“We lived overlooking the walls overlooking the cemetery.” So begins the title poem of this collection, whose recursive temporality is filled with living, grieving things, punctuated by an unseen world of roots, bodies, and concealed histories. Like a cemetery, too, The Milk Hours sets unlikely neighbors alongside each other: Hegel and Murakami, Melville and the Persian astronomer al-Sufi, enacting a transhistorical poetics even as it brims with intimacy. These are poems of frequent swerves and transformations, which never stray far from an engagement with science, geography, art, and aesthetics, nor from the dream logic that motivates their incessant investigations.
Indeed, while John James begins with the biographicalthe haunting loss of a father in childhood, the exhausted hours of early fatherhoodthe questions that emerge from his poetic synthesis are both timely and universal: what is it to be human in an era where nature and culture have fused? To live in a time of political and environmental upheaval, of both personal and public loss? How do we make meaning, and to whomor whatdo we turn, when such boundaries so radically collapse?
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Milk Hours
for J.E.J., 1962-1993
and C.S.M.J., 2013-
We lived overlooking the walls overlooking the cemetery.
The cemetery is where my father remains. We walked
in the garden for what seemed like an hour but in reality must
have been days. Cattail, heartseedthese words mean nothing to me.
The room opens up into white and more white, sun outside
between steeples. I remember, now, the milk hours, leaning
over my daughter’s crib, dropping her ten, twelve pounds
into the limp arms of her mother. The suckling sound as I crashed
into sleep. My daughter, my fatherhis son. The wet grass
dew-speckled above him. His face grows vague and then vaguer.
From our porch I watch snow fall on bare firs. Why does it
matter nowwhat gun, what type. Bluesmoke rises. The chopped
copses glisten. Snowmelt smoothes the stone cuts of his name.
I am in this world, not self, not seed, not stamen-dusted
pistil flicking in the windthe eye sees past its limitations.
Crushed petals in the dirt, I’m courting a horse with an apple,
watching its white tail swish along the fence. Somewhere,
the galaxy spins. I smile at the cloudless sky.
Continuum of frequencies, Ptolemy’s
Almagest, the star charts called it Little Cloud
chained constellations in The Book
of Fixed Stars. Nova for new, cut fish
for never. A heart held back for the knife.
The opening of large
tracts by the icecutters
a pond to break
up earlier; for the water
agitated by the wind
even in cold weather
the surrounding ice.
This morning I walked past
rows of jeweled honeysuckle
twining through the square
links in an aluminum fence.
They glistened in the sun,
as they always do. You
could say their vines shuddered.
Photographed by Isaac
Roberts, 1887, again
in 1899, the galaxy, the ruler
of man, the pearling
spiral takes its name from
the area of sky in which it appears.
Sussex, England, retrograde motion.
The daughter chained to a rock.
We forget rapidly what should be forgotten. The universal sense of fables and anecdotes is marked by our tendency to forget name and date and geography. “How in the right are children to forget name and date and place.”
Pained lovelinessthe sonnet
sweet fetter’d. Morning, still, couched
taken from my palm. Horse nose,
its silken touch, teeth against the skin.
The eye sees the mind sees
crushed pedals in the pestle.
All parts are binding.
man wearing a crown,
upside down with respect
to the eclipse. The smaller
figure next to him sitting
on a chair. A whale
somewhere beneath it.
By ear industriousattention
metmisers of sound
and syllable. See kale, see
rows of collard stalksthink
Cassiopeia. Think arrogant
and vain. Greek models, sea
monster Cetus, the errant study of.
I shall ere long paint to youas one can without
canvasthe true form of the whale
my parts are all binding
as he actually appears to the eye
I wonder, now, how Ovid did itI pass that matter by.
Saguaro in headlights, we touch like foreign bodies.
Sedona recedes against the sky’s aperture.
Roll the covers off, the coldness in Williams
Aren’t you afraid? I’m afraid, too.
Wanting to know you, thinking I do,
Thinking of the miles unfolding before us,
The highway beating through rows of golden cacti.
I want to remember things purely, to see them
As they are without the urge to order.
To take the pictures down, and say what hurts.
Say we’re able to enjoy this more than we ever did.
Somewhere behind us, the mountains slope off.
Sunrise breaks over fields of whitened heather.
Let’s only sit and listen. Only stare at the open earth
Without saying why. If approximations are the best
We can dofine then, let’s approximate.
Home is a question and we’re drifting from it.
My light bulb is gone.
It was dying anyways.
The room goes dark
before I sleep. I lie
eyes closed, listening,
hoping the radio waves
cause only one type
of sick. My bed’s
not safe. The feathers
in my pillow came
from a factory in Beijing.
Their birds fly east
in the shape of a V.
On the edge where
my mother sat reading
a bright picture book
something has taken
her place. My father’s
mouth, which I lost
years ago, speaks
from a jar on the shelf.
I ask my mother
what she did with the light.
She says it’s
under the bed. I ask
my father why
he can’t hear. He tells
me he’s underground.
Table of ContentsContents
The Milk Hours
Poem for the Nation, 2016
Story with a Shriveled Nipple
Catalogue Beginning with a Line by Plato
Years I’ve Slept Right Through
Fig. 1: Botany
Poem Around Which Everything Is Structured
Fig. 2: Roots, Tumble
Fig. 3: Colonialisme
Beneath the Trees at Ellingsworth
Forget the Song