A poem for August…


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CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported and GNU Free Documentation License 1.3

New book… First, a shameless note to say that I have a new collection due from Carcanet in March 2016.  So if you would like a cheap and cheerful reader for 2016, have a microphone, and can be reached from Cheltenham by public transport, I would be delighted to come. I don’t do workshops, but do rehearse readings very thoroughly, keep to time religiously, and am always glad to talk to audiences afterwards.  Do feel free to contact me, without obligation, via the Contact Page on this website, which sends messages straight to my current email.

Forthcoming readings
I am reading in Cardiff on Thursday, October 8th, 6 p m, at the National Museum, Cardiff, with John Freeman, Phillip Gross and Alyson Hallett. We will be reading our poems from the anthology Map, which celebrates the beautiful and pioneering map of Britain made by the geologist William Smith.  We’ll also read a short selection of our own work on related themes.  Mine will probably include a good deal of limestone and water! I look forward to a rich and varied evening, in a fascinating setting.  Full details at

I am reading in Oxford, at the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Walton Street, on October 31 (Hallowe’en!). The evening starts at 6 p m and ends about 9 p m. There’s a great selection of other readers: Claire Crowther, Mimi Khalvati and Chrissy Lee Jing-Jing.  And an open mic! (Tickets £5 on the door.)

August is, I think, too sleepy for long blogs.  So here is a short dusk poem…

In August

Light touches us. Dusk licks at bats.
And so I stand with aching feet
watching high beech leaves bunch, then shift
in air too cool to lure our cats.
In lavender spikes, I hear first beat,
a thrumming moth.  Ah now, they lift,
wingtips too fine for eyes to hold.
Stay.  Stay.  But those pulsed bodies pass,
like summer, slip, to whitening gold.

Alison Brackenbury
Published in Domestic Cherry


Snowdrop and the radio

New book…

First, a shameless note to say that I have a new collection due from Carcanet in March 2016.  So if you would like a cheap and cheerful reader for 2016, have a microphone, and can be reached from Cheltenham by public transport, I would be delighted to come. I don’t do workshops, but do rehearse readings very thoroughly, keep to time religiously, and am always glad to talk to audiences afterwards.  Do feel free to contact me, without obligation, via the Contact Page on this website, which sends messages straight to my current email.

Forthcoming reading

I am reading in Oxford, at the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Walton Street, on October 31 (Hallowe’en!). The evening starts at 6 p m and ends about 9 p m. There’s a great selection of other readers, including Claire Crowther, Anne-Marie Fyfe and Mimi Khalvati. And an open mic!

Open Doors: BBC 6 Music This blog is being written – though not posted – in the week of my birthday.  So, in the faint after-haze of chocolate and idleness, I decided to babble happily, about a source of comfort and inspiration: my favourite radio station. My family’s love affair with radio began in 1936, when my father, aged ten, listened to the Abdication speech in a shepherd’s cottage, on a massive, brand-new set. (As a Republican, who thinks that a royal life with the paparazzi may be a particularly gleaming circle of Hell, I live in hope of a repeat performance.)

Why don’t I watch television? This has much to do with a man called Keith, who, in his spare time, renovated and sold second-hand televisions. I asked Keith if he had a good one. Keith said he’d let me know. That was in 1977. Keith wasn’t noted for speed. But I was driving unusually fast, when, almost thirty years later, I slipped out of our family business (normally only deserted in case of fire or death) and headed into the desert of Cheltenham’s retail parks, (normally avoided, by me, like the plague, not least for their terrifying traffic).

Having avoided speed humps, cornering vans, and actually killing anyone, I reached the counter and gasped to the assistant ‘Do you sell digital radios?’ I only master the technology I really want. I have never learnt to text. But I wanted to hear an independent spoken word station – called Oneword.  It played snatches of Wordsworth and entire Poe stories (slightly more frightening than the retail park).  I thought it might venture into new poetry.  It did – until it died and was replaced by birdsong.  But by then, I had flicked through my manual, pressed the small radio’s buttons, and found a whole new world of songs: the station which is now BBC 6 Music.

A few years later, the BBC decided that it would help its finances by sweeping away 6 Music, to share birdsong oblivion with Oneword. But its listeners (including me) wrote to the Director General and to the newspapers, clamoured on social media and finally contributed hard cash to plead for the station on advertising boards by the front doors of BBC offices. We saved 6 Music.

