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Two Poems

James Lasdun, 24 March 1994

... General McClellan Pride, questioner, and pride’s obverse, fear; Fear of failure. The Times of London Noted my Air of Success. Our grand Potomac army loved me as I’d planned. I was Napoleon. I snubbed Lincoln. Think if I’d obeyed him: one swift strike, Rebellion over, slavery intact, Oneself in office ... I couldn’t act. What if I should fail? My ranks Glistened like the river in its banks; Beautiful, swollen to bursting ...


James Lasdun, 24 February 1994

... Mid-October, our Blackjack oak Peppers the tar-paper roof with its ripened acorns; Day and night, two weeks of it, Priapic Scattershot clattering down With every gust of wind from the mountain; I stare outside. Impossible to sleep, think, work; Into my mind a memory comes: Another oak, the King Charles oak That stood in our garden at home; Survivor of summer lightning and winter storms, The humps on its thick trunk bulging Like muscles under the weight of its limbs ...

The Skaters

James Lasdun, 3 January 2002

... Their town’s the quaint one: the board won’t let it sprawl more than a half-mile from the green’s little pool-table of grass and shiny tulips where Santa lands in winter and the teens play hackysack all summer. There’s no mall, no motel either, which is just what they want; they voted for the good life there; they can afford it: no fast-food chain, no sixplex, they’ll quietly brag; no trailer park, no air- or groundwater-fouling autoshop or plant ...

Two Poems

James Lasdun, 4 February 1999

... Birch Tree with Chainsaw for Pia Five months; five cords of hardwood; ash mostly, hickory, oak; greying in the weather, by April starting to rot, outsides sodden by May, too crumbly even to splinter. But then to uncover the first layer; white birch, bright with the whiteness that whitens your hands like chalk; flesh-coloured wood still firm in its sheath of papery bands, flaw-lined like slubbed silk ...

The Accomplices

James Lasdun, 23 May 1991

... A small man thumbed us down and sidled in Dusting the seat with a quick flick first, his wrist Thin enough to snap like a candy bar; Runt-of-the-litter frame, mid-twenties, shivering, A little drunk, ‘You folks Headed for Cromer’s Hatch?’ We weren’t, But the day being cold, and this good turn so easy, We said we’d take him just the same. He thanked us, then with a sly glance at the mirror, Added ‘I just got out From the St Johnsbury Penitentiary, I was in for some shit I did ...

Mr. W. H.

James Lasdun, 5 February 2004

... Not that bloodlines – family or otherwise – have ever meant much to me, but at forty one wants forebears almost as much as heirs, and even though the oblivion we’re headed for is doubtless total, it feels somewhat lonely heading there orphaned, or lonelier than not. Of course every poet appoints his own ancestors but that’s one thing if you’re Auden enlisting Byron, another if you’re nobody claiming Auden ...

Returning the Gift

James Lasdun, 2 November 2000

... for Nicholas Jenkins For my birthday my wife gives me a chainsaw; a shiny blue Makita, big as our child, heavy as an impacted planet. On every part of its body the makers have slapped red warning stickers: Stop! Danger of Death! Do Not Operate Unless Experienced! The manual elaborates: kickback, where the blade bucks back through your neck; blinding by woodchip or exploding fuel, death by misguided tree-fall, tissue necrosis from the engine vibrations … I look at my wife, wondering what it means for a woman to give her husband a gift such as this … You said we needed one, remember? She smiles, and it’s true; we’re losing our meadow to red maple, alder, poplar ...

Hatching, Splitting, Doubling

James Lasdun: Smooching the Swan, 21 August 2003

Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self 
by Marina Warner.
Oxford, 264 pp., £19.99, October 2002, 0 19 818726 2
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... A memorable image in Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities likens the impact of a certain character to that of a powdery avalanche. The effect of reading Marina Warner’s magisterial works of cultural history is somewhat similar: the cool temperature, the graceful touch, the sensation of resistance being gently annihilated under an accumulation of brilliant particularity ...

