Ian Brinton: Paper from the John James Conference 2017 and 2 Reviews

A Paper given at the John James Conference in Cambridge, 11th March 2017

In his introduction to the 2010 Salt Companion to John James Simon Perril, referred to a ‘politics of poise’ existing in James’s poetry and to my mind this relates to the poet’s wry sense of transience and his concern for the particularity of the moment. The artist Peter Cartwright’s contribution to that book was titled ‘art is a balm to the brain / & gives a certain resolution’ and his field of observation was ‘The impact of, and engagement with, the visual arts in John James’ writing’. In particular Cartwright noted how throughout John James’ oeuvre there appeared to be a constant interaction between the poet’s full awareness of what he saw and the ensuing fluidity of these perceptions as they then appeared in his poems.


To Read the Full Article: Talk at John James Conference


Two Reviews.

Sabots by John James, Oystercatcher Press, 2015

When Peter Hughes wrote to me last month to say that there was a new John James chapbook on the cards he intimated that it was ‘very unusual’ and was to be titled Clogs, ‘Pastoral dialogues from the deep south (of France)’. My reaction was one of keen anticipation on account of considering the Equipage volume from last year, Songs in Midwinter For Franco, one of the most important and moving sequences of poems I had read in a long, long time. I recall reviewing that volume for Shearsman on-line magazine and saying that what had moved me was contained in the absence of the self-regarding nature that can act as an intrusive shadow looming over poems of loss. In those ‘Songs’ (for Franco Beltrametti who had been published alongside John James by the Tim Longville, John Riley & Gordon Jackson enterprise Grosseteste Books) there were references to a culture of reading and recalling as well as comments on the necessary sharp eye of the wine grower who looks out for a ‘bud break yet to come’. When I read Sabots for the first time this morning I was not in any way disappointed in my great expectations.

The opening dialogue between Peadar and Alphonse, resident wine growers on the land of South West France, confirms that steady voice that John James has acquired over years of poem-making:

ah bon I don’t begrudge you in fact I marvel

at your calm in the face of our abjection it

besets us all this fear of fear & discontent

& there was I gathering in my grapes each year

till the Mairie dropped me with their flood defence

oh I sometimes think I should have seen it coming

but was too entranced perhaps by the reverie

induced by days of pleasure working in that field

Reading these lines I was prompted to take down a book which I have long admired since its first appearance from the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative in 1979, John Berger’s Pig Earth, the first of his three books which he collected together under the arching title of Into Their Labours. In the final chapter of Pig Earth Berger directs our gaze towards the survival needs of peasant communities:

Peasant life is a life committed completely to survival. Perhaps this is the only characteristic fully shared by peasants everywhere. Their implements, their crops, their earth, their masters may be different, but whether they labour within a capitalist society, a feudal one, or others which cannot be so easily defined, whether they grow rice in Java, wheat in Scandinavia, or maize in South America, whatever the differences of climate, religion and social history, the peasantry everywhere can be defined as a class of survivors.

Within the first of the two dialogues that open up Sabots Alphonse almost seems to echo the tone of Berger’s assertion

I thought in my youthful ignorance everyone

was like my parents bitches bore their tiny pups

kids grew up to be such dams but now a monster

grows to enormous size & threatens all of us.

Perhaps it is partly in the pun on ‘dams’ that John James suggests the continuation of a peasant life that is also now threatened by the inexorable passing of time with its accompanying changes to community life. It is also the hallmark of James’s writing to present a convincing sense of the here-and-now, the immediate moment caught as it passes, and Alphonse confirms that ‘sooner will the hind graze on the air or barbel / lie on the bare stones of the beaches of the Orb / than I’d allow my steadfast gaze give up this place’.

Section two of this sequence permits historical, geographical and mythical presences of this world to speak their presence as ‘Les Randonneurs’, the hikers across this landscape, trace a path through what changes within the unchanging. The wines of ‘Les Grillères’ for instance mutter

who lives here now as that spy George Borrow might say

the house & barns & spread of land all up for sale

the crumbling old stone wall is broken by sweet bay

some leaves for a civet to perfume the cheval

Or, of course, ‘good apothecary’ to ‘sweeten my imagination’ as I contemplate the inevitability of loss.

The third and final section of these Sabots which pace their way through a world of Southern France is spoken by John Le Poireau, the ‘leek man’, who responds to Alphonse’s invitation which had concluded Section One of the sequence:

& we still have our strength & the power to walk

tomorrow let’s call on John Le Poireau & hike

three together on the trail to Pech Saint Vincent

Le Poireau’s response holds out a hand also to Peadar to join this saunter through wine-scape lands which reflect a continuing way of life:

well Peadar we need to turn the earth between the vines

now that we’ve honoured Vincent with a second cut

the sun begins to shine more strongly as we begin

to glide on into spring the freakish snow has disappeared

into the soil the olives are showing paler green

the soucis decorate the banks of le chemin with gold

a virgin hovers over us & smiles on our obsessions

& opens up the year to all our efforts

As if echoing the comments made by a ploughman in Edward Thomas’s poem from May 1916 in ‘As the team’s head-brass’ John Le Poireau affirms a continuation of life as he says that although ‘La Tramontane will crumble the broken clods as we stumble / on the rising ground’ the work of the new season must proceed:

but this year we’ll beat the weedy grasses & the tares

not let them hamper our shins in passage through the ranks

let the moist soil cleave to our boot soles

 Sabots is an uplifting sequence of three poems which restores a sense of vitality and endurance to a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and ‘targets’. It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!