Why? Imagine that you are young, in the 60s or 70s, or that you have a young family, in the 80s and 90s. Funds are limited.  Music comes on LPs or CDs.  They are expensive.  You twiddle the dial. You hear a few, well-known names.  You hear the burble of bright vacuous pop (especially after the invention of the manufactured band.  Step forward, the Spice Girls!) Somewhere, you are sure, there is new music worth exploring.  But how can you find it? After Madness (whom I loved) I gave up. I went off to Radio 3 and worked my way through the operas of Mozart, Schubert song cycles, and excellent, but very late programmes on world music and folk.

Then 6 Music arrived.  It was like having a wise friend with infinite patience and a houseful of music. Here was black humour from Morrissey, tender stories from Elbow, joyful lust from James.  This music reached me in a dark tunnel of family illness.  The strength and weakness of much of the pop music I knew was its focus upon (usually youthful) love and sex.  But Guy Garvey’s songs also ranged through childhood and male friendship.  James’ ‘Sit Down’ once astonished me in a supermarket aisle, as it spoke to the lame and shy by the baked beans (and to me) Those who feel the breath of sadness Sit down next to me Those who find they’re touched by madness Sit down next to me Those who find themselves ridiculous Sit down next to me…. Of course it needs the depth, the drops, the lilts and life of its tune.  If you don’t know ‘Sit Down’, do seek it out. It is only twenty-five years old – I never claim to be up to date.

But 6 Music did bring to me, freshly, the songs of a young Sheffield group called The Arctic Monkeys. I think Alex Turner’s dark love song based on pub names – ‘Cornerstone’ – is an English classic.  It also brought David Bowie’s recent CD.  ‘The Next Day’.  One track ‘Where are We Now?’ describes re-visiting a now re-united Berlin: ‘walking the dead…’ Bowie has said that melody is the defining quality of English music, which he particularly tried to bring to his own songs.  It is the unashamed sweetness of the melody, and the aged fragility of Bowie’s voice, which pierces me whenever I hear him sing the title phrase of ‘Where are We Now?’ It has a sadness so intense that it is close to ecstasy.  Time stops

. A warning about BBC 6 Music! This station is a serious absorber of time.  If you begin to listen, you will linger in doorways, on sofas, on your way to pay bills, or to leave for your job, all because you have to hear the end of the song, or to catch the name of the singer.  Already, I have been here too long. Tea is uncooked, papers unsorted. Right. Let me rush you through my days with 6 Music, followed by occasional highlights… As I get up early, I start with Chris Hawkins, in the grey, or glow, before 7 a.m. Chris, at that hour, is considerately quiet, keen, but never strident, attentive to listeners, and produces some astonishing music.  He was as appreciative as his listeners when a young singer, Lucy Rose, sang a love song, exquisitely, live, before most of the nation had reached for its alarm clock. For 6 Music, with its many live sessions, is a station to restore your faith in performance, in music, and in art itself.  Chris is also a favourite of mine (and the cat’s) for reasons which I will reveal later.

At seven, Shaun Keaveny tumbles on to the airwaves. I have been listening to Shaun (originally in the small hours) since I first acquired that digital radio.  There are DJs who are (still) slick, mid-Atlantic, timed to the second, glacially insincere.  Then there are DJs who leave their breakfast, leaking butter, on the sofa, who arrive rain-soaked on a bike, and who (noisily) lose their place in their sheaves of emails.  That is Shaun.  He has a passion for Led Zeppelin and is frequently, ruefully, funny. His art is to seem to be us, on air, with almost-spilt coffee and a cornucopia of good music.

