Review by Lynn Levin
CHARMS AGAINST LIGHTNING
by James Arthur
A Lannan Literary Selection
Copper Canyon Press
P. O. Box 271
Port Townsend, WA 98368
ISBN 13: 978-1-55659-387-1
2012, 80 pp., $16.00
I first discovered the poetry of James Arthur in January of 2013 when I attended a poetry reading he gave in Philadelphia. He had recently published Charms Against Lightning, his numinous debut collection of poems. The reading was no ordinary event. Arthur had memorized all of his poems and delivered them flawlessly in his gentle voice. In between his own poems, he also recited from memory several poems by other poets, including Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” Such generosity at a reading—Arthur’s sharing of others’ poems in his own allotment of podium time—speaks of his modest approach to his own ego. In fact, the thing I love most about Arthur’s work is the way his ego performs a series of subtle vanishing acts in the poems.
Take, for example, Arthur’s fanciful and mysterious poem “Ghost Life,” in which the speaker personifies his shadow:
… My shadow feels my company,
my stepping as he steps, feels,
although he knows it can’t be true, that the fall
and all its wreckage were invented
just for him.
As the poem proceeds and the speaker ambles along with his companionable nobody, the shadow is further reduced to something “thinner than a flame.” I detect a faint air of joy and relief in this lessness, this side-stepping of the self. The speaker is glad not to stand on the pedestal of importance. Contrast this with the unnamed famous artist in “The Death of a Painter.” Here is a lyric about a man so consumed by his art and status that “he hardly saw his children,/ by habit was self-absorbed.” The great man is so apart from the humble claims of family that when he dies the woman mourning him must weep “from another room.”
Born in New Haven, Connecticut, James Arthur grew up in Toronto, Canada. A 2012 – 2013 Hodder Fellow at Princeton, Arthur’s many other honors include a Stegner Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, and the Discovery/The Nation Prize. The poems in this collection have appeared in an equally impressive list of publications including The New Yorker, The New Republic, Ploughshares, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, and many others. Yet with all this acclaim, Arthur states he doesn’t think of his poems as having any effect. “They are like pebbles thrown in the ocean,” he says.
James Arthur is a poet who speaks in mists of images that perfume and disturb the mind. He writes of moments caught and released, that leave one in a beautiful fog. Here are the first lines from one of my favorite poems in the collection, “In Praise of the Indeterminate”:
It has no form, and out-Houdinis Houdini
by dissolving from shape to shape, struggling
to escape itself, remaining the same thing,
like a video feed of the almost-random variations
in the similarity of the sea.
Arthur is in awe of the transient, the unstable, the airy. In concert with this, his rhythms also float. Ever aware of the fragility of life and, beyond that, the instability and changeability of the whole universe, Arthur writes poems that gather and dissipate. In some ways, they call to mind the poems of W. S. Merwin.
This is not to say that Arthur’s poems are without violence. Pain and menace pierce certain poems, in particular the title poem “Charms Against Lightning,” in which the poet calls on some kind of safeguard “Against lupus and lawsuits, lying stranded between nations,/ against secrets and frostbite, the burring of trains/ that never arrive.” Even in invoking the safeguards, the “talismans,” there is the knowledge that the talismans themselves are under threat. Still, the griefs in these poems do not grandstand, largely because the speaker minimizes the self.
Arthur includes several love poems in the collection. In “Summer Song,” the speaker meditates on various scenes of insecurity and threat, but even the threatening scenes ride in on dazzling metaphors—paratroopers sail by like “clothespins/ pinning up the sky.” In the same poem, the vastness of the universe and its galaxies inspire the speaker to tell his beloved, “I marry you in the morning/ and I marry you each day.” What matters is the lovers’ attachment in the face of the losses and hollow spaces of the world. And, still, there is the erasing self, the gentle melancholy. This love poem concludes, “I feel a tall wind rising up to take/ and bear me far away.”
James Arthur is poet of big gifts delivered lightly. I keep going back to the poems because they offer a sort of ease amid their subtle disturbances. And as for his observation about his poems’ being pebbles thrown in the ocean, I can only say that I hope he keeps throwing the pebbles.
Lynn Levin’s newest poetry collection is Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013).