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Sabots by John James (Oystercatcher Press)

Sabots by John James (Oystercatcher Press)

When Peter Hughes wrote to me last month to say that there was a new John James chapbook on the cards he intimated that it was ‘very unusual’ and was to be titled Clogs, ‘Pastoral dialogues from the deep south (of France)’. My reaction was one of keen anticipation on account of considering the Equipage volume from last year, Songs in Midwinter For Franco, one of the most important and moving sequences of poems I had read in a long, long time. I recall reviewing that volume for Shearsman on-line magazine and saying that what moved me was contained in the absence of the self-regarding nature that can act as an intrusive shadow looming over poems of loss. In those ‘Songs’ (for Franco Beltrametti who had been published alongside John James by the Tim Longville, John Riley & Gordon Jackson enterprise Grosseteste Books) there were references to a culture of reading and recalling as well as comments on the necessary sharp eye of the wine grower who looks out for a ‘bud break yet to come’. When I read Sabots for the first time this morning I was not in any way disappointed in my great expectations.
The opening dialogue between Peadar and Alphonse, both resident wine growers on the land of South West France, confirms that steady voice that John James has acquired over years of poem-making:

‘ah bon I don’t begrudge you in fact I marvel
at your calm in the face of our abjection it
besets us all this fear of fear & discontent
& there was I gathering in my grapes each year
till the Mairie dropped me with their flood defence
oh I sometimes think I should have seen it coming
but was too entranced perhaps by the reverie
induced by days of pleasure working in that field’

Reading these lines I was prompted to look up a book which I have admired since its first appearance in 1979 from the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, John Berger’s Pig Earth, the first of three books with the overall title INTO THEIR LABOURS. In the final chapter Berger points to the survival of peasant communities:

‘Peasant life is a life committed completely to survival. Perhaps this is the only characteristic fully shared by peasants everywhere. Their implements, their crops, their earth, their masters may be different, but whether they labour within a capitalist society, a feudal one, or others which cannot be so easily defined, whether they grow rice in Java, wheat in Scandinavia, or maize in South America, whatever the differences of climate, religion and social history, the peasantry everywhere can be defined as a class of survivors.’

Within James’s dialogue Alphonse says

‘I thought in my youthful ignorance everyone
was like my parents bitches bore their tiny pups
kids grew up to be such dams but now a monster
grows to enormous size & threatens all of us.’

The pun on ‘dams’ is hallmark John James. As also is the convincing sense of the here-and-now, the immediate moment caught as it passes, as Alphonse confirms not only that ‘sooner will the hind graze on the air or barbel / lie on the bare stones of the beaches of the Orb / than I’d allow my steadfast gaze give up this place’. Looking back on that earlier review I had written I notice that I referred to a poem from James’s Dreaming Flesh (Street Editions 1991), ‘The Conversation’:

‘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 of a book ‘gave some new sense of strengthening regard for common things.’’

Section two of this sequence, allows historical and geographical presences of this land to speak and ‘Les Randonneurs’ trace a path through what changes in the unchanging. The wines of ‘Les Grillères’ for instance mutter

‘who lives here now as that spy George Borrow might say
the house & barns & spread of land all up for sale
the crumbling old stone wall is broken by sweet bay
some leaves for a civet to perfume the cheval’

Or, of course, ‘good apothecary’ to ‘sweeten my imagination’!

The third and final section is spoken by John Le Poireau as he, Alphonse and Peadar take up the final lines of Alphonse’s comment in Section One:

‘& we still have our strength & the power to walk
tomorrow let’s call on John Le Poireau & hike
three together on the trail to Pech Saint Vincent’

As if echoing the enduring world of Edward Thomas’s agricultural world when faced with the distant wars of northern France in 1916 the ‘leek-man’ says

‘La Tramontane will crumble the broken clods as we stumble
on the rising ground Le Marin will ruin the bread & weaken the vines
but this year we’ll beat the weedy grasses & the tares
not let them hamper our shins in passage through the ranks
let the moist soil cleave to our boot soles’

Sabots is an uplifting sequence of three poems which restores a sense of vitality and endurance within a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and ‘targets’. It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!

Ian Brinton 17th August 2015.

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3 responses »

  1. Most interesting. Pig Earth a favourite book of mine. Shall order Sabots.

    Reply
  2. Sabots by John James:
    his long lingering lines
    rooted deep as old vines

    Reply

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