Life prevents me hearing much of Lauren Laverne’s show, on at 10.  But the little I have heard includes listeners’ choice of tracks, which often hit shared pulses of pleasure (or deeper memories).  One reason, I believe, why 6 Music listeners campaigned for this station is that it was theirs: open to almost immediate suggestions, comments and contributions.  This is very new in radio.  Despite the views of a very vocal section of listeners, I think Radio 3 also benefits from such openness. I hope that BBC management will hold its nerve and keep Radio 3’s door ajar for at least part of the day. Not least due to the Horse,

I don’t usually return to 6 Music until between 4 and 7, to hear Steve Lamacq.  Steve is notable for his respectful rapport with his listeners – and for his encyclopedic knowledge of music, going back decades to his youth as a music journalist and talent-spotter.  Ignorantly, I admire.  Enjoyably, I learn. Marc Riley, who follows at 7 p m, is linked in my mind to the cooking of multiple vegetables and to live sessions so good that a family member, usually indifferent to music, once froze, plate in hand, to ask ‘Who is that?’ Answer:  Jesca Hoop. She, and Marc’s programme, are therefore highly recommended. 9 p m to midnight in our house can involve anything from toothpaste to late night bookkeeping (and cat fights).  Amongst the fluoride and the flying fur, Gideon Coe presides, calmly, with unpredictable and good music, often to a theme, with interesting input from listeners far more awake than I am.

That’s the weekday cycle. At the weekend, Mary Anne Hobbs is there from 7 a m, with a quiet, infectious passion for music and thought.  This brings unexpected contributors, such as the composer Howard Goodall to the microphone.  She introduces some of my favourite music in the week, and justifies this station’s name. It is a music station.  You may hear Stuart Maconie playing early John Cage, or Tom Robinson interviewing my favourite folk duo, Show of Hands. 6 Music is unafraid of folk music. It ran special programmes over Easter, which introduced me to the delicate songs of Molly Drake (Nick’s mother, a moving and fearless songwriter).

Another warning! Listening to 6 Music can prove expensive… Cerys Matthews on Sunday mornings (10 a m to 1 p m) opens up a box of wildly varied music: blues, folk, old, new.  Even the briefest extract deserves eavesdropping. Iggy Pop bestrides Friday evening, from 7 to 9 p m.  Ferociously intelligent (and funny) he has just played music from the 50s, 40s, brand-new groups, and enticing songs in several languages, while I typed today, mind happily torn. I should dedicate this ramshackle piece to Iggy, without whom it would have been finished MUCH SOONER. Guy Garvey is now at home on 6 Music on Sunday afternoons, at 2 p m.  Alas, I usually miss him each week, due to the Horse.  But I recommend him warmly, for humour, insight and excellent taste in music. I am, of course, entirely uninfluenced by the fact that he once played a song I suggested…

Finally, good reader or listener, trust me. I had decided to write this blog BEFORE a recent email from the cat and me to Chris Hawkins.  Chris had asked his listeners why they were up before 7 a m, listening to him and fine music.  I had expected to hear messages from farmers and bakers, patient and essential.  I did.  But the bonnet maker surprised me.  Then the cat and I decided to explain our own early morning sessions in the front room’s first sun by sending Chris a short poem. Chris not only read it on air (very well, at that giddily early hour). He then sent me a kind email saying that there had been ‘a lovely response’ from listeners. Of course, reader, I am incorruptible.  Chris was already on my list of the unmissable. The cat concurs. Cerys Matthews, too, enthusiastically includes poetry in her programmes. Adam Horovitz  appeared there in May, Liz Berry and her excellent publisher in June.

One of 6 Music’s most appealing qualities is its openness to all kinds of material – including poetry.  I have thought for a long time that music is poetry’s natural ally, and that its deserved popularity in Britain could embrace the odd poem, too. Kate Tempest, rightly admired both by musicians and poets, has encouraged me in this belief.  So has BBC 6 Music, a station which has opened many doors. Do help keep them open by listening – and contributing.  How? Just ask your cat…

Finally, here is a poem, which should be in my new book, next March, and draws upon another time-devouring passion.  As you will see, I would be safer staying indoors with 6 Music!


What is in the jug?  A shoot of holly

shockingly green, though drought now stunts the tree.

Roses of the pink of a thumbnai

l where good blood quietly throbs.  Geraniums,

crumpled, brilliant, soaring out of water,

all sprigs which I have sliced off by mistake

in careless gardening.  Now they thrive for days,

which, left in noon’s heat, would not last an hour,

things done in error, the odd corners

of our lives, which flower and flower.

Alison Brackenbury

Published in PN Review

Do you need a reader for 2016?

First, a shameless note to say that I have a new collection due from Carcanet in March 2016.  So if you would like a cheap and cheerful reader for 2016, have a microphone, and can be reached from Cheltenham by public transport, I would be delighted to come.

