‘Now and Then’ by Alison Brackenbury

Alison Brackenbury 
Alison Brackenbury grew up in the countryside in Lincolnshire, in the North Midlands of England. She is descended from a family of farmworkers, including five generations of prize-winning shepherds. She was the first member of her family to go to university, having won a scholarship to Oxford.

From 1990 to 2012, she may have been Britain’s only poet in a boiler suit, as she helped to run the tiny metal finishing business which supported her husband’s family. Although town-based, she also managed to spend inexcusable amounts of time on the hills of Gloucestershire with a series of shaggy and unaffordable ponies.

Despite (and sometimes because of) these distractions, she has produced eight collections of poetry. She has also scripted a variety of poetry programmes which have been broadcast on BBC Radio, including Singing in the Dark, about the stubborn survival of traditional song, praised as ‘evocative, amusing, and utterly compelling’. Her work has won an Eric Gregory and a Cholmondeley Award. Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales, wrote recently: ‘Alison Brackenbury loves, lives, hymns and rhymes the natural world and its people like no other poet’.

Alison Brackenbury’s latest collection is Then, published by Carcanet Press in 2013.
Then draws on Alison Brackenbury’s lifetime’s experience of rural England, its people and its ways, and the threats to its survival. From the lapwings of her childhood Lincolnshire to the recurrent floods in Gloucestershire, where she has lived for many years, the poems reach urgently to both past and future, finding connections and disconnections. The signs of a changing climate are emblematic of larger erasures. The poems keenly focus the beauty and the harshness of the natural world. They remind us of our own fragility, and our responsibility: “We are made of water. But we forgot”.”
Now and Then
Time gallops. In my twenties, when I published my first collection, Dreams of Power, I thought time both infinite and irritating. The young wear black (beautifully) because they are, of course, immortal. In my twenties, despite my full time job and the other distractions I invented for myself (like horses), I did have time to write. As long as I ignored most of the claims of most of the people in my life (and all the claims of a dusty house) I could spend hours, for example, struggling with long poems.

Why did I try so hard to write long poems? It was partly because of the example of past time. I had ‘read English’ at university. Absorbed and admiring, I had read Paradise Lost, The (unfinished) Faerie Queene, and The Prelude. My lengthy ambitions were not unique. Time can be a dangerous friend to the writer, who may end up writing for its own sake.

But, as a publisher once said to me, a first book comes with a weight of experience behind it: the whole of the poet’s previous life. So I was very lucky to have time to unleash this flood (and to start to build some techniques to harness it). The results were wildly uneven. I very much admire young poets who now tell me that they are careful about what they offer for publication. I was not. Especially in my first two collections, poems were rushed into print.

There might have been a certain logic to this. It was the period when I fell off a galloping (riding-school) horse and thirteen other horses leapt over me. Curled up like a fallen jockey, I counted each one. Time did slow then, as hooves and bellies flashed above me. Only the tip of one hoof brushed my shoulder.

I was lucky again when it came to the gallop of poetry. My publisher was at my shoulder, tactfully preventing me from publishing two long poems in my second book, Breaking Ground. The unpublished one was, I’d now guess, as suspect as my riding technique. (I must still have it somewhere, buried in a wardrobe.) Yet that book also contained, I am sure, some of the best lines I ever wrote. The young of the tribe are meant to be its risk-takers, to rush into fights – or childbirth.

Then I did have a child. Again, I note, admiringly, that several younger poets whose work I value now write as well – or even better – after their first child. Some women, after childbirth – no names, no packdrill! – seem to have lost publishers, direction, or even the desire to write. What most parents lose, of course, is ‘free’ time.

I can warn writers of either gender that the arrival of a child proves starkly that writers need two kinds of time. One is spent scribbling, or pattering furiously on a keyboard. That time may still be there, if children will sleep, and your household will tolerate some degree of disorder. (Until my daughter was at least three, it was not a good idea to cross our floors barefoot.) But there is another kind of time, when you are apparently doing other tasks, but the mind is quietly brewing and brooding. It cannot do that with children tugging at your sleeve, spilling drinks or fighting. This can be terribly frustrating both for the demanding infant and the de-railed poet, now parent.

I also faced a double-trick of lost time. My shreds of technique seemed to have disappeared into some maternal abyss. I was writing in fragments, clutching at straws. (There are no long poems in my third book, Christmas Roses, and technically, it is probably my most unsure.) Then pockets of time began to open up, as my daughter began school and Went to Tea with friends. I remember, during one of these sudden absences, sitting down and writing a poem which, once again, rang strongly, like the legs of a fit horse.

But this poem had bitter echoes, of history and power. For time brings new subjects. Having children exposes you to the raw mess of your world, in hospitals without enough midwives, and in schools where ceilings fall in and bullying goes unchecked, while the middle classes scramble for places in small grammar schools, or demand inflated professional wages to ship their children off to the immaculate private school, half a mile from the state classroom’s splintered plaster.

I came to look back at my own work with equal severity. I decided, rightly, that too many badly groomed poems had galloped into print. I also decided, probably wrongly, that I would leave a seven year gap before I published my fourth collection, 1829. An excellent young poet recently told me of their plan to delay the publication of their second collection. I strongly advised against this.

