In her latest collection, Alison Brackenbury draws on her lifetime’s experience of rural England, its people, and its ways. From the lapwings of her childhood Lincolnshire to the recent floods in Gloucestershire and the signs of a changing climate, the poems reach urgently to both past and future. Keenly aware of both the beauty and the harshness of the natural world, Brackenbury reminds us of our own fragility and responsibility.
|Publisher:||Carcanet Press, Limited|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Alison Brackenbury is a poet with more than 30 years of experience and the author of 1829 and Singing in the Dark. She is the recipient of the Cholmondeley Award and has had her work broadcasted on BBC Radios 3 and 4.
Read an Excerpt
By Alison Brackenbury
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2013 Alison Brackenbury
All rights reserved.
The Trent rises, 1947
When you heard the water whisper
in Crown Yard and Sailors' Alley,
when your husband saw the river
no longer lazy – swollen, free;
what did you grab, to take with you upstairs?
What would I take with me?
Would I snatch letters from the flood,
so their clearest lines and kisses
did not meet condoms, tampons, mud?
Save bills? Saucepans? Water misses
no hidden, plastered wire. No kettle could
boil. The fusebox hisses.
Computers, in a leaky boat?
They hauled fresh water, tins. The swell
of river made the hall a moat.
Tortoise to bucket! Chickens fell
into their bath. Aboard the Co-op's milk float,
the pigs raised merry hell.
Lily of the valley, Devon violet, English rose
brought crumpled foil, white silk's swirl, the gurgled names of those
great-aunts and godmothers, Edie, Phil and Gwen,
like the coarse white bath cubes, which will not come again
with harsh and gritty powder, oiled steam, the after-reek,
jasmine sliding past the river fish (then few) who did not speak.
I measured them like love, a flowering of the self,
not the final desperate present plucked quickly from the shelf
which no one told me then. No one ever told my toes,
creased and flushed from chilling water as the bathroom window froze,
lost in mists of fake French lavender, false lilac, summer rose.
Yet all I took from it was words.
How strange! It was a solid place.
Potatoes, like an old man's face,
clay-caked, fell ruddy from the spade.
Huge sheep, the fruit-crammed pies they made,
now dwindle like the summer's birds.
What did they say? 'It's fairing up.'
My grandfather, his hot blue eyes
pure Viking, watched clouds sweep from skies.
His younger son said 'last back end'
for autumn, leafless, with no friend.
Silent, I stirred my steaming cup.
My mother sighed. They would not fit:
old words, new money. In my head
I hear what Margaret Thatcher said,
puzzling note-takers. MPs bayed,
she lost taught tones, Hansard's 'afraid',
shrieked, to our schoolyard, 'I'm not frit!'
The shepherd's son's photo-album
I could show you sad stories
as bright shy children peep
by wind-bent trees, grey ditches,
in crippled love that keeps
the girl a kitchen shadow
with fine hair, crooked teeth,
who, when brain tumours seize her,
rages into sleep.
The quick one fails all papers,
sits still, as clocks strike; eats.
But two work hard; one marries.
Here are the three fat sheep.
You laugh till pages quiver:
three perfect spheres with fleece
washed soft and deep as pom-poms,
three full moons stuffed with swedes.
They fill the narrow hill-lane
as marchers crowd a street.
They peer at us like judges.
They float on tiny feet.
Lined up with dangling nose ropes
they calmly wait their feast.
Only one glances sideways.
Beware a knowing beast.
Here I am, dandled. Orphaned lambs
strain to their bottles, deep
in rough grass by my smiling aunt
who has no child to keep.
My grandmother, in her long coat,
frowns till the ram stands meek.
Her youngest waves his camera
before his mind finds sleep.
My grandfather, his tallest son,
grasp ribbons, cups to keep.
Gone, gone. All waste. And yet they laugh.
Here are the three fat sheep.
I own your desk, Eliza, with your story,
the black-spined Bible with your flourished entry.