I don’t do workshops, but do rehearse readings very thoroughly, keep to time religiously, and am always glad to talk to audiences afterwards.  Do feel free to contact me, without obligation, via the Contact Page on this website, which sends messages straight to my current email.

Now, back to my blog….

Bertholt Brecht image

It sounds like the beginning of a bad literary joke. Bertolt Brecht and two china birds went into a tea room in Lincoln…

The birds were there because I had just bought them (rather cheaply) from a shop on Steep Hill. I was there, back in the grandest local town of my childhood, as a judge in a verse-speaking contest.  Brecht was there, between the pages of his ‘Love Poems’, because it was the book in my possession which I most wanted to read.

Last time I blundered into blogs, it was to write about Beckett. With the help of Henry’s Tea Room, friendly haven from freezing streets, I seem to be embarking on a mini-series of scary dramatists (beginning with B) to whose poetry I am addicted.

As I have mostly seen plays in provincial theatre, framed by Victorian plasterwork – first in Lincoln – I am a kind of litmus paper for the popularity of playwrights.  I have never seen Beckett on stage.  But I have bumped into Brecht on several occasions, including a performance of Mother Courage.  The British Museum’s recent exhibition, Germany, displayed a German refugee cart, from the early twentieth century. (How many of these are being dragged, laden, down the roads of our world?) A caption linked the small wooden cart to Mother Courage, and remarked that audiences sympathised with her, ruthless camp-follower and dealer, with a warmth of which Brecht disapproved.

Brecht wrote thousands of poems. Two selections of these crossed my path in the 1970s, when I worked in a technical college library.  No, librarians do not read books all day. But then, they could have a sneaky look at them while cataloguing the latest acquisition for a keen A-level lecturer.  The catalogued books could then mysteriously accompany the cataloguer into the store room which was also a staff room, for the long evening break, as the mistletoe bunches grew blacker at the tops of the trees outside and the stars froze.  The half hour in the store room was draughtier than Henry’s Tea Room. Afterwards, the cataloguer went to somewhere called a bookshop, and ordered the books for herself. Henry’s Tea Room was above a stationery shop, which in my childhood, had several shelves of books. It has no books today.

Those Methuen books are now described as ‘long out of print’. I still have mine, but I rarely look at them, for the best lines have stayed in my head: unexpected, brutal, and compassionate by turns.  So David Constantine’s and Tom Kuhn’s translations, spotted in a catalogue, were bought (online) and bumped in my bag to Lincoln. There, my father, aged nineteen, used to run in full Army gear, pack on back, up the cobbles of Steep Hill, training for the final onslaught of the Second World War.  Brecht, who had fled Nazi Germany, was by then in the USA, where he wrote some of the poems I brought in from the cold.

Between the friendly young waitress in her frilled black and white, and a mild older woman with tea, and a pink mackintosh, I began to read what lay behind the rough red heart on the cover of Brecht’s book. I looked around cautiously, over my excellent snack. I was glad the print was no larger.  This is still not the book for a Tea Room.  Its first introduction begins by stating that Brecht ‘loved women, many women’.  What was the cost, to those who loved Brecht? It can only be said that his last wife, Helene Weigel, stayed with him, ran his theatre company, and championed his plays and poems after his death. Brecht’s work was then entrusted to their daughter Barbara, whose words open this edition of the Love Poems.

Their opening poems fling open a window on to shame-free and ruthless lust, where women can be ‘apricots’ – and discarded, like unwanted fruit stones. ‘I wipe her down with hay […] and leave her friendlily – for that’s my way.’  This is from ‘Baal’s Song’, whose title reminds us that Brecht’s poems can be in many voices, and include songs from his dramas.  Have you heard ‘The Song of Surabaya-Johnny’ with Kurt Weill’s music? Here it is, in German, sung by Lotte Lenya: ‘Du hast kein Herz, Johnny –’

It is a song of hypnotic desperation.  This is not how things should be. But it is how, at times, they are: a place to which poetry must come.

But ‘Oh how she laughed at him!’ (Song of Love).  Barbara, Brecht’s daughter, remarks how amusing he could be.  Not only the laughter, but some of the most memorable lines in ‘Love Poems’ are given to women.  A girl, washing clothes, considering her troubled life, bursts out (as Brecht might) ‘But if you never wore it/ What was the linen for?’ A stripper, at the climax of her act, remembers ‘I haven’t stopped the milk’.