Extreme Gothic Americana

James Lasdun, 6 June 2019

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee 
by Casey Cep.
Heinemann, 314 pp., £20, May 2019, 978 1 78515 073 9
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... Alongside his preaching, the enterprising reverend ran a pulpwooding crew in which his nephew, James Hicks, was employed until he quit, nervous of his uncle’s increasingly sinister reputation. Quitting didn’t do him any good. In February 1976 Hicks, who was 22, was found dead in his Pontiac Firebird with some small cuts but – according to the autopsy ...


James Lasdun: With the rent-collector, 21 October 2004

... and begin knocking on doors. Each one opens onto a world of strangeness. Here are Heather and James, an obese girl of about eighteen living with her boyfriend, who appears to have mild Down’s syndrome. They seem cheerful, but utterly incapable of looking after themselves – there are dirty dishes and cutlery all over the bed. Here is Anna, prim and ...


James Lasdun: Salad Days, 9 February 2006

... The alternative career fantasies of writers would make an interesting study: James Joyce dreaming of becoming the agent for Irish tweeds in Trieste, Thomas Mann musing that he would have made a good banker, Samuel Beckett contemplating a career as a pilot. ‘I hope I am not too old to take it up seriously nor too stupid about machines to qualify as a commercial pilot,’ Beckett wrote to Thomas MacGreevy at the age of 29, having just published More Pricks than Kicks ...


James Lasdun, 8 July 1993

... After Ovid I The scene: a town under mountains; Clapboard, shingle and brick, the usual Straggle of shopping malls, post-colonial Factory outlets and fast-food chains Thinning upward through scant Cattle pastures then woods Where the hulk of a disused chemical plant Drips and leaks. This was built by one Erisychthon, who as it happens Also built the malls and the fast-food chains, Outlets too – in fact who’d built the town, Downtown at least; who owned A piece of everything, And several pieces of the board who’d zoned Or rather rezoned certain lands Once listed ‘Grade A Conservation’ As ‘Grade E, Suitable for Speculation’, Placing in their benefactor’s hands The local beauty spots Which he, magician-like, Tore to pieces and turned into parking lots, Malls, outlets, chains, et cetera ...

Kinks and Convolutions

James Lasdun: GOD HATES YOUR FEELINGS, 20 February 2020

Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church 
by Megan Phelps-Roper.
Riverrun, 289 pp., £14.99, October 2019, 978 1 78747 800 8
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... Beyond​ a few tabloid stories, the Westboro Baptist Church didn’t really hit the news until 2005, when its members started picketing funerals of soldiers killed in the Iraq War, with signs declaring GOD HATES FAGS, THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS, THANK GOD FOR IED’S and THANK GOD FOR AIDS. The combination of homophobia and anti-military sentiment was puzzling, but once you learned the group’s rationale – that American soldiers were being killed as divine punishment for America’s growing acceptance of homosexuality – you would probably have dismissed them as just another sideshow in the American political carnival, nastier than some, but of no greater interest ...

Stop all the cocks!

James Lasdun: Who killed Jane Stanford?, 1 December 2022

Who Killed Jane Stanford? A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits and the Birth of a University 
by Richard White.
Norton, 362 pp., £25, August 2022, 978 1 324 00433 2
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... to fictional treatment by any of the subtler practitioners of her day. Jane always wanted William James to teach at Stanford, and he did finally agree to come (though he arrived after her death). He didn’t much enjoy his time there: ‘every lecture a dead weight’, he wrote to his daughter as the semester dragged on. It was too bad Jane hadn’t included ...


James Lasdun: Police procedurals, 8 September 2011

... I’ve often fantasised about writing a police procedural series. Sometimes the fantasy gets to the point where I start sketching out ideas, but invariably I come up against the double problem of my ignorance of how the police actually proceed and my private veto against fiction requiring serious research. So I stop. But something made me try again, and a few months ago I came home from my local Barnes and Noble with a stack of books about US law enforcement ...

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