A Natural History: James Arthur


A Natural History of My Party Tricks

Text and photos by James Arthur

I have a double-jointed thumb. As a teenager, I was eager to demonstrate to anyone who expressed even the most perfunctory interest my ability to set my thumb at an unusual angle.

I feel that I’m good at animal impressions, and the animal noise that I’m most proud of (in other words, the one that I feel is most particular to me) is my impression of a pig being slaughtered. It goes, w-iii-iii-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh! The last time I did my dying-pig impression at an actual party, a friend’s baby began to scream.

I can recite most of the dialogue from Conan the Barbarian. I try to pass this off as a joke.

I’m better than average at chugging beer, and I like to challenge people to chug with me. My friend John creamed me in a chugging contest two years ago, and I haven’t chugged since.

Seven years ago at a party in Seattle, I saw a young man who identified himself as “a stunt tequila drinker” drink a shot of tequila, snort a line of table salt, squeeze lemon juice into his eyes, and then stagger around the room, howling in unsimulated pain as everyone laughed at him.

I can recite many poems by Auden, Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Millay, etc., and more than I care to admit, I want my friends—my writer friends, really—to be impressed by this.

James Merrill wrote, “What least thing our self-love longs for most / Others instinctively withhold.”

I can also recite my own poems from memory. I don’t do this in social situations. Not often, anyway.

Oh Auden! Auden once wrote these words: “… The gross insult of being a mere one among many.”

Double-jointedness, properly known as “hypermobility,” is caused not by the presence of an additional joint, but by a misshapen or misaligned bone.

One person in four has a hypermobile thumb.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2


James Arthur is, thanks to the efforts of his mother, Dorothy (Penny) Arthur, and his father, James G. Arthur, both currently resident in Toronto, Canada.



“A Natural History of My Party Tricks” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

James Arthur’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Southern Review, and Ploughshares. He has received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, and a Discovery/The Nation Prize. Charms Against Lightning, his debut poetry collection, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press. He lives in St. Louis with his wife, fiction writer Shannon Robinson.



  1. I am a writer, and I am impressed by this.

  2. This was GREAT! I really enjoyed the intermixing of explicit and implied party tricks. I can say, from personal experience, that James can recite an impressive catalogue of poems 🙂

    Thanks for this!

  3. hilarious. .. and ummm, thanks for the visual proof, i mean, illustration of your excellent (and hilarious) points!

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