This is a book which sharpens the senses. ‘The smell of thyme and peppermint […] Never again would you want to leave this place.’ (‘The River Sings Praises’).  There is a tenderly exact description of Helene Weigel, with her ‘frail and noble shoulders’ making up for a play. The poems are of pain, as well as passion. The speaker in ‘Buying Oranges’ remembers ‘bitterly’ ‘Of course you are not anywhere in this town’.

I thought, behind that line, I could hear the ghost of its (still bitterer) twin in German.  I wish this book did include the German originals, and Brecht’s own mischievous, sometimes thumping, sometimes delicate rhythms. But, like the river, I would like to sing the praises of the translators who bring Brecht to the page in rhyme, and with so much energy – or, as Love Poems offers, ‘vi-tal-i-tay’.  The translators’ introduction explains that this book is the beginning of ‘a large selection’ of Brecht’s poetry, to be brought into English by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn. (For Brecht wrote thousands of poems….)  When this appears, I shall not wait for another trip to Henry’s Tea Rooms.

Many poems in this first selection have links to Margarete Steffin, a working-class girl whom Brecht consulted about his writing, and who died, of TB in Moscow, in 1941. Occasionally, I felt in them the chill of unyielding ideology. But, in his‘19th Sonnet’, Brecht reveals a private mythology: ‘the guardians, the six elephants’ he has instructed to defend Margarete. He complains to them that he has not heard any news of her.  ‘They eyed me, swaying slightly.’  Then they charge ‘the guilty party: me.’   The poem is a love note, of tenderness laid bare in humour, with the joke on Brecht himself:

So chased
To the post office and squinting frightened through
The window I wrote the letter I owed you.

The next poem is mine.  Dwarfed by Brecht’s elephants, it pays its debts to a river: not the green water of Lincoln’s swans, in the Brayford Pool, but the great Trent, which runs through the smaller town where I was born.  I associate the Trent with a ruthless power, even beyond that of the states and forces of Brecht’s Europe.  (Brecht, famously parsimonious, would have deplored the waste of money which this poem describes, perhaps even more than the superstition which flung good coin into the current.)

The price

Seven lives a year
were what the Trent would take.
A farmer with a lamb
he thought would never make

the grass and heat of spring
ducked through the hedge’s hole
dropped down that fading bleat
to save a human soul.

Still, as my father grew,
sixpence or silver three’penny
was flung in once a year
to pay the Trent her fee.

Old lazy flood, great snake,
for all I say or think,
my purse lies near my heart.
Here is my silver.  Drink.

Alison Brackenbury
Published in Scintilla

The big bad Beckett


The big bad Beckett photoThe big bad Beckett

I think I am very lucky not to be afraid of Samuel Beckett. I recently read an open letter from Michael Volpe, a passionate advocate of opera, to Darren Henley, the new Chief Executive of the Arts Council.  Michael’s letter argued that children’s views of ‘the arts’ is deeply and permanently influenced by what they experience at school.

I agree. I have met many people, often older than I am, who say, at the mention of poetry: ‘I did learn one poem at school, which I really liked. It was…’ Out comes the poem, word perfect. It is hard to think of a greater gift. Sadly, I know that other people think of poetry with fear, indifference, or outright hostility because of few, or unhappy encounters with poems in the classroom.

I could have been one of those people. My very first teacher, the untrained wife of the village headmaster, devoted one session a week to what she called ‘poetry’.  I still don’t know where she found such terrible stuff. It was a cross between those bleak efficient little pieces that used to crop up in teachers’ magazines, and downright doggerel.  There is, of course, marvellous poetry written by poets who have stayed on the wavelength of children, even on a wet Tuesday afternoon. Luckily, I met with that – and nursery rhymes – at home.

Then, at a small country secondary school, I met Beckett. My English teachers, including the headmistress, were passionate about their work. They had noticed a BBC Schools Radio series about modern literature. Endless brickbats are now hurled at the BBC.  So I will lob two back, by pointing out that the BBC did not simply broadcast a Beckett play to our clunky school radio, in the late 1960s. A dozen years earlier they had commissioned Beckett to write that play, All that Fall.

