HappenStance, 2009 £4.00
Sphinx High Striper
Reviewed by Matt Merritt, D A Prince and Marcia Menter
It’s all too easy, when writing poetry about the natural world, to fall into the trap of turning every animal, bird and flower into a symbol, of making every encounter with nature bear obvious metaphorical weight. Through nearly 30 years of consistently fine collections, though, Alison Brackenbury has avoided that pitfall, and this chapbook continues in the same vein.
Each of its 24 poems takes close, accurate observation (of cats, mice, hedgehogs, birds, and especially horses) as a starting point, constructs perfectly honed verse around it, then lets the reader make their own links.
So, to take one of my favourite poems, ‘Lapwings’ mourns the decline of a once-familiar farmland bird. On the one hand, she questions how she had missed such strikingly exotic-looking birds before, while at the same time producing wonderfully economical images that suggest she noticed far more than most—they’re compared to cranes stalking the African savannah, and she closes with the wonderful
When their raw cries swept over, my head spun
with all the brilliance of their black and white
as though you cracked the dark and found the sun.
The style throughout is familiar from the poet’s other collections, with rhyme used often and to great effect, but another notable stylistic pleasure is the way the poems are paced—Brackenbury moves easily from longer, musical phrases, to short, sharp sentences which perfectly evoke the tense, wondering atmosphere of everyday encounters with nature.
‘On the aerial’ (I make no apology for quoting another bird poem) takes the starling’s gift for mimicry as its subject, with:
Then through his voice are poured
jay, blackbird’s honey, thrush-lilts. He, half-heard,
tilts at faint stars, is Spring, is every bird.
It’s another superb image, but even while Brackenbury pours so much of the natural world that is evocative, moving or simply surprising through her voice, it always remains recognisably and memorably her own.
D A Prince:
The animal world is not ours; it is other, sometimes sharing the same space, but a mystery that we can only imagine, never enter. This is the interface where Alison Brackenbury has written these poems, where human concerns are confronted by the natural world.
I stayed up too late
but this saved the mouse
with ears like leaves and the world in them
trembling on the stairs.
This is the complete poem, showing the mouse’s vulnerability, and without any trace of sentimentality. Brackenbury accepts the fragile nature of life, and how the animal world parallels ours. It is her varied interactions with the world—horses, cats, birds, hedgehogs, even insects—that hold this collection together. She combines clear-eyed observation with the delicacy and beauty that poetry brings to its subject.
In an earlier collection, Brackenbury used a photograph of herself with one of her horses for the back cover; they are an essential part of her life. Horses frame this collection, opening with a poem based on Wilfred Owen’s letters, ‘Wilfred Owen at the Advanced Horse Transport Depot, 1917’, full of energy and enthusiasm for the “best days”, and allowing the reader space to consider how it will end. The final poem, ‘Laminitis’, ends with a horse, soothed by medication, “Weightless, half-closed, her eye stays fixed on me.” The relationship between humans and animals is complex, and we do not know what they see.
And who understands cats? A wild kitten, rescued, “hissed/ as paper bags go down, at slightest touch.” Kindness and injections have scant effect—
Now when I pick her up she strikes at me,
fills the warm rooms with one long keen of pain
—but she has been named, ‘Shadow’, and haunts the poet’s heart when she has to travel, leaving her in a friend’s care: “How love can tear and binds us to the wild”. Yes, it does. We see this again in a deceptively simple poem, ‘The Shackleton Expedition’, in which Brackenbury uses the four-line rhymed quatrains that she can handle so well, and which fixed the poem immediately in my memory. The setting is simple—
The ship is trapped in ice,
the ship is trapped in snow.
A carpenter with curly hair
nurses his cat below.
—and the action inevitable: the captain orders all animals to be killed so that rations can be conserved. The men survive, but ultimately—
The curly-headed carpenter,
old in his Glasgow flat,
wakes every day to hate the man
who shot his tabby cat.
There is nothing rational in our relationship with animals, and our love for them can bypass all reason. “But people? Oh, the wildest animals!” —Brackenbury has space for them, too, as their walk-on parts in these poems demonstrate.
The effect of this collection was to take me back to Brackenbury’s earlier work, just to spend more time with the way she connects images and reality, showing the emotionally complex world around us in a new light. A deeply satisfying collection.
Disclaimer: I, too, find animals easier to relate to than humans. Maybe this is because I don’t bother to put on any of my various masks in their presence, but simply sniff them out as they sniff me. You can disguise many things, but not your scent, so you might as well relax and be what you are.
Shadow gathers animal-related poems from Alison Brackenbury’s seven previous collections. I came to this pamphlet without having read any of her work, and it’s a fine way to meet her. Maybe it’s my bias talking, but I think love poems ring truer if they’re about horses or hedgehogs or crows or cats. There can be no false professions of eternal devotion, no nonsense about possessing your beloved (even if you are technically your beloved’s owner). Because we live so much longer than most animals, we see a lot of them suffer and die—and that, paradoxically, makes our love fiercer and deeper. Brackenbury’s poems are full of this knowing, stubborn, mournful, joyful love.
Brackenbury is a horsewoman, and wonderful at expressing (rather than explaining) the special closeness that’s possible with these animals that move at our touch. “I weigh horses as beauties weigh up men,” she writes in ‘Foxy’, remembering a flame-red colt rearing and charging during a riding lesson:
The teacher ran to him,
rode him with light leg, soft clicks of tongue.
‘He has confused canter and trot,’ she said,
‘he is too young.’
And then the kicker: “He would be thirty now.” It’s not just that so many years have passed, but that those years are a horse’s whole life.
In ‘Rosie,’ she falls hard for a filly “with a pale blonde mane/ which, grazing, combed moon daisies. Effortless.” But here, the truest expression of love is letting go:
I should have bobbed through April’s woods on you,
have bolted in the blurring stubble field,
sweated, cursed, forgot. Horses are love
but love is for the young and I am old…
you have been advertised. You are for sale.
This is your chance.
I must protest that Brackenbury, born in 1953, is exactly my age and therefore not the least bit old. But that’s not her point. She has a bad hip, and Rosie is “not my horse.” The most a person can do for an animal is to give it its chance. Owls, wrens, field mice, a blind barn cat named Sally—all are evoked with wonder and respect, but not a drop of sentiment. “You wished, you wished, you wished in vain,” Brackenbury writes in ‘The Cricket,’ recalling both her life’s disappointments and the vanished animals in her garden. Ultimately the poem’s music is revealed to be the song of evening crickets, who
whirred, clinked and throbbed, sang constantly,
gave all you wished, through August’s night.
It’s a marvellous moment, letting go of what’s gone, being grateful for what’s here. This is what animals know that we need to know.