Hailey Leithauser on James Arthur



James Arthur, Charms Against Lightning.  Copper Canyon Press, 2012.

 

 

 

James Arthur and the Poetry of Introspection

 

All poets, as all artists, are by nature an introspective lot. There is no other personality type, no other mindset, that could spur someone on to the long, often tortuous hours hunched over a keyboard or notebook that are required to create something as gloriously non-utilitarian as a lyric poem.
 
The difference between good and bad poetry can often be found in the nature of this introspection. Does the writer spend those hours staring at the thin veneer of the mirror, or does she probe farther, into the intricate fireworks of the mind? Is the poet simply a one-note narcissist, or is he a thinker and philosopher?
 
Fortunately, James Arthur is the latter, a poet who, by looking inward, sees and renders visible the greater world of the human psyche. In "Charms Against Lightning," his debut collection, Arthur gives us poems of humor, fear, originality, and commonality, as well as, on occasion, a delightful fillip of the weird.


 
Here are the opening lines of the title poem:

 

Against meningitis and poisoned milk,  

flash floods and heartwreck, against daydreams

 

Against losing your fingers, drinking detergent,

earthquakes, baldness, divorce, against

falling in love with a child . . . .


Few of these disasters have ever been on my list of personal anxieties, but reading them here, I found myself considering my previously innocuous bottle of blue dish detergent, the carton of milk, my ten humdrum fingers, with new apprehension, especially as I read farther down the list to the concluding lines:

 

Against these talismans against lightning—

the shutters swing, and clack their yellow teeth;

the deep sky welters and the windows quiver

 

A poem like this, which discovers the incipient danger in the most routine objects of everyday life, succeeds in connecting poet to reader in a world not only of shared menace, but a shared scrambling for sanctuary. The looking in becomes a reaching out to an expansive and communal reality.
 
Arthur concerns himself with a sense of place throughout the poems, and many of them are centered on a locale—a shoreline, a swimming pool, a country, a cemetery, a kitchen. Arthur uses these places metaphorically; the settings can be a state of mind, and a state of mind in turn can become a location. For example, "Your eyelashes; there's / what I know about Anacapri" (in "Tyrrhean Sea") and "Here, sheets and hair / perfume the air, every gate is hammered silver, / every song, a song and dance, and the balloon seller / bares her ivory shoulder for a kiss" (in "Utopia").
 
There's a commitment to craft here, a wonderful musicality in the use of internal and half rhyme, which combined with this metaphoric perception, accomplishes the much-lauded slant, the freshness and novelty lacking in many contemplative poems.
 
This musicality continues through the book, more notably in some poems than others, and the interspersion in places of rhymed and unrhymed poems, rhymed and unrhymed lines, creates a pacing that encourages the reader to slow down and linger, to stop and reread. For example, the poem "Vertigo," a visual poem that speaks in an unrhymed voice:

 

                        Copper geese

revolving on a weather vane, searching for a tailwind,

 

                        as if they had somewhere to go . . .

 

Is followed by the chewier, melodic "Against Emptiness":

 

Denser than a dog. Volatile

like a torpedo, harder than a punch line

and more foreseeable.           


These interspersions create a series of auditory tag teams, stylistic and emotional differences that create a balance while also emphasizing the individuality of the poems.
 
One other inclusion that expands the range of this book is the juxtaposition, alongside the  reality-based poems, of a scattering of poems which swerve off into the incredible and surreal. Poems such as "The Kitchen Weeps Onion" ("The kitchen weeps onion / because the cook is dead") or "Sad Robots":

 

what do they want?


to be waterfalls or to give new leaf

 

to bend, unclench


to grow a peach

 

I would have loved to have seen more of these fantastical poems, because their inclusion underscores that a book need not be limited thematically to one subject or atmosphere, one exploration, but can center instead on the act of exploration itself.
 
It is that exploration that is the goal of the introspective poet, and in "Charms
Against Lightning," James Arthur has taken a significant first exploratory step.
It is a thoroughly enjoyable book, one that leaves me eager to see what
new territories he will investigate in the decades to come.




Hailey Leithauser recently won the Emily Dickinson First Book Award from the Poetry Foundation for her manuscript titled Swoop, which will appear from Graywolf Press in the fall of 2013.  Her other awards have included the Discovery/The Nation Prize.  Her poems have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Poetry, and Best American Poetry. She lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.









                                    

 

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