Reviewed by John Garth
This dense, elegiac, meditative volume of poetry, Alison Brackenbury’s eighth, opens with a series of poems about memory and change sparked by objects salvaged from the family past, from the rural past. Into this, the wider world impinges only intermittently, in the form of wars that take away the local men (and return them not quite whole), or Margaret Thatcher proving her own link to Lincolnshire with the dialectal, ‘I’m not frit’ (which Hansard, apparently, recorded as ‘afraid’).
Presiding over memory is Lincolnshire’s slutchy, pan-flat, flood-prone landscape, with its berry-filled hedges, its farm-horses and its big skies. Remote, glamorous girls speak truth to power – Mandy Rice-Davies making headlines with her ‘Well he would say that, wouldn’t he’; or they send drivers into the ditch – the young bored farm wife living at a sharp bend in the road who ‘filled hours / gardening bikini’d’. But Brackenbury doesn’t hanker to be like that. She wants to be like the chaffinch, the lapwing, the starling – free of the land yet able to contemplate it, able to pierce its habits with sudden song. This is the power, also native to the human condition, that she hymns in the powerful coda ‘No’.
But first comes the interior monologue of a woman as she sorts through chests and cupboards, rooms full of old inherited furniture, envelopes and photograph albums. Figures of other people glimmer for an instant on the threshold of light yet never quite clear. Brackenbury interrogates the figures, the objects, the past.
The past seems to move from rooted to uprooted in an instant remembered from Oxford, where Brackenbury read English at St Hugh’s – ‘May Day, 1972’, with its Magdalen singers and morris-men and its final line, ‘How nothing was the same again.’
A series of equivocal snapshot interiors surrounds the death of her mother. At her passing (‘After the funeral’) the sadness is not for what is lost, but for what was never gained; and there is a frank relief too, both selfish and generous:
I know her no more than I did as a child,
her damage, her dreams. It springs into me
with rush of the dark, that we are both free.
Then comes with the familiar tease of much lyrical poetry: that you are listening to words meant for someone else. Indeed, when the poem addresses ‘you’, you can be sure it’s not really you that’s intended, but a (sometimes unidentified) third party who might understand the piece perfectly. ‘Cheltenham’ seems part elegy to a childhood friend spoilt by school, part memory of a bus crash, but the connection is elusive.
Much of the poetry here, though skittering about on the borderline of metrical tradition, is so crammed with heavily stressed syllables, so fraught with glancing imagery and shifting senses to unlock, that is might as well be free verse. The highly rhythmic sing-song of ‘The Shackleton expedition’ is a relief, and ‘The nymph considers the garden’ shows a fine ear for seemingly unforced beat. Sometimes a Larkinesque epiphany ties up the loose lines in a neat bow, as in ‘On the aerial’, in which a starling, mimicking a blackbird, ‘tilts at faint stars, is Spring, is every bird’.
There is much to be mulled before its full flavour is released. Brackenbury seems to play on the Anglo-Saxon word for sky, uprodor, in these lines about lapwings:
the heavy winter fields
from which they flashed and kindled and uprode
the air in dozens.
The poems interlock: ‘Binder twine’, a piece describing the plastic string used to tie hay bales, is also the ‘long tough thread’ which Brackenbury uses to escape from memories of family unhappiness, like Theseus in the labyrinth.
As Brackenbury moves on – into trips with her own cherished children, or reflections on her garden and cookery – she also interrogates the present as if its technology were unfamiliar, as if the habits that she has formed from more recent years of town living are still just flimsy affectations compared to the old patterns. The collection inevitably becomes less distinctive when Brackenbury sightsees around London, taking in the Wallace Collection, the First Emperor exhibition at the British Museum, and so on. But that’s life. And in the final sequence of poems, gathered under the title ‘Flood’, rain reasserts nature’s power over modernity, reuniting town and country, Brackenbury’s Lincolnshire past and her Gloucestershire present.
The whole conveys a deep ambivalence about the rooted past, neatly encapsulated in the Then of the title. ‘Then’ is both the past and a conjunction of change: it was like that then, then it wasn’t. Brackenbury attempts to assert her light spirit against the tugging tides and sucking mud of the fenland past; but she evinces a strong preference for solitudes free of human busyness, yet tangled and thronged with natural life.
John Garth is the author of Tolkien and the Great War, a HarperCollins paperback, ebook and audiobook.