Simon Perril: ‘The Words You Can and Do Remember by the Hand to Write / defy the Night’: John James and the Resistance to Gravity

Lightness is an important motif, quality, and trajectory in the later poetry of John James – beyond the The Collected Poems and particularly in the Equipage volume In Romsey Town. By ‘Lightness,’ I don’t mean the kind of simplicity that John Wilkinson writes so well about; I take my bearings from Italo Calvino. When contemplating his 40 years writing fiction, and seeking some definitive account of his various experiments he decided ‘my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight.’ And he proceeds to pit what he calls the values of ‘lightness’ against his sense of the pressures a young writer is under to ‘represent his own time.’ He confides ‘at certain moments I felt the entire world was turning into stone’; and then grasps for mythology for a working method for avoiding being petrified by his own social moment. He opts for the figure of Perseus who ‘supports himself on the very lightest of things: the winds, the clouds; and he fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror.’ Calvino adopts the myth of the gorgon as an allegory for the poet’s relationship to the world: ‘Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live. He carries the reality within and accepts it as his particular burden.’ My chapter in The Salt Companion to John James talks of the way his poetry might relate to the Romantic conversation poem, and talk particularly about how Coleridge develops that form out of a historical moment of profound discontinuity. Using Kelvin Everest’s arguments, I try and recover from this poetic form not the trope of domestic retirement but the political selection pressures that created that form’s celebration of friendship and community of the like-minded. Everest points to Coleridge’s experience of exile at home as the English declaration of war with revolutionary France strands a generation of Jacobins at home to face the very real consequences of ‘unpatriotic’ beliefs, exclusion from the national community and subjection to constant suspicion and surveillance. In his conversation poems Coleridge somehow transplants the last remaining hopes for his Utopian Pantisocracy to the domestic idyll of rural retirement at Nether Stowey.  When Everest describes the consequences of the reception of the French Revolution in England as the encounter with the violent hostility that helps to define the value of retirement for Coleridge which was powerful in restricting his ideals to a shadowy potentiality of the imagination as their only operative medium; I wonder whether he sketches the climate of much of John James’s work. My previous chapter explores this through looking at the long-running trope of indolence in the Collected Poems as a device to potentially tap into the ‘shadowy potentiality’ of radical hope in ways that acknowledges that hope is both a heritage and a site of damage.

I want to sketch a few thoughts about how In Romsey Town might relate to these concerns; and engage with those aforementioned interests in qualities of lightness as a virtue outlined by Calvino. James’s later poetry seems singular in its ability to register privation whilst not lashing out at it through a rhetoric of outrage. In Romsey Town seeks out moments of lightness in poems like ‘Navan 3:56,’ ‘A Benediction,’ or ‘A Touch’ that seem to barely graze the page; and extend a tradition of sky-gazing poems in his work. These moments of lightness have restorative of their own, but In Romsey Town is full of these complementary moments where lightness is a quality the poems want to bequeath to others; just as Calvino values ‘the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living.’ In ‘The Blood Before,’ the night sky bids us to lose gravity, ‘& skies encrusted with the stars / bear us up from salaried enslavement of the very day’ (p.35). The two Baudelaire evocations in this collection further embody this. ‘Nocturne with Baudelaire’ contains the injunction to ‘pour again hope / La Primeur’; and in ‘Baudelaire at Cébazan’ wine is both liquid light and liquid labour:

but even in its glass & vermillion capsule of lead

the wine offers up a song full of light & solidarity to those

who know the solitude between the vines in winter

who know how much it takes on the blazing hillside

who know recurring trouble sweat & pain & the burning sun

bringing to life the vision of their hope not full of hate

but flushed with the delight in the throat of a man worn out by work at the end of the day

(p. 30).

So, in Romsey Town, the values of lightness are stolen from the weight of labour even as the poems labour to foster lightness. The poem ‘Romsey’ traces how ‘weary stragglers hasten home / heads down at the end of another working day’ (p.41). ‘Absorption & Fate’ confides ‘well at the end of the working day / you’re either on or off’ (p.13). And the elegy for Barry MacSweeney, ‘Early Doors’ has James toast his fellow poet and friend: ‘after work I raise my glass // a Pedigree at six / as the clock ticks // the hurried tread of London train commuters / slip off home behind the window at my back’ (p.21).