For, despite the appearance of a Selected Poems in the early Nineties, I am sure there are early readers of mine who now think that I am dead, or have mercifully abandoned poetry to its own devices. I must add, in my self-defence, that those ‘lost’ years were probably some of my busiest, spent on horses, travel, time-consuming activities with my daughter, and on grass-roots politics. Some poets ramble in middle-age. I did not have time.

When I was an impatient, time-rich, younger poet, I sometimes cast around for subjects. As the Millennium rose drunkenly over the horizon I found, soberly, that subjects I would never have chosen had descended on me, following death and a dark period. Every family has its monsters and demons. Sometimes they all arrive together.

“Then life, obligingly, showed teeth”. (This quotation comes from ‘Leaving Cheltenham’, a poem in my new collection, Then.) I did not, in fact, leave Cheltenham. But I began to realise that certain subjects were leaving me, especially a vein of love poetry which had become more and more guarded. Through cowardice as much as principle, I do not like writing directly about my living family. But, though I was writing more sparely, I began to sense a new season: stories of other lives, terrible events crashing in from the world beyond my own troubles, which echo through my fifth and sixth collections, After Beethoven, and Bricks and Ballads.

As their titles suggest, strangely, this was a season of music. My daughter grew up and left home. I again had that dual time to write, both to scribble, and to brood. The new century’s extravagance and disasters had an unexpected accompaniment: a revival of Britain’s traditional songs. I listened to these more and more, both in the echoing recordings of dead singers, and the assured (and regional ) voices of the very young. I called my seventh collection, after a poem about Edward Thomas: Singing in the Dark. A new time had come for what Thomas called ‘the old songs’, and for my own poetry.

My new collection, my eighth, has just been published in my sixtieth year, (by Carcanet Press, who have published me loyally since the beginning). It is called Then. There is no poem in the book of that name. Why did I choose that urgent, cryptic title? I have come to see this book as a swinging hinge. In one direction, it opens back, into my country family. There are poems about my father, who started work as a ploughboy, and told me the litany of the great horses’ names: “Spanker, Sharper, Prince and Bob/ were horses that my father drove”. There are poems about his family, a dynasty of notable shepherds:
          My grandfather, his tallest son,
          grasp ribbons, cups to keep.
          Gone, gone. All waste. And yet they laugh.
Past time is not all darkness. My parents, like my grandfather, had a passion for observing birds. Some. almost driven out by the practices of modern farming, have now begun to return, like the lapwings I saw in the last year of my mother’s and father’s life.
          And I forgot their massive arcs of wing.
          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.
But the hinge swings two ways. Then begins with the short account of a past Lincolnshire flood, in the small town which was my birthplace:
          When you heard the water whisper
          in Crown Yard and Sailors’ Alley,
Just before the book’s door closes, there is a longer poem: the account of another flood, which left the small town in Gloucestershire, where I now live, without mains water for eight days:
          Then came the panic. For the pumps were drowned.
          In wastes of water, taps would soon run dry.
          Then people fought in queues across the town
          as bottled water, glittering, swept by
          on rain-soaked pallets, for the rain was sharp
          as ice. Cars loaded. Then the shops fell dark.
We had seen the future, and it was not going to work. The floods of 2007 convinced many people in Gloucestershire that our climate had, indeed, swung against us. Like everyone who continues to get up in the morning, I cherish unreasonable hope. The final poem of Then is called ‘No’, but suggests, with timely perversity:
          Nothing in all history
          can reach to take your hand from me,
          the dark, the rain’s gift, O
          we should be glad.
Do I have any time left? I hope so. My country family (when not worn out by shepherding) was long-lived. I have poems, instead of sheep, to mill around younger, and patient editors. But I wonder about the circumstances in which even my own life will end.

Traditional farming, whose strengths are praised in Then, has been replaced by a very different way of treating land and stock. Cruelly intensive animal-rearing (world-wide) has over-used antibiotics. We may soon lose our best defences against infection. And what have we done, in my lifetime, to our fragile and beautiful world? I did not mean, as a young poet, to prophesy. If I must do so now, I do not want to be Cassandra.
          I cry like water. Do not hope.
          Switch off, then walk. Refuse to cope,
          in Hatherley, Hawling, Whaddon.

          The rivers rise, the doomed pumps hum,
          the walls are down, the waters come
          to Munich, Paris, London.
Now, the door swings. Soon it will be shut. What then? Time gallops. Listen.
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.
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.
No one is ever good enough,
or kind enough.
No one stays awake
through the lovely rush of rain which fills our dark.
No one can hold the music.
They are counting coins or frowning,
they are toppling, they are drowning.
No one is good.

But nothing is as quick as us,
no screen can match us,
tape’s whirr catch us,
nothing tilts like sun
to light from sad.
Nothing in all history
can reach to take your hand from me,
the dark, the rain’s gift, O
we should be glad.
from Then (Carcanet Press, 2013).

Order Then here, here or here.

Visit Alison’s website.
Alison has a Facebook group, Poems from Alison, whose members receive a free new poem from her every two months. It can be found here.

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