Liz Berry reviews
A Republic of Linen
by Patrick Brandon
Patrick Brandon’s debut collection, A Republic of Linen, is full of the careful observation and vivid visual imagery we might expect from a poet originally trained as an artist. Through their quiet, precise examinations, the poems in the collection uncover the curious in the everyday, drawing the reader’s eye to that which is intriguing and moving about the commonplace worlds of home and childhood. In ‘Attic’, the poem from which the collection takes its title, we peer with the narrator through the bedroom window to see his “thin boned bicycle’s still chained/ shivering, to the railing’s below” (Lines 14-15). The swimmer in ‘Sunday’, feeling like a melancholic dolphin in the local pool, slips “Straight in/Straight out” (Line 10) of the showers with porpoise ease while “others soap/their naked selves like cars” (Lines 11-12). This is the key to Brandon’s skill: carefully refocusing the lens to show the everyday world as a strange and surprising place.
A Republic of Linen is a very much a collection about observation. The tools of watching and looking are found everywhere in the poems: cameras, telescopes, windows, mirrors, eyes, spectacles and lenses. The poet’s eye is precise and photographic, an eye “developed to/ such a fine pitch I could pick out/ yarrow and knapweed/ in a teeming meadow” (‘Wildflowers’, Lines 3-6). Whether watching a boy walking a cat through the communal gardens or viewing a chastity rally from a bike with a “slow tracking dolly shot” (‘Clean’, Line 4), the poet’s eye is fixed, ready to capture the image through his own off kilter lens.
Yet conversely it is often failing to see properly that is at the heart of the poems: the “Telescope” fails to deliver its promise, the photographers of ‘Sade’ miss their subject, and at one point the narrator begins to wonder if “there is something wrong with my eyes” (Wildflowers’. Line 2). This difficulty of adequately seeing, capturing and recreating an experience through art or poetry is central to the collection. In ‘The Night Studio’, Brandon describes the creative process as “chasing an image as it shrinks back apace/into the dark from where it came” (Lines 20-21); the artist’s tool – here the brush but just as easily the pen – “threatening to push it further away” (Line 24). The vivid physical description of the photographic process in ‘Single Lens Reflex’ leaves only a blurred memory of the lovers and knowledge that a moment can never truly be captured or conjured by art. The book ends with a poignant sonnet, “En Plein Air”, in which an artist and his son plan to search for a place he recorded in a painting years before. In the final couplet the artist betrays his awareness that the exact moment and place may never possibly be recaptured for they were lost even as they were painted: “a recollection that it was already cold and getting late” (Line 14).
As with many debut collections the poems in A Republic of Linen are varied in both their content and quality. The strongest poems in the collection are those which deal with small intimate glimpses of the everyday and those which Roddy Lumsden describes on the blurb as “strangely confident and confidently strange”: the unsettling mysteries of “Dolphin”, for example, or “Flat Dad” in which the narrator carries his boneless father on his shoulders. A few of the shorter poems seem less deserving of their place, leaving the reader wishing that Brandon had taken the idea further and explored it more fully. Yet overall this is a rewarding collection and the precision of Brandon’s eye and his quiet confidence draws us into his strange and delicately observed world.
Liz Berry is a British poet and school teacher based in London. She won an Eric Gregory in 2009, and her debut is forthcoming from tall-lighthouse this summer.