The Storm in the Piano, Christopher JamesThe jacket is a full colour art nouveau style painting of  the front door of a house, the steps leading up to it, a tree on each side with hug yellow and green leaves, some of which are lying on the pavement. The house is pale blue with white decoration. The door is brown with large panels. The stairs and ground are brown. A band at the foot of the jacket is pale blue and on this the title appears in large  yellow lower case, centred and taking nearly the full width of the jacket. The author's name is in the same font but smaller below this.

Maytree Press, 2022     £7.00

Out of the ordinary

Some poets choose to shape whole collections out of the apparent ordinariness of their lives. Christopher James doesn’t. His poems look outwards to other places — real and imaginary — and, sometimes to what is beyond the possible. They are imaginative leaps into a bigger universe and its peoples.

Just reading the titles on the Contents page introduces, for example, ‘The Watchmaker of Idlib’, ‘The Milliner of Huyaydah’, ‘The Umbrella Salesman of Chennai’. We’ve jumped from Syria to Yemen to India and that’s before we reach ‘The Warden of Pluto’.

Each poem is its own world, visible and complete. Pluto’s warden lets us into his life —

Like the keeper of a plum,
I tended its pock-marked skin;
traced its bumps and scars.
In the days of perpetual dark
I played chess with the ghost of
of Clyde Tombaugh or ping-ponged
with my shadow

Clyde Tombaugh, an astronomer, discovered the planet Pluto in 1930. Alas, it was re-classified as a ‘dwarf planet’ in 2006, a detail James uses effectively —

Downgraded to a dwarf,
they halved my wages;
told me to make do and mend.

Each place has its human face, vividly realised. In ‘Sherlock of Aleppo’, two boys ‘… crawl like bees/ through the ruined honeycomb of Aleppo’ , one clutching his copy of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. The devastated city and the boys’ games merge —

Their home is 221b Al Khandaq Street, a bombed out
paint shop. Victor plays a violin with no strings;
his friend has fashioned a bowler from a tin of emulsion.

In James’ creation of their story, pathos and fantasy are inseparable. A story-telling poet, he knows how to catch his reader with a compelling opening, as in ‘The Unicyclist of Benghazi’ — ‘Like a cricket balanced on a one piastre piece,/ my father span through city streets.’ And after this wonderful precision of this opening (‘The Goldfish at the Opera’) you have to read on —

My grandmother took a goldfish
to the opera; she let it swim in her
handbag in a few inches of water
while Franco Corelli sang Celeste Aida.

A good story brings glitter into the grey of everyday. It’s a way of seeing differently.

D. A. Prince