flop,
although it is, of course, yet without a name.
His hair gleams with goose fat and perspiration.
Robert Southey favours the traditional scissor kick
and has the benefit of a considerable height advantage.
He does not know of Wordsworth’s midnight training.
They are not beyond dirty tricks: reciting Horace,
the Latin names of Cumbrian flowers
and brewers of local ales at critical moments.
Wordsworth wears a pair of ladies’ stockings
knotted tightly about his head to ward off the sun.
This carries on for much of the day. Some of the villagers
stop to watch from the far shore, going as far
as to remove their pipes and applaud the footwork.
Eventually, Dorothy Wordsworth is seen rowing
over with provisions: wine, handkerchiefs
of crushed ice and lemonade; she is not beyond
criticism, her arms folded, tilting her head to one side,
as if judging a stanza or weighing up a metaphor.
Not a word of this must get back to London.
The Chitrakar’s Allotment*
I will keep this my secret place
where sweet potatoes grow, the soil is rich as mead
and where I have planted, in hopefulness
the seed of the bitter gourd vegetable,
native of Orissa, where there is sunlight all day.
When I staked out the four seasons of my
allotment, they did not suspect that I
was a chitrakar, a gaming man
and an artist – but I will explain.
When the rain came down I retreated
to my summer house, a bus-shelter
with a red car door, drank tea and played jazz,
the great multi-reed men: Chico Freeman,
Charlie Mingus, and Sonny Sharrock.
It did not take them long to guess I was
no gardener. Inside I made brush-strokes
as delicate as the spokes of a snowflake;
outside slugs made slug hotels of my brassicas.
I chose the company of the allotment keepers,
silent men who stood with barrowfuls of squashes,
who only stepped up to my hazel fence
to speak of my roots and legumes.
In spring I worked as hard as the rest of them,
my lungi double knotted at my waist, my
bare heels bedded into the warm earth.
We drank lemonade and played sides of cricket,
batting unripe apples with overgrown carrots.
I did my work by candlelight,
my feet treading the mosaic of sea-softened grass
depicting Ganesha, the Elephant God.
I mixed chalk and oil, perfecting my pigments
before cutting a new brush, putting aside
my crop rotations and choosing the first
of twelve suits of the Ganjifa: trading spades
for the turquoise plumes of the elephant riders,
the pale faces of ministers and kings.
* The literal translation of the word chitrakar is imagemaker. The artists have traditionally painted playing cards or Ganjifa.
Since you asked, it was Earwald,
the metal-smith who demanded, in the beer hall,
to know which of us was the greatest.
He held up his knuckles of rings
and laid down his challenge – to go to the place
of our fathers, and re-forge in our arts
the heavens, the sea, and the world itself.
But for him, we would not have rowed
out to the island, our oars sipping at the water
under a moon like a Saracen’s scabbard.
We stepped ashore like holy men
in bear skin, leather and gold stitching:
a metal-smith, a poet, and a musician
who played at the lyre two handed,
as if folding a woman in his arms.
That first night Hasagard conceived,
a melody like a darting fox, Earwald an amulet
of silver leaves as thin as moonlight and as for me:
word hoards like the whisperings of the ages.
When we could work no more, we lay back,
peered up into the bird-yard, and watched
the clouds break into hot coals and embers.
We roasted fish over a modest fire
and spoke of our womenfolk and children –
my daughter who ran as swift as a hare across a field.
The next day, Earwald fashioned a golden halo,
and held it, still warm, in the palm of his hand.
Hasagard brushed his fingers across the strings
of his lyre like an osprey crossing the moon.
That final night, we made beer-feast, let the fire
spit high into the sky, dancing like clumsy lovers.
But which of us was the greatest here?
I declared for myself, for when I put down
my pen, I made the other two disappear.
from Farewell to the Earth (Arc Publications, 2011).
Order Farewell to the Earth.
Read ‘Seamus Heaney’s BlackBerry’, ‘Noah’, ‘King Midas in the Golden Valley’ and ‘A Star Shell’.
Read more about Christopher at the Poetry International Web.