THE STORM IN THE PIANO, New pamphlet by Christopher James

One of the delights of the last week or so was to receive an advance PDF of Christopher James’ 27-poem pamphlet, The Storm In The Piano, which is released by Maytree Press next week (June 17).

As some will know, I’ve long admired James’ work, going back to when Janet and I published his poems in iota and then his collection, The Invention of Butterfly, back in 2006. An extended review of his work is elsewhere on this blog. It is no secret that I believe he deserves wider recognition, a view that The Storm In The Piano confirms.

It is a collection made up largely of his more recent competition successes, for this is often the method he uses to seek out new audiences. There are four prize-winners and an array of runners-up, highly commendeds, short-listeds, etc.

Chris James has a marvellous ability to create whole worlds in a few well-constructed lines. Each poem here carries with it subtle layers of experience and depth and ask questions that take it beyond whimsical fantasy. Some of the settings are stark, as in The Buddy Holly Fan Club of Damascus. We painted a pair of Buddy’s glasses on a twenty-foot portrait of Bashar-al-Assad./ Bombed out of our basement, we took to the hills… on every shattered tank, scratched True Love Ways.

Yes, there is a gentle humour in Sherlock of Aleppo but it’s another look at how in darkest times people have the capacity to invent escape routes, if only in the imagination. Their home is 221b Al Khandaq Street, a bombed out paint shop. Victor plays a violin with no strings.

Digging The Canal is a reconstruction of the building of the Suez Canal, with a note to remind us how many lives were lost in the realisation of the project. The poem has the rough shape of the canal running as a space vertically through its centre, which is effective. The shape enhances the meaning.

James works largely by providing images – including, coincidentally, the front cover, which is one of a range of cut-up pieces he’s done of the homes of literary figures. In this case it’s Stephen Spender’s house in St John’s Wood.

As is usual in his work, there are characters here, endearing, sympathetic, sometimes psychologically strange. They do odd things – The Goldfish at the Opera begins: My grandmother took a goldfish to the opera; she let it swim in her handbag in a few inches of water. One of my favourites is Dorothy Wordsworth Is Sky-Diving: She emerges from a cloud,/at a hundred and twenty miles an hour./ In her black bonnet and shawl, she is/ a spider dropped from space. .. As she nears the ground, she’s a girl again/ in the house in Cockermouth, riding bannisters/ of sunlight, spilling down to the garden.

He knows how to draw a reader into a poem with an early hook, but also has a knack for a last line. I don’t usually like to give these away in reviews, but The Archaeologist’s Prayer, begins Grant me light in the sky/ and no frost on the ground, and ends with the heart-wrenching Grant me a king who wants to be found.

The booklet ends on another poem that moved me, When I Was The Wind: for a winter I became the wind… I became the easterlies,/ the westerlies, the nameless gentle breeze./ You’d clock me only in the quiver of a branch.

I could go on, but this is a rich, if inevitably short body of work. My own preference has always been for long, wide-ranging collections that veer this way and that and aren’t confined within a theme or single state of mind, but there is a growing sense of value in shorter, pamphlet-length publications. Aside from the difficulty of finding them on bookshelves, because of their lack of a spine, hence the need for another, perhaps more space-consuming method of public display, I understand the appeal. There are whole worlds enough in these 30-odd pages to keep me absorbed and re-reading.

The Storm In The Piano (£7) is the 37th publication of Maytree Press. Their website is well worth the exploration. I shall be ordering this booklet, and others, from it, soon.

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