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This review is taken from PN Review 245, Volume 45 Number 3, January - February 2019.

Cover of Sarments: New and Selected Poems
John MuckleShakin’ All Over
John James, Sarments: New and Selected Poems;
Barry MacSweeney, Desire Lines: Unselected Poems 1966–2000 (both Shearsman)
John James, who has died recently, lived just long enough to see this book into print, and to read from it, at a whisper, at a launch event at Swedenborg Hall, Bloomsbury. This whispered delivery, from a skeletal beanpole of a man who still managed to look stylish in a ritually self-conscious working-class art-rocker sort of way, has found its way into my reading of his poetry, early and late, in this crisply edited self-summary of his long career as an O’Hara-poet of aestheticised leftism: a French­dwelling gallerygoers catalogue of rendez-vous with numbers of beautiful women under the watchful, prurient eyes of Baudelaire and Bataille, all of it studied, turned inside out and held – forever – in poems that seem to aspire to the monumental stillness and gravity of Mallarmé looking at one of Mery’s fans. It might be said that he always risked absurdity, hanging on to rock’n’roll for longer than was seemly, stuck semi-fast to working-class allegiances and elderly Stalinist boozers; but from this pleasing, elegant redux of his poetry such elements have been purged in favour of sweet memories, whispered reminiscence and the rituals of pleasure: pouring wine, beginning a conversation, recalling people who shared this life. But wait! Is that all? There is very often something a little sardonic about these poems, which discreetly withhold much personal detail. Confessional he is not. It is often the moment of setting out that is offered: the beginnings of an encounter, or the overall mood of an evening, the essence of a memory of promise. Although there is ...

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