Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: Charms Against Lightning, by James Arthur

It is the voice, more than anything, that we need to come to trust. This is as true with poetry as it is with fiction. We want a voice to invest ourselves in, to believe in, to create a world for us as seen through the author’s eyes—whether that experience lasts for the briefest moment in a poem or through the long span of a novel.

James Arthur, in his debut poetry collection Charms Against Lightning, understands this, even if it takes him several poems to actually achieve it. Indeed, this was one of the stranger reading experiences I’ve ever had: I finished the book having loved many of the poems inside, feeling as they had captured perfectly some aspect of human experience or a brief observation about the world around me; and yet I almost didn’t make it to those pieces, because I didn’t trust the voice of the first several poems. I nearly quit on a book I came to enjoy because the first handful of poems came across as inauthentic.

This includes the title poem, which opens the book. “Charms Against Lightning”, along with “Utopia”, “Drying Out” and “Drinking Song” came across as closed circuits to my ear, as if they were having a conversation with only themselves and using an obscure dialect. I tripped over lines like “Now he’s found his own city, a postcard place/ that anyone would like, backlit by the romance/ of an unknown history” (“Utopia”) or “her sheer hands/ in the glove they love they wear” (“Drinking Song”) (Sic – is this meant to be “to wear”?) In these and other instances, the poems seem to be undone by a crippling vagueness. What would “sheer hands” look like? What, for example, does “She came over, smelling of wine/ nothing of hers/ being yours to accept or decline” really connote?

Thankfully, Charms Against Lightning finds its stride around “In Praise of Noise” (“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”) and never looks back. Arthur is at his best when he captures a crystalline moment within a minimalist poem: pieces like “Sad Robot”, “Epithalamium” and “Kiss” cause brief but powerful sparks of recognition in the reader’s brain. Arthur has a knack for capturing whole worlds in just a few turns of phrase.

Charms Against Lightning also recognizes the vertiginous nature of observational poems, which probably explains why the book has no fewer than three pieces called “Vertigo.” (A risky gambit for a book containing fewer than 60 pages’ worth of poetry, but Arthur pulls it off.) The three poems vary in focus but each speaks to a juxtaposition of the mechanical and the instinctual in the world around us. This, I felt, acted as a good stand-in for the collection as a whole: Arthur shows us where the workings of poetry can meet the intensities of our heart. He marries the two beautifully, revealing the pleasing, dizzying result.

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