Charms Against Lightning, the debut poetry collection from James Arthur, is my go-to collection when I want to read something old and familiar, find inspiration, or just think about my experience as a writer. It begins with a hauntingly beautiful poem that bears the title of the anthology and reads like a chant. Here’s just the first two lines:
Against meningitis and poisoned milk,
Flash floods and heartwreck, against daydreams
In just those two lines, you can get a sense of a few of my favorite things about Arthur’s poetry. All these poems read as a collection of sounds and images that link together and convey a greater feeling. They feel both like diary entries and conversations: they are simultaneously secrets and musings being shared directly with their reader. The poetry talks about the painful, doubt-provoking parts of life but leave room for positivity and ask questions of how we experience hope – charming away daydreams alongside heartwreck, as an example.
I bought the collection after the poet visited my high school back when I was a senior. Like a performative or spoken word poet, Arthur recited all his works from memory, which gave him space to rearrange and create the experience of the poetry all over again. I got the honor of hearing him present the same poem a few times; it was like hearing an adaptation of a familiar story. Even though the words stay largely the same, when all you’re relying on is the poet’s voice, the poet shapes the entire poem uniquely every time. Part of this effect, I learned directly from Arthur. He analyzed a poem alongside me and the other students in my writing class and imparted what is maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned about poetry: that it works sometimes just to put sounds together and make meaning from what you get.
One of my favorite poems from the collection is called “Distracted by an Ergonomic Bicycle,” and can be found with a recording of Arthur reading the poem at this link: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/weekly-poem-elegy-1/. This poem is an incredible example of what I find is so meaningful about Arthur’s poetry. It captures a moment so clearly while also weaving in human feeling and subjectivity. For example, lines 17-18, “…I felt only not myself/ but that I’d never been…” are stated without decoration. They stand out alongside the experience of the moment of seeing the bicyclist and make the poem itself intimate in a way a lot of poetry has never done for me. I find myself thinking sometimes - even when I haven’t read the poem in a while - about standing on a street corner in the rain with a Doberman watching an ergonomic bicyclist go by and having that experience as if it were my own.
You can find the poet’s website here: http://www.jamesarthurpoetry.com/. There, you can find links to more poems to be read and listened to and experienced. James Arthur’s poetry is absolutely incredible for summarizing subjectivity of loneliness and uncertainty, the vivid corners of our world, and the way sounds come together to make meaning.
Written by Erika S. ('19)
I share my body with an angel / of light who sunbursts / on my horizons at dusk
- Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton