In the latest episode of the Poetry Centre Podcast, Niall
Munro talks to James Arthur.
James was born in Connecticut and grew up in Toronto. His
poems have appeared in many magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, Poetry, The New York Review
of Books, the London Review of Books,
and The Walrus. He has been awarded
numerous scholarships and fellowships, such as the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry
Scholarship, a Hodder Fellowship, a Stegner Fellowship, a Discovery/The Nation Prize, a Fulbright
Scholarship to Northern Ireland, and a visiting fellowship at Exeter College,
Oxford. He lives in Baltimore and teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns
James’s first book of poetry Charms Against Lightning, was
published by Copper Canyon Press in 2012, and his chapbook, Hundred Acre Wood, came out in
2018 with Anstruther Press. His second full collection, The Suicide’s Son, was
published in spring of 2019 by Véhicule Press in Montreal. There is more about James and his
work on his website.
In this podcast, Niall and James discuss knowledge and
childhood, living in Canada and the United States, drone warfare, and the
experience of being a new parent. In particular, we talk about three of James’s
poems: Ode to an Encyclopedia, Drone, and Goodnight Moon, all of which
you can read below.
O hefty hardcover on the built-in shelf in my parents’ living room, O authority on linen paper, molted from your dustjacket, Questing Beast of blue and gold, you were my companion
on beige afternoons that came slanting through the curtains behind the rough upholstered chair. You knew how to trim a sail and how the hornet builds a hive. You had a topographical map
of the mountain ranges on the far side of the moon and could name the man who shot down the man who murdered Jesse James. At forty, I tell myself
that boyhood was all enchantment: hanging around the railway, getting plastered on cartoons; I see my best friend’s father marinating in a lawn chair, smiling at his son and me
from above a gin and tonic, or perched astride his roof with carpentry nails and hammer, going at some problem that kept resisting all his mending. O my tome, my paper brother,
my narrative without an ending, you had a diagram of a cow broken down into the major cuts of beef, and an image of the Trevi Fountain. The boarding house,
the church on the corner: all that stuff is gone. In winter in Toronto, people say, a man goes outside and shovels snow mostly so that his neighbors know
just how much snow he is displacing. I’m writing this in Baltimore. For such a long time, the boy wants to grow up and be at large, but posture becomes bearing;
bearing becomes shape. The man makes a choice between two countries, believing all the while that he will never have to choose.
I am the drone of a banjo’s fifth string. I am the drone that gives bottom to the chanter in a highland fling.
Haw, hum. I am the drone of drone itself, planted so pleasurably in the mouth. A monotone. A lodestone. I’m an MQ-9,
a Reaper Drone, ranging wide, circling in the sky. No windows, no cockpit. No one onboard. See how my Hellfires
fly faster than sound. I am drone, from the tymbal under the cicada’s wing. I gather no pollen, and have no sting.
Arriving unheard, I haunt the sky and inseminate the queen before I die. I am a poetry that celebrates power.
I bring. I bring. The white house is empty. I bomb air. I bomb breath. My country, ‘tis of thee I sing.
I used to be as unsentimental as anyone could be. Now I’m almost absurd, a clown, carrying you on my shoulders around and around Palmer Square, through the cold night wind, as stores lock up, and begin closing down.
Goodnight, fair trade coffee. Goodnight, Prada shoes. Goodnight soon, my little son. You’re a toothy, two-foot-something sumo—a giddy, violent elf— jabbing your finger at the moon, which you’ve begun noticing in the last week or two. Moom, moom— for you, the word ends with a mumming, as it begins.
For me, beginnings and endings are getting hard to tell apart. There was another child your mom and I conceived, who’d now be reading and teaching you to read—who we threw away when he or she was smaller than a watermelon seed.
The chairs; the domestic bears; the clocks; the socks; the house— once again a strange cow springs from the green ground, beginning the enormous leap that will carry her above the moon.