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James Graham Memorial

by Oonah V. Joslin

Remembering James Graham (May 13, 1939 - September 2, 2019)

It was on September 4th 2018 that James Graham and I at last met at his suggestion in Knaresborough, Yorkshire. He and my husband instantly hit it off and went off puffing at their pipes and talking History and politics together.

James was in his 80th year and revisiting places he’d known. On 3rd September 2019, I learned of his death. There’s a kind of ‘poetic synchronicity’ to this opening that James would call ‘Nonsense’ and in no uncertain tone. This disparity in thinking made unusual friends of us but of course, with us it was always about poetry and language.

And it was about being Dalriadan. Ayrshire and Antrim are the same folk. My family undoubtedly hailed from Ayreshire and his father was from County Antrim. Many’s a discussion we had about shared dialect, ancestry and history. And we also shared a love of gardens and trees.

This photograph was taken at the RHS Garden at Harlow Carr.

James Graham and Oonah V. Joslin

I joined Writewords in 2007. The site’s poetry expert was, retired teacher, James Graham. Nobody who has not had the benefit of James’ in-depth, insightful and gentle commentary on their work can appreciate just how many people James has nurtured over the years or how much he has contributed to their knowledge and skill as poets.

Week after week since the site began, James gave serious thought to the work of others and wrote entire swathes of critique. He always printed the poems out so that he could make notes. He questioned, he suggested, he encouraged. He saw each poem through to the end or to its abandonment. His perceptions were frank, honest and useful without ever being unkind, and of course his punctuation was unparalleled. He’d want me to point that out.

He was a man of prodigious intellect and an unparalleled knowledge of poetry and literature. He had a passion for History and Art, and he loved meeting people. He said he would have liked to read to a capacity audience at the O2 Arena. I only recorded him reading two of his poems. I wish we had had time to do more.

When James read the following poem, he wrote:

There’s a particular stand of trees at Thorp Perrow arboretum, and I couldn’t help noticing that they were all, as far as I could see, practically the same height. As poets you and I both stand tall. No false modesty – I know I’ve written some good poems, but so have you. So have several other WW members – work that deserves to be far more widely appreciated. I couldn’t place us all in ranking order. Poetically we’re all handsome silver birches, all 80ft tall, give or take a fraction of an inch.

The Art of Forestry
(for James Graham)
by Oonah V. Joslin

I met you
on your way to
becoming a tree,

at that point
where woodland paths
converge, we met.

You seemed always straight,
tall, rooted in
forest languages,

with leaf and bark,
versed in mossy soils.

We all grew stronger
under your branches.
Light, filtered through

your determined
shade, greened the sky,
measuring each day’s hours by a poem.

And you make sense
of all our knots,
tip us all a wink.

‘Time gnarls
you say,
‘but the path always leads to

becoming a tree’.
Heaps of time pile up.
Leaves fall to their deaths.

Words bubble.
But what more could we poets ask?
It’s deep in our grain.

I always felt privileged when he liked my work.

I was glad James was able to visit Northumberland in Spring 2019 and visit some of my favourite gardens, Wallington, Cragside, Alnwick and Belsay. He loved them all but he said Belsay was best. I was able to introduce him to the work of The Pitmen Painters. We got to celebrate his 80th birthday ahead of time with mutual friends Tina and Peter Cole. It was special.

Of course when you spend time with the ‘real someone’, you get to know the little things. James was quite infirm by now but fiercely independent. He adored his family and was so proud of his grandchildren. He loved really dark chocolate, cream cakes, ice cream, fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, good traditional food and lots of salt on his eggs. He drank Stella Artois and liked a wee dram. He liked to do jigsaw puzzles.

James was on Writewords and commenting on and writing poems till the last. His mind was a sharp as ever. His enthusiasm was undiminished, his kindness unfailing.

There’s an archive of his work in Bewildering Stories. I am sure he’d have agreed with their recent FB post: “Bewildering Stories is a kind of Times Square or Grand Central Station on the Internet. Or, rather, a Heaven.”

He was also a regular contributor to The Linnet’s Wings and Gyroscope Review and many other magazines. James believed that when you’re dead, you’re dead but his idea of an afterlife resided in his writings. His two books Clairvoyance and Becoming a Tree are available on Amazon and from Troubador Press. They are full of history, humour, sadness and above all beautifully crafted poetry. I cannot recommend them too highly.

If there is a heaven, they’d better get in an eternal supply of pipes and good tobacco because James would consider it hell without them.

Copyright © 2019 by Oonah V. Joslin

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