Songs In Midwinter For Franco by John James, Equipage, 2014

John James’s last three volumes have been haunted by ghosts and we are aware of the poet being ‘touched by their sacred lineage’ (‘Thoughts Beyond the Stricken City Long After René Char’ in Cloud Breaking Sun, Oystercatcher Press, 2012). Certain ghosts are more frequent haunters than others and we had met Andrew Crozier ‘walking on grass’ in the Equipage publication of 2011, In Romsey Town, before a line of Crozier’s ‘Free Running Bitch’ opens that 2012  Oystercatcher volume. Another major presence is Jeremy Prynne who appears with his ‘tie a strip of orange on white’ and as the dispenser of ‘a generous glass of Glenmorangie’ in the same little collection of thirteen poems.

         The third of these volumes, the one with which I am immediately concerned here, was written at La Manière in the South-West of France and it is one of the most moving sequences of poems, or songs, that I have read for as long as I can recall. What moves me is contained in the absence of the self-regarding nature than can act as a shadow to poems of loss. Here there are references to ‘we’ but not to ‘I’, references to a culture of reading and recalling as well as to the sharp eye of the wine-grower who looks out for a ‘bud break yet to come’. Threading its careful path through these poems is a meticulous concern for a palpable ‘now’, an attention to detail that echoes an earlier poem, ‘The Conversation’ in which the importance of Jeremy Prynne’s leafing through pages ‘gave some new sense of strengthening regard for common things.’

         The cycle of songs occupies a weekend and the first days of the ensuing week in mid-winter La Manière. It opens with a reference to Prynne’s Equipage publication from 2003, Biting the Air, and the placing of moment by moment attention, ‘to gain the day / key by key’, becomes a pathway of clear steps. One is very much in the present but it is a present with one eye looking over the shoulder at the Col de Fontjun, scene of a massacre of French Resistance fighters in 1944, whilst recognising that ‘the sun / will soon / break out at noon / despite the chagrin’ dropping from memories of that event. These songs of midwinter herald a stillness within change: the sun will soon break out again despite that atrocity of seventy years ago and feelings of loss are placed, perhaps by implication, against an event which took place not that far away at Mt Ségur seven hundred years before on a March dawn in 1244 when the Provençal civilization was snuffed out as the Cathars burned in their hundreds; an event which prompted Pound to refer to the ‘wind space and rain space’ haunting the slope of the Pyrenees.

         Another voice shadowing this cycle of songs is that of John Donne’s celebration of the midwinter season, ‘A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies day, Being the shortest day’. In the second of James’s songs, after a lingering sense of the past’s presence in a reference to the domesticity of a table being set ‘not to forget’, there is a cry for an end to rain. As with Donne’s ‘generall balme th’ hydroptique earth hath drunk’ we hear the plea

oh keep away

pass into blue

sky tomorrow

the earth in truth

can swallow no more

enough be still

John James’s sequence of songs moves from Saturday to Sunday through numbers five and six and there is an alert sense of a future waiting to unfold as ‘all is ready / for the next step / under hidden starlight’. This cycle of songs gives us no quick resolution to loss and growth as the awareness of a movement beyond this year’s midnight is brought to our attention with precision and a low-key style that registers loss and waiting for all of us and not only for the poet:

over the way

darkness come early

before the Angelus

space closing in

& sparing no one

from the night

The presence of the Donne ‘Nocturnall’ recurs in song seven with ‘invisible midnight love’ and its pertinence is recorded for ‘each of us / a very particular case’. It is this particularity which itself recalls ‘a thousand embraces / in each room’ and the following pun on the word ‘tear’ in which that which drops is also that which is torn.

These ‘Songs in Midwinter’ are threaded with particularities of the sort informing that quality of ‘thereness’ found in paintings by Vermeer. We are aware of how the sharpness of La Tramontane, the wind from the North, can devastate the growth of the vines and we are given a reference to Andrew Crozier’s 1987 anthology A Various Art. As the mind rests restlessly in midwinter it recalls pints of Kingston Black at The Ostrich in Bristol and how ‘a sudden enormity / changes everything’.

‘Songs in Midwinter’ was published in Shearsman Magazine online in 2014 and ‘Sabots’ in Tears in the Fence online in 2015



Ian Brinton’s most recent publications include Language and Death, a translation of poems by Philippe Jaccottet (Equipage, 2022), a translation of  Paul Valéry’s Selected Poems, (Muscaliet Press, 2021, with a Preface by Michael Heller), Paris Scenes, a translation of Baudelaire’s ‘Tableaux Parisiens’, (Two Rivers Press, 2021) and Islands of Voices, the selected poems of Douglas Oliver (Shearsman Books, 2020). His translation of de Nerval’s Les Chimères is due to appear shortly from Muscaliet Press. He reviews for The London Magazine, PN Review, Litter, Long Poem Magazine and Golden Handcuffs Review. He co-edits the magazine SNOW and is closely involved in running the archive of modern poetry at Cambridge University Library.



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