I'm not really one for the semi-popular myth of poet as druidic seer or fiercely verbose arch-mage, and I'm not much convinced by Geoffrey Hillisms: that difficult subjects require difficult poetry, that difficulty is democratic, or any other implication that urgent necessity sometimes lies behind the obtuse and unwieldy. So when it comes to poems that accumulate in hard fragments of detail and allusion, chock full of archaic-sounding words and implying a serious, almost religious understanding of the 'big' subjects, I'll begin on the footing that it is an affectation. The difference between shamanic and shambolic comes down, then, to how convincing and exhilerating the impression is. Some actors make better wizards than others, and alas, it's usually the older actors.
Tough slivers of poetry jostling against one another, like subminitions packed into a cluster bomb.
Glad to report, then, that 2009 Eric Gregory Award winner James Brookes has rather pulled it off. True enough, there are cracks in the guise here and there, but for the most part he convinces as a reckoner of history and national identity, a Sussex timelord who can give a first-hand account of an outbreak of disease in the 15th century or inhabit the character of an ancient king of Britain, chart a course through 400 years over four stanzas or easily reach for 'blood that pelts out through the first jaw-grip/of pleasure kills' as a description of a mink slipping into water. Even when taking on a simple subject, such as a badger, the intensity with which he stacks up all his precise observations is mind-bending:
"Bitumen dog, dock-tailed, huge on the loose,
full contact ash-scuttle head and shovel-brow,
tilting its panzerfaust snout, scrounge-clad
in Angevin scrubbed velvet: 1/34th scale
S-P artillery at large in Sussex, flanks
all hugger-mugger with the undergrowth."
This is an absolutely typical clutch of lines. There's no actual sentence to speak of - rather, tough slivers of poetry jostling against one another, like subminitions packed into a cluster bomb. Just count the number of objects used to construct the face of the badger in the reader's mind, many of them paraphernalia from periods of English history. It's clear Brookes has worked these poems hard, scraping away all the flash, tweaking every line until it rings a deep note.
Has he scraped too hard though? Here are the ending lines to the first four poems: "the spear of Longinus", "Their eyrie-cry my kyrie eleison", "our hearts a tumbled brace of Whitby jet", "Ivor Gurney dies, speaking to Schubert". The third stands out as one that yields more readily and enjoyably to examination, and makes me wish it weren't the exception. It's not very fair to produce them out of context but even taking that into account, it's head-scratching stuff. I know vaguely about the spear of Longinus and Schubert but even after looking up further information, it's not enough to come away from these pieces with a sense that I have understood the relevance of these references - even on a more intuitive level. And these are not poems that are meant to merely delight with their heady language; there is serious investigatory work at foot here. It just doesn't seem right that one should have to have to have Google always on hand, especially when Brookes is capable of writing in a cut-glass clear style, particular on nature. Here he is on flensing an eel:
"Peel the silk-stocking skin back,
no one escapes the gleaning of such a net ...
And here's part of 'Shrike':
Call a harsh 'chack'; song is a scratchy warble ...
my back's bitter blood-bolt, the terse use of my beak
to keep my barbed-wire larder of corpses in stock.
It's quite clear that Brookes can and does get the balance right, all the time retaining that important sense of gravitas and erudition. But there must be such a thing as too much allusion and I'm not quite convinced of Brookes' need to resort to it at all when he's so good at making plain words sing.
"The above review is entirely wrong. The way I see it, this warlock-in-training has a headstart on most of his contemporaries but has not yet gone far enough. It is possible (I know) to let every line in a book such as this ring with names of such potency that most mere humans cannot comprehend them at all but only feel the sense of forgotten magic rising up to overwhelm them. Brookes is close to being able to chant these verses at midnight and summon armies but he is yet too timid!"