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John James - Songs In Midwinter For Franco

(Equipage, Cambridge, 2014. Paperback) 

Reviewed by Ian Brinton

 
John James - Songs in Midwinter for Franco
 
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’). Certain ghosts are more frequent haunters than others and we meet Andrew Crozier ‘walking on grass’ in the Equipage publication of 2011, In Romsey Town, before a line of Crozier’s ‘Free Running Bitch’ opens the Oystercatcher volume from 2012, Cloud Breaking Sun. 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 Oystercatcher volume. 
 
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 Mont 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 Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day; bring 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 ‘general balm the hydroptic 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
 
The 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 Nocturnal 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 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’. 
6 August 2014