But set against this is a different kind of labour: the work to maintain human relations, to set out for public houses; as in the breathless conclusion to ‘The Blood Before’:

& as the wine pours you think you know the world BBC News

a screen full of pornographic images turn it off let’s go

to the alehouse door the corner of the smoke-stained terrace

go there we must if only to avoid becoming just another shut-in

eyes on the street ahead hair blown back by the wind let’s go

though the nation darken into unimaginable night

we’ll do it all again plunge on to find new light

(p. 36).

Such lines are the context for the duty these poems feel to document moments of lightness. It is a form of work; the poem is the vehicle for such work. But when these poems call to ‘restore us to an inkling of the sacred,’ the collection underlines the social nature of the desire for another realm. The poem ‘Pimlico’ concludes: ‘Our ancestors visit us in dreams / God don’t’ (p.40). It is a frequent characteristic of James’s poetry to be a response to the act of reading. In ‘Coplas,’ he observes ‘your book is open / to the light of day’; and the sequence constantly figures the poem – the one he is writing, and the one he is reading – as work. And it is work that labours to produce a new space, one which is not necessarily solitary: ‘looking for someone / getting to know the world / where we meet / the work begun’ (p.27). The Collected Poems is book-ended by this bid to open such a space. The title of the first collection, Hm, ah, yes preserves a moment – implicitly social – of reassessment and reconsideration; an affirmative modification of one’s thoughts in the light of the considerations of those of another. The final lines in the Collected Poems come from Schlegel Eats a Bagel, and faithfully embark upon a journey towards such dialogue: ‘the line knows where it’s going / and we know we’re going with it / I leave the rest to you / distance no object.’  ‘Absorption & Fate,’ from In Romsey Town, seems to both continue this pursuit and clarify its direction: ‘the imaginary locale / the heimlich yet to come / adding to ancient story modern pain’ (p.13).  The lightness of late James, what he describes in John Hall’s work as ‘a hesitant tracery’ (p.26), shares Calvino’s fear of being turned to stone by his own social (or anti-social) moment. He hears the novelist’s consequent interest in the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living. The later poems venture to gesture towards somewhere else, whilst it won’t predetermine that imaginary locale it does register an acute yearning for it. To take a line from ‘Pimlico,’ admittedly out of context, the lightness of this work, and the work of this lightness is ‘pointing the direction of the future without arriving there completely / a slipping glimpse’ (pp.38-39).

Simon Perril

Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Trans G. Brock, London: Penguin, 2016.

Kelvin Everest, Coleridge’s Secret Ministry: The Context of the Conversation Poems 1795–1798.  Harvester Press, 1979.

 John James, In Romsey Town. Cambridge: Equipage, 2011.

John James, Collected Poems. Salt Publishing, 2002.

Simon Perril, ‘“Dreaming the dream that no one had the power to evict”’: John James and the Politics of Indolence’ In Simon Perril ed. The Salt Companion to John James. Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2010.



Simon Perril’s poetry publications include The Slip (Shearsman 2020), In the Final Year of My 40s (Shearsman 2018), Beneath(Shearsman 2015), and Archilochus on the Moon (Shearsman 2013). He appears in magazines such as PN Review, Long Poem Magazine, Jacket, Tears in the Fence, Fortnightly Review, and Blackbox Manifold. As a critic I has written widely on contemporary poetry, editing the books The Salt Companion to John James, and Tending the Vortex: The Works of Brian Catling, and contributing many articles and book chapters on poets such as Sean Bonney, Andrea Brady, Tom Raworth, Geraldine Monk, Peter Riley, J.H. Prynne and John Tranter. 


Click here to go back to: Contributors and Links to Pages 1 – 4




From the Junction Box

Junction Box Categories

Glasfryn Project

+44(0)1873 810456 | LYN@GLASFRYNPROJECT.ORG.UK