This week The High Window is featuring the work of James Russell, an unclassifiable poet and, until recently, Professor of Cognitive Development at Cambridge University, whose latest collection Wounded Light published alongside our Spring ssue. Although James’s work is not as well known as it might be, he has nonetheless garnered some impressive plaudits overt the years from the likes of Lee Harwood: ‘ his eye for vivid telling details mark James Russell as a true story-teller, and a true poet;’ J.H. Prynne: ‘I much enjoyed [his] antic dispositions; and Ian Patterson: ‘ For all their mocked and adopted voices, these are poems that love talking to you. All you have to do is listen.’
Below you can sample two poems from James’s new collection followed by a more recent poem which is here published for the first time.
James Russell: Two Poems from Wounded Light
is a prissy old piece of work in a too-neat anorak
on the Euston station concourse following some men
a short way
some women he brushes slightly, lips pursed.
And then each of the targets loses its life
in pain or out of it.
Perverse old sod, he ignores
the husk of a great-granny
so it can rattle farther on in its lung-life and brain web.
But he follows a Professor
to the very mouth of the Underground.
He can pantomime the old man’s sway
and crab-like progress, failing
utterly to mimic what The Selector calls
“the chap’s mahogany speech.”
He knows that if he does not think hard
the man’s mind will out-run him. Until
of a sudden Selector makes an hysterical spurt
and taps the man’s shoulder, frog to fly.
The Professor dismissed the gesture of course
as too meaning-free to even count as banal.
Dressed and sitting by the fire with a drink,
now he is ready for his guest.
In memoriam, Nick Mackintosh
KEEP THE UH ….
A blackberry pie, a pot of ale.
It’s cosy here with uh …
We all love the vapour
that stirs through machines, hangs
over mountains, sets itself up:
the breath of the kind old dog.
You see, as I said to uh …
it’s allegories all the way down
our faith in the declension.
Leather-bound scenes writ in rhyme royal
explain how He is the pork in our bangers
our radiant pillow.
I am a mere uh ….
Snow tinkles and sun smiles.
Love tickles but must not be scratched.
We can walk over the edge only
to fall into His arms.
A pipe of best shag, a chamber-
pot behind a curtain
the gals at home administering the mantelpiece.
We read some uh …
We know He is a good friend
of our mummies and daddies
telling us all stories
until the whole world burns
with home fires.
James Russell: Unpublished Poem
THE VC’s BRIDE
She would stand a little away from my bed.
I –– a pyjama shark –– had welcomed
Her into my residence as one would
A neighbour, a cleaner, a blushing bride.
I expected of course love contours
Love escapades and buttonings,
But she was as cold a fish as me.
Most days we froze together over tea.
October 1st –– her attic bed
Her note, “Gone to fulfil my potential.”
My fellow Vice Chancellors were as good
As gold and tracked her to Beminster
And a BA in The Philosophy of Food.
Forced back sweet-as-a-nut, docile
She settled in with an empty smile.
She became a logarithm of the natural world
Seeming to shrink with the days
Harden with the weather, cold
Now coming from her core, about
As visible as the winter air. A scratching
Sound from the library, her diary addressed.
Her boxed-in voice only replied
Her central verb was the verb to hide.
On Christmas day she ceased to move
Sat beside her bed an ivory icon.
As a VC, I took this in my stride;
As a pyjama shark I struggled.
Feeding attempts would end early
With my stuffed-with-tentacle gills.
Now I long to be an electric ray genus
Torpedo gliding over domain specifics.
Prettily coloured taste-treats cowering
In rock caves watching my waving progress
Gently inspiring respect, dispensing paralysis.
James Russell was born in Bristol in 1948. In 2015 he retired from his post as Professor of Cognitive Development at Cambridge University; and now lives in London. He has previously published three collections and two chapbooks. His novella-with-poems Craigie’s Clevedon Poems appeared in 2013. To some extent, the protagonist’s struggles and indecisions with how to write poetry in the twenty-first century mirror the author’s own. He is Fellow Emeritus of Queens’ College Cambridge.