Declan Ryan reviews
The English Sweats is the first collection from James Brookes, an Eric Gregory Award winner in 2009, not to mention a product of the increasingly influential University of Warwick, and is pitched somewhere between chapbook and full collection at 31 pages. Appearances, of course, matter, and this book, from
press Pighog, is a singularly beautiful thing. As, in their own muscular, visceral way, are the poems contained in it. Sussex
The English Sweats has three overriding and interlinked, themes – English history, Brookes’ own family history and a series of animal portraits which co-mingle with the two previous categories. On first reading it is the animal poems, reminiscent of Hughes (with Hill lurking over his shoulder), which reveal themselves most immediately. ‘Shrike’ is particularly arresting, featuring an array of quite astonishing linguistic dexterity:
A week in my wingspan is idle flit and hack;
my back’s bitter blood-bolt, the terse use of my beak
to keep my barbed-wire larder of corpses in stock.
The poem ends with ‘Their eyrie-cry my kyrie eleison’, a line which isn’t just the finest end to a poem I’ve read in quite some time, but also something of an insight into Brookes’ own poetics: making bloody, meaty rhapsody out of the flesh-and-bones of life, death and the natural world - finding glory in gore.
English history, where it is tackled, is met with something akin to the late Mick Imlah’s approach to Scotland, in his masterful The Lost Leader. Historical events are tangled, inextricably, with modern life - Brookes’ own family, the ugliness of military campaigns, political upheaval and intrigue are all handled with a confident reverence, celebrating and utilising the past as a potent source material. In the title poem, Brookes’ incantatory flair and precision, both linguistic and sonic, are at their most polished:
And up on the hill
past the rectory
the heir looks up his marriage in Debrett’s:
the year that he learnt
the bark of muntjac
mating or birthing from the scream of a child;
to tell the marquee
and the caterers’ van
from the unmarked car and the white tent rising.
It is in poems such as 'The English Sweats' that I feel Brookes’ talent is best and most generously displayed. None of the poems in this collection are anything less than fiercely sweated over, if you’ll pardon the pun, and this application is, fortunately, matched by a prodigious talent for surprise, precision and humanity – all of which shine through. The mention of Hill and Imlah may seem hyperbolic to anyone unfamiliar with Brookes’ work - they are indeed heavy names – but they are not lightly thrown. For me, they also hint at a possible fork in the road for Brookes’ future work.
The poems here show a poet wholly in control of his craft, with an eye his eyrie-dweller would envy, and an undoubted gravity, hard-won through his dedication to finding the poem in a thing, rather than simply dazzling with wordplay – something a writer of his abilities might be forgiven at this stage of their career. However, it is the moments when, like Imlah in his pomp, Brookes pulls back from the dislocation of forgotten figures, of delightfully obscure quirks of history, and is more obviously present, that the poems are at their most effective and affecting.
When he allows his own experience to co-exist with his muscular intelligence and awareness of the dark corners of Englishness the poems soar: his belief in the interconnectedness of the personal and historical echoing a memorable phrase from ‘In Clitheroe Keep (II)’
like the dent left on your side
of the double bed
His admirable use of sound, and the frequent presence of Hill-ian violence visible throughout, is not as enduringly appealing as the moments when Brookes is able to invoke the uncelebrated moments of contemporary life, as in ‘Concerning Plunder’, where the narrator begins in bed with his lover:
On your coccyx, a gold contusion
holds the sinews, rope-braid tarred
to the treasure-ship
of your listing body
before shifting his focus to another vessel:
I’ve seen the blueprint of the slave ship Brookes,
the cargo in its wooden gut
is at least in part
And the house that holds
seven tenths of my life
could never own me,
though the hold stays tight
as my roving dog
with a stick in his mouth
loosed on the fields
forgives my horror
that the branch in his maw
like a spar or a mast
is the still fur-clad
foreleg of a deer
a leg that once sailed
in a whole perfect craft
never threatening to spill
its slight ingots of bone.
It was for moments such as this which I returned, repeatedly, to this collection – to be moved, rather than merely impressed by the skill on show, where Brookes dazzles with his ability to connect the impersonal, historical to the homespun and ordinary, without resorting to anecdote, or diary. It is a testament to the quality of Brookes’ work that I was faintly disappointed on the few occasions where I was only wowed.
The ever incisive Jon Stone, in his review at DrFulminaire.com, talks about the difficulty of difficulty, so to speak, and one of the enduring elements of Brookes’ poems is their allusiveness - they demands to be pored over and investigated rather than merely sampled. As Stone writes: ‘the difference between shamanic and shambolic comes down, then, to how convincing and exhilarating the impression is’, and I have to agree with his verdict that Brookes convinces as a conjuror of myths more than sufficiently to reward the work put in by his reader.
Throughout, the surety of the foundations of Brookes’ work guarantees there are no clanging mis-steps, no moments when a reader will feel the scenery wobble, even if there are times, particularly after only one or two readings, where one might feel in danger of getting lost among the syntactical thickets. Already reading like an established and sure-footed master craftsman, if Brookes can let his inner Imlah triumph over his denser, more disembodied Hill tendencies, ever greater achievements seem a certainty.
Declan Ryan is a London-based poet, and organiser of poetry events. He recently read for the Oxfam series in London.