James Graham: Two Poems
Excursions of Mr James | Rembrandt Portraits
Excursions of Mr James
Midmorning on the High Street. There he goes,
down the sunny side and past the Flower Den
and Carol's Hair Design. There is a burial today
with flowers and necklaces. Rough geometry
of the crusty streets, a red van turning right;
heads, shoulders, legs wagging to and fro;
Mr James there, veering to the shady side,
letting the cars and double-parked supply vans
lend him some letters to make words:
R-AEG makes aRchAEoloGy, N-RMD makes
uNReMembereD. There he goes, foreshortened,
slightly unsteady on his feet. He has heard
the women keening at the grave, and has got
his bread and apple-cakes. And everywhere
such fearful transits of the mind;
and everywhere such private lives.
He cannot seem to tell, in the moment,
whether they are women of the Susiana
or of some implacable state. He pauses
at the crossing-signal, waiting to bear
their grief to the other side. One day
when we were skin and bone and rain,
and the glowering males dismembered
the still, warm animal, did awareness
fire like a stricken thorn-tree and make mad
some poor strange child? And there
he hesitates and goes. One who, already,
could turn around in time, and see himself
from very far and high. A white car trips
on a mini-roundabout; and farther off,
the last houses and the pastureland,
the distant moving major road, the sea,
the white waves at the coast of Labrador.
It doesn't seem polite to look at them; and yet
you want to say, 'Excuse me', touch an earring,
see it swing. You wonder if they see you; think of that
old chestnut: eyes that follow you about the room.
Even the merchant, trying to define himself
in power-coat and sash: his eyes
look in as well as out, have seen much
and are prepared for more. These Rembrandts
are a conjurer's work. Dressed up in lace
and serge and polished leather,
they gather here, this company of ghosts.
Where are the canapes, the wine, the servants?
The night-watch picture hyphenates
the captain's talk; he will, he must
go on, and the drummer, and the man in red,
must get on with their work. These are not such
as have their hearts cut out by the embalmer's man;
their brains seem still beneath their skulls.
For all that, I suppose, it's a charnel-house.
Not all their muscle, tinted flesh and fluid eyes
can animate the people in this room; it is
a cruel irony. Even so, as we, discourteous
gawpers, whisperers, turn away, we choose
to make believe that as night comes the frame
will empty, and the captain and his men
will go upon their watch.
James Graham was born in 1939 in Ayrshire, Scotland, in a cottage out of an illustration to Grimm's Fairy Tales. He was a schoolteacher for thirty years, writing poetry spasmodically during all that time, and publishing occasionally in small magazines most of which no longer exist. Since retirement, however, he has written and published more. His work has appeared in anthologies published by Edinburgh University Press, the Glasgow Centre for Contemporary Arts, the Ragged Raven Press, and others. He has been published a number of times by The Dark Horse, the poetry review edited by Gerry Cambridge and Dana Gioia. In 2000, the National Poetry Foundation (of England) brought out his first collection, When Certain Fruits were Ripe. At present he is a site expert on writewords.org.uk, a fast-growing internet writers' community.