James Arthur grew up in Toronto. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The New York Review of Books, Brick, The New Republic, and The American Poetry Review. He has received the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, a Stegner Fellowship, a Hodder Fellowship, a Discovery/The Nation Prize, and a residency at the Amy
Clampitt House. His first book, Charms Against Lightning, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2012 as a Lannan Literary Selection. Arthur lives in Baltimore and teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
A Local History
My grandmother’s house was always full of flies.
They’d crawl across each other on the windowsill
or would be spinning out their noisy dying everywhere―
so many, you could sweep forever
and not get all the dead flies off the floor.
Downhill, in a marsh of bristle-sided reeds,
milkweed pods kept cracking open, leaking seed
across the air, renewing the existence of their species
in the way they’d done from year to year.
Way back when, some hard-handed
Methodist pioneer had somehow wrenched up
every stone big enough to break a plough
and piled them all throughout the woods, where they
still were, in mounds, when I was growing up,
like barrows heaped above the decomposed remains
of the violent Saxon kings, whose grave-goods
featured large in my imagination.
My grandmother’s gone. Before she died
she lost her words, her house, her name.
But for me, she’s still a hard old woman
walking downhill at dawn, long into autumn,
to skinny-dip in her weed-choked, freezing pond.
A hedge of wind, a wall of suburban snow―
my father’s father’s ashes are in the ground
in southern Ontario. Something I read in college
and for whatever reason have not forgotten
is that the ancient Saxon barrow-makers,
living among broken things they could admire
but not rebuild―aqueducts and roads the Romans
left behind―saw themselves as late arrivers,
as an after-folk living on the graves of a greater folk
who’d gone before. Where is the horse, where
the rider, some now-nameless Saxon wrote,
grieving for a people who his own people
centuries before had annihilated,
assimilated, or driven into the sea.