There is a particular brand of travel poetry—marked by the cataloguing of sensual spices, exotic flora, and the sitting-in-an-outdoor-café speaker marking the wrinkles in streetperson hands—that I feel is my solemn duty to despise. Doubtless, this comes from the deep well of psychic gloop I swam in during college, writing undergrad papers about Marxism during Budweiser blackouts in the restaurant break room between shifts while other people did something called “study abroad.” Apologies.
But, I also think there’s more at work than my own class bias—these poems (and you know them if you’ve ever confronted a slush pile) enact the same cathartic bait-and-switch found in Sour Patch Kids commercials, merely as a way of obscuring their own role in the very power dynamics the speaker decries. The gummy-child cuts off your hair and then humps your leg: sour then sweet. These poems are like watching a grim documentary about human trafficking on a thousand-dollar laptop, viewers feeling as though they have participated merely by learning about it. This is the way this particular travel poet experiences the world—through the little window of a laptop, oversimplifying or ignoring power dynamics to bolster some self-righteous sense of being a passport-carrying member of the culturally educated class.
But, that’s not to say poems written in—or about—travel cannot or should not be written. James Arthur’s immaculate and well-traveled first book Charms Against Lightning proves this. It is travel poetry (you might say) of an infinitely more complex sort—a poetry of psychological dislocation, of rootlessness. In his words, it is the “fantasy / of being from no place.”
The speaker of these poems is, as in “The Land of Nod,” not unlike the biblical Cain. In the poem, a sly technical marvel, we learn that Nod
never was a nation—of Cain’s offspring, or anyone—
but a mistranslation of “wander,” so Cain
could go wherever, and be in Nod. Far more
than God, I believe in Cain, who destroyed
his own brother, and therefore in any city
could have his wish, and be alone.
For a book that exists in multiple universes and locations, place-names are seldom mentioned. When they are, the naming of the place is deployed as a kind of counterpunch to the travel clichés described above: “At Tivoli / we leaned on a balustrade. At Frascati, / were cooled by a spigot. // Why does the tourist mind / always linger?” This is mature self-awareness. What could possibly be a more surprising and accurate word in English after “Frascati” than “spigot”? Where a lesser poet would aim for the ornate, Arthur heads us off at the pass.
Arthur composes many of his poems to himself while walking, and this immediacy is reflected in their composition and their rhythms. One of the best poems is “Disintegration”:
Take me down to Shitcan City—
show me your famous graffiti on the famous wall.
Out in sour sulk rains.
What do you mean, “satisfied”?
Show me your lasting peace, and the logo on your thigh.
This is exactly the kind of thing I want in poems, what I look for and delight in finding—bafflement and the idiosyncratic familiar. The rejection of the exoticized worldview found in the poetry of the precious. And a good “shitcan.”
Charms Against Lightning
by James Arthur
Copper Canyon Press
Jacob Sunderlin is a contributing editor to Sycamore Review and a poetry fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. His poems appear in Colorado Review, Caketrain, Forklift Ohio, and elsewhere.