“That feeling of becoming a new person in a different place, even if it’s an illusion, is intoxicating to me, and always has been,” says poet James Arthur. “I love writing about places, but only places where I don’t belong.”
James’s debut collection, Charms Against Lightning from Copper Canyon Press, captures places that are both strange and familiar. He is fascinated with the smallest details of daily life: the minutia that too often goes unnoticed, as well as larger forces like history and politics that influence our personal relationships.
One of my favorite poems, “In Defense of the Semicolon,” (included below) is the perfect example of how Arthur skillfully merges humor, sharp observation, with intimate revelations.
James often composes his work in his head while walking, and a number of the poems in Charms Against Lightning reveal a talented flâneur absorbing his surroundings, whether wandering down an icy, urban street or hiking deep in a New England forest.
In “Daylight Savings” Arthur writes: “Give me some light / in the maplefire, in the sudden fierce embranglement / and rapid setting on / of this wind, its sweep that bends the saplings / and deforms the standing leaves.”
To see the world through James Arthur’s eyes is to rediscover the mystery and beauty that was right in front of us all along: “I pulled pears / from the pear tree, and saw a few things / grow (the wise, dumb pumpkins / engorged below the gate…). / I split a stump, wrote letters, gathered / oysters, ate the rain.”
In Praise of Noise
The sound begins with a furnace
clicking awake in a two-room house, answered
by a few, then more, voices: gauges,
and old-fashioned watches ticking out of synch, in growing number,
so their tip-tip-tip fattens to a moan, joined
by a horn’s upbeat honkity-honk, then ringtones and speakers
rehearsing drawn horsehair, air in a woodwind, or mimicking
a hand slapping a polyester drumhead, but unlike
these coarser frictions, playing the same, every time.
A car door bangs, a jackhammer hammers, and a bassline
purrs through a wall. The sound congeals,
sucking in more, a mechanical syrup in an IV drip, the automatic
ruckus of a robotic ocean, a symphony
no one wrote, confounding every pattern:
teach me the song that no one can sing, someday
to be the song of everything.
In Defense of the Semicolon
“No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships
that only idiots need defined by punctuation.”
— Richard Hugo
But it’s a reassuring logic that rivers freeze
because your hemisphere has rolled away from the sun,
that cities rest because there must be time for resting.
I could never deny it, or disown my desire
for the certainty of home, for mills and reservoirs
I always come back to. I’m thinking of a girl
pinning butterflies through her bangs, the first woman
I ever asked to marry me. She was slight and strange;
her brother lived in England, and was dying there.
Years after our split, she and I met in an open-air restaurant
crowded with chatter and cigarettes. I was still very young,
still afraid of being abandoned at the terminal.
She no longer ate; she had lost teeth and some hair,
she said. There were pale islands of skin
where the butterflies had perched. The waiter came around
to refill our coffee, a phone was ringing, and fifty feet away
streetcars jostled like dusk nudging against darkness;
even between those two there are gangways:
moveable bridges ship to shore, small therefores.
One train overtakes another going the same way,
so two sets of passengers come eye-to-eye
and out one side of each train
a world flashes by, and opposite,
a world of strangers, passing slow.
As one end of a kayaker’s paddle cuts into a lake
the other end flings water at the sky.
A hand that can squeeze into a fist, turn a key,
or stroke her cheek is the perfect, backward twin
of the other, clumsy one.
Somewhere it’s early evening, but here, early morning:
into a smack of yawning air, the overtaking train
snaps free. Sun flash, stereo store,
a boy bends down, seeing a nickel—
About James Arthur
James Arthur’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Poetry, Ploughshares, and The American Poetry Review. He has received the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, a Stegner Fellowship, a Discovery/The Nation Prize, fellowships at The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, and a residency at the Amy Clampitt House. He is currently a Hodder Fellow at the Lewis Center for the Arts in Princeton. His first book, Charms Against Lightning, is available through Copper Canyon Press.
In November and December, James Arthur will be reading in New York, Massachusetts, Toronto, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Baltimore. To see a full schedule of upcoming events, please visit James’s website.
Stay up on the latest art news by having Gwarlingo delivered to your email inbox. It’s easy and free! You can also follow Gwarlingo on Twitter and Facebook.
Gwarlingo needs your help. Support this site by making a donation of any size. Gwarlingo takes countless hours of labor each month, and your help keeps this site going. Thanks to all of the readers who have already made donations large and small.
“In Praise of Noise,” “In Defense of the Semicolon,” and “Rapid Transit” © James Arthur. All Rights Reserved. All poems appear in Charms Against Lightning (2012) from Copper Canyon Press and were published with permission from the author.