Your husband, our last farmer, dead at forty
took off the farm of crooked apple trees,
white pail upon the table in our picture.
But you moved on, with your plain kindly daughters
who settled down to marry their farm labourers.
Louisa's anxious child was my grandmother,
Louisa died, bee-stung. Your Ls grew dashing,
lodged by the North Sea, mornings calm, nights lashing.
Life is before and after. Breath hides passion.
Your jet braids jutted out in reckless fashion.
Why did you give my grandmother the Bible,
your last girl's youngest child, as in a fable?
Did you tip your black ink across this table?
I stroke its pool. I wish I was still able
to ask her of you, where small coals would glint
the desk in shepherds' kitchens. She was sent
on trips for an old woman, strangely bent,
to village shops, which sold gunpowder then
which the old woman spooned out, smiled, despatched
each twist, rammed up the flue. Awed children watched
soots fall like rain, black laughter I can catch.
What good can one desk do? Give me your match.
I have seen China, in its deepest cold,
Russia, where each platform showed for sale
a samovar, a soldier's coat unrolled.
In Kenya, I heard lions breathe through the night
behind thin skin of tents. Now stiff and grey
I check late ferries for the Isle of Wight
which I saw once, once only, a faint smudge
my eyes strained after, from a darkened beach.
What does it hold? More beaches I could trudge,
Victoria's house at Osborne, a brick city
where grief could wander down the garden walks,
a ledge of time, above fringed shawls and pity.
My mother's mother went there as a maid.
Her employer sailed into summer
a rented home, too small, so that she stayed
in lodgings' freedom. But in later life
her hips failed, she grew heavy as a cliff.
She dragged across small stones, a bitter wife.
Three days before the stroke, she dreamed she ran
her village fields, frost's willows circling near,
deep ponds she dodged. I will sail, while I can,
with one light case, across the dark, slow water,
stand on the small beach; see my grandmother
walking the wet sand with the coachman's daughter.
There she was, my Aunt Edie, going off to service,
scared, and fourteen, crying
by the side of the train.
She did not want to be a maid,
but to run straight back to the cottage,
to her grim red mother, to the tall bean row
where her taller father waited.
So he, in his labourer's best boots, climbed
with her on the train, then travelled
to the next brief stop
(could he pay? was he caught?),
jumped down. She sat, still crying.
How did he reach home? I know. He walked,
the lanes smoked dust. He did not see
the hawthorn's fresh and spicy leaves,
cream, heavy heads of elder.
'What use was that?' her mother said.
'You could have ridden all the way
and she would still be crying.'
What would you be, as the train shook by,
as the pollens stroked his shoulder,
the flowering may, with its neat chopped thorn,
the heady, weeping elder?
After the wars, they drifted back
to their limestone village, perched on clay.
A Crimean veteran with one leg
lodged in his two rooms, did not pay
till the Earl's crooked agent came
and made him sign his rights away.
After the war, I knew the man,
dapper beneath the Legion's lamps,
the trimmest dancer, on the beat,
untouched by floor's dust, our sweat's damps.
No one crossed him. He would explode,
back in the jungle prison camp.
My grandfather had three numbers,
battalions turned to mud, before
his son was sent to Palestine,
pulled home, heard gunfire from the shore.
I saw shops close, cars crowd, skies warm.
And then I left, before the war.
On the grey rug, now on our workshop chair,
I sprawled on rough grass forty years back, where
I read my father's paper's huge headlines.
'Profumo'. Who? I had not heard before
of swimming pools, the young red-headed whore.
By the lorry driver's house, where no one swore,
capitals roared black: 'MINISTER RESIGNS'.
I fold the blanket. All did not go well
amongst us. Families keep rooms in hell.
I wind my way out by a long tough thread;
ride by rich farms. The labourers' widows say
'That's where that Mandy Davies used to stay',
who threw truth, rough as blankets, in our way.
'Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?' she said.
They never sang to me.
Since they no longer stride the hill
or peg out creaking washing
they never will.
Grandmother's mother's desk
from the legendary lost farm
was salvaged by my parents
from dog food, sheep salves, grime.
They found, stuffed in the deep drawers,
penny notebooks. Letters were
traced airily, as spider-thin
as young Victoria.
Until a dashing black hand:
for sheep thrush, baby scour,
horse worming balls, from fenugreek,
What's this? 'I am a lady bright,
my love has listed, gone.
What care I for world or treasure?'
It is a song
which I will sing, flat, softly,
to great moon's glow, cold week.
The next page lists the lambs lost,
white sulphur, fenugreek.
What is it? Nothing fancy. Plastic string,
pulled from high machines at harvest's ending,
it winds round packed straw-bales, the softer hay,
with daisy, dock, the deadly ragwort, hiding.
I grew up next to farms, trespassed on stacks,
hauled twine to jump the bales' yawning cracks.
Thirty years in town, still thralled to horses,
I pull its stiff snakes from the rusting racks
to tie gates, bind horse-rugs. With stronger skeins
the farmer fixed his chimney. In North Wales
they call its knots and webs 'Radnorshire welding'
which made my father laugh in his sad age.
Each year spills different colour, rich on yards.
We did not like the red, too stiff and hard –
I chose the lemon, with its silky edge
which faded into white, beneath stern stars.
When this horse dies, I will heave stable doors
no more. Yet coils of twine will hide for years
in pockets, sheds. Curled quiet as moss, it is
the line I haul through darkness. What is yours?
Still they lie deep, though I have gone,
the great dykes with their glinting load,
brown winter floods, fields' wasteful run,
planted too soon. Are there machines
which rear and dip from the firm road,
scoop glistening banks, clear rotted leaves?
Yet still, I know, there is a day –
a stone-blocked pipe, a tumbled tree –
when a man slides down with a spade,
beats back dead nettles, elders' switch,
sunk from the sky as under sea,
digs, sweats and clears the gurgling ditch.
As we drove down the empty road,
swept round the only bend for miles
my father drowned the lorry's noise,
told me a ditcher, working well,
sliced the dyke's wall, unhomed a rat
which squealed and bit him as it fell.
He caught the fever they called 'Weels'
(though now I know the name is 'Weil's').
The ambulance flashed past the drowned fields,
too late. For to this day, a man
can die from rats, as in the floods
of Bangladesh or Vietnam.
Then, by the only bend for miles,
smooth lawn flowed round a bungalow.
The farm's young shipwrecked wife filled hours
gardening bikini'd. Calm and rich
this sunlit girl – the story goes –
sent several drivers in the ditch.
Excerpted from Then by Alison Brackenbury. Copyright © 2013 Alison Brackenbury. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Trent rises, 1947,
The shepherd's son's photo-album,
The lunch box,
After the funeral,
Fruit in February,
On a February night,
Out of the wood,
Your signature is required,
On the aerial,
Serena speaks of February,
Victoria Coach Station, 11 p.m.,
St Kilda's wren,
'Song, though, is a uniquely human business',
To Mr W.S., from his agent,
A quiet night,
Late at Long Eaton,
I want life to be more like poetry,
May Day, 1972,
The second jab,
The Shackleton expedition,
In the Black Country,
The Shaker chair,
Near Russell Square,
The First Emperor,
The Wallace Collection,
Diary of a stretcher bearer,
Stubbs and the horse,
John Wesley's horse,
In an August garden,
The nymph considers the garden,
The jobbing welder,
The button factory in Bologna,
The Beatles in Hamburg,
Mentioned in Minnesota,
Wilfred Owen at the Advanced Horse Transport Depot, 1917,
The twenty-ninth of December,
Looking for the cat,
About the Author,
Also by Alison Brackenbury from Carcanet Press,