I see, from my bright new screen, that the BBC’s bold commission plunged Beckett into what he called ‘a whirl of depression’.  I do indeed remember the journey of Mrs Rooney, the old woman in the play, as one of deepening sorrow. But I also remember the exhilaration of that ‘whirl’.  For Mrs Rooney, as Beckett stressed to the actress Billie Whitelaw, had ‘an Irish accent’.

It was an accent I knew well.  The Irish (like Beckett himself) are often travellers, skilled, diligent exiles.  My Lincolnshire village was rich with Irish farm workers, jockeys and grooms.  My family was equally respectful of their hard work and their humour.  One of the older Irish grooms once patiently showed me (a horseless, horse-mad child!) every one of the thoroughbreds currently in his charge.  He opened a final door on a young racehorse sent home, an awkward gelding with a kind eye. ‘This one could win a race’. He paused. I nodded, respectfully.  ‘If you took him in a bus’.

‘One of the thieves was saved. (Pause) It’s a reasonable percentage. (Pause)’. I have just had to check this quotation from Waiting for Godot. I squeaked with delight when I found the written stage directions. For, like my parents’ generation, learning poetry at school, I did not own these words in a book. They had stayed in my head, not least because it had the same rhythm as the Irish groom’s.  Statement. Pause. Last line.  The pause is a breath. It lets time breathe. The last line, however bleak, is a joke.
So I have never been afraid of thinking Beckett’s writing, at times, very, very funny. Since I heard All that Fall at school, I have never studied Beckett. So I have no idea if this is a heretical view. If you have just thrown something at your shining screen, I apologise. But, in casual reading, I am heartened to find that other listeners hear humour in Beckett’s voices, and in his life.  Bryan Appleyard tells a story of seeing the writer in a pub, approached by a drunken admirer, who told him: ‘ “I have been reading you for the past thirty years.”  “You must”, said Beckett, “be very tired.”  And all three of us burst out laughing.’
Now I must shut the stable door (or at least, wedge it open) and turn to The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett. It could prop the stable door, for it has five hundred pages. Half of these are notes – but, for once, very good ones. The other half are Beckett’s poems. Do not be afraid! Let us be the class in front of All that Fall. (Even the title rhymes.) Just listen.

Beckett’s two published collections of poetry mark the beginning and end of his writing life.  There are many more poems in between. Occasional lines in the earliest poems reminded me of an early painting by Picasso, a skilful work in the manner of nineteenth century realists.  Beckett’s poems, like Joyce’s prose, have an early scattering of exquisite, almost precious writing: ‘the lonely petal of a high bright rose.’ (p.42 )

But these are only flecks in the poems’ grain: what Beckett calls, in another poem, ‘the scurf of beauty’. (p.48)  From the first, the writer of the Collected has an unflinching eye for physical suffering. Many of us, especially as we grow older, become familiar with eye or cancer clinics, with vomit and wounds.  Poets often fight shy of this. Not Beckett. His earliest poems feature ‘red sputum’, and an old man’s ‘stump’ (pages 6, 7). In the Collected’s first poem are ‘the prone who must/ soon take up their life and walk’. (p.5).

Is this a morbid artistic whim? No. Life is often far, far worse. Penelope Warner, writing in issue 68 of Acumen, describes a meeting with Beckett’s own uncle, who had already lost his legs. This ‘stump of a man’, Beckett was told, might soon need to have his arms amputated too. It is much easier to ignore life’s stumps and sputum.  At its best, Christianity, once scorned as ‘the religion of slaves’, never does. Nor does Beckett, whose poems gleam with liturgy: ‘Lord have mercy upon us’.

‘Through the world politely turning/ From the loutishness of learning’- (p.55)
The lout (and, Beckett clearly fears, the academic) are without sympathy.  But even Beckett’s grimmest poems are alert with compassion.  After the sputum and stumps, his speaker sees: ‘a lamentable family of grey verminous hens […] trembling, half asleep against the closed door of a shed/ with no means of roosting.’ (p.7) ‘Lamentable’ gives the hens a Biblical dignity. The long vowels of ‘roosting’ mourn for them. Yet the lines are intensely practical.  Beckett was noted, in life, for acts of extraordinary kindness. His speaker would like to prop open the door of that shed.

The shed door is also ajar for jokes. The insect Beckett describes sympathetically as ‘my brother the fly’ ‘could not serve typhoid and mammon’. (p.17) Voices echo in
Beckett’s earliest lines: ‘I was in that field before and I got put out’. The universal Adam? Perhaps. One small boy in Dublin? Certainly. The same wryness, dearer than wit, twists through the final poems: ‘something/ not life/ necessarily’. (p. 202).

‘Not life’. Beckett’s uncompromising negatives have always seemed to me a kind of heroism, which redeem even as they deny ‘the arctic flowers/ that do not exist.’ (p.8)  Even his lines can refuse to lengthen into the comfort of pentameters, often denying this by one syllable. Yet his refrains can beat like an urgent pulse: ‘keep on the move/ keep on the move’. (p.20) Beckett’s translation from Paul Eluard could be a comment on his own work: ‘Deep in your refusal pleasure springs’. (p138)

Beckett’s own poems in French need not frighten away the English reader. My own French accent would make a Parisian despair. My French vocabulary is tiny. Yet I found I could follow many of the French poems, and even grasp how Beckett works to catch their echoes in English. He risks archaism to keep the long breath of ‘vers les vieilles lumières’ in ‘towards the lights of old’. (p. 99)

‘Do you hope to undo/ the knot of God’s pain?’ (p.33)  Beckett’s poems loosen it sufficiently to slip music, that saving pause, between the strands. In the early poems, between the stumps, is song, ‘Then for miles only wind’ (p.6). Single lines float as luxurious fragments: ‘grave suave singing silk’ (p. 10). If Beckett’s is high art, it finds music in low life: ‘the bawd/ puts her lute away.’ (p. 11).

The starkest questions of the later poems in the Collected may hint at their answer, in rhyme: ‘who may […] the sum assess/ of the world’s woes? / nothingness/ in words enclose?’ (p. 109) Beckett himself chose to place, at the end of his final collection, ‘what is the word’ (p.229).  If Beckett’s poems are often sorrowful, they are unfailingly musical.  Music is precise.

So I must add, with some sorrow, that a new copy of The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett costs precisely £25.00 (slightly less if you buy a secondhand, (perhaps appropriately battered) copy. I would not have heard its music in the years when most of my money was spent on the inhabitants of stables, or preventing my household animals sharing the fate of Beckett’s lamented hens.  These also devoured time, which partly explains why I know Beckett from radio and page, but have never seen one of his plays on stage. If you have seen Beckett’s plays, whether recently or long ago, do tell me. If not, then do not be afraid to meet his poems!  Here is the full, door-stopping Collected:


And there is also a Selected Poems, which can, I realise, be bought secondhand far more cheaply! So here, through these unpromising digits, you may meet Beckett, and what Billie Whitelaw called ‘the music in his head’:

‘The face in the ashes/ That old starlight/ On the earth again.’


And finally, here is a poem of my own. I do not know whether it would bring comfort to what Beckett called those ‘hope fellows’.

At the bus stop

Then I saw a woman
come slowly down the road,
a child’s jumper folded
on her arm.

She wore a pale mac
and the thinnest of black stockings,
stepped stiffly, as if air
might do her harm.

The jumper was light green,
badged for the school
she reached so slowly.  Small trees
chattered into leaf.

Though, maybe, she forgot,
then fetched his uniform,
she seemed a tiny part:
one whole and perfect grief.

Alison Brackenbury
Published in Poetry Wales

TLS Poem of the Week


Then, published by Carcanet in 2013. Available direct from Carcanet or from Amazon

Then, published by Carcanet in 2013. Available direct from Carcanet or from Amazon


Note about forthcoming reading…

I am taking part in the Poetry Space reading at the Poetry Café, Betterton St, London, at 3.30 on Saturday 14th March.

Details at the Poetry Space website – link below! If you wish to check ticket availability, please use the contact page on the Poetry Space website.


TLS Poem of the Week

I’m delighted to say that No, the final poem in my last collection, is a TLS Poem of the Week. It can be read, with a kind and informative introduction, at




Radio 4 poem

Aunt Margaret's pudding, to warm up January!

Aunt Margaret’s pudding, to warm up January!

My new poem, ‘January’, was broadcast on the Radio 4 arts programme, Front Row, on Tuesday 6 January at 7.15 p.m. This featured of course, dark mornings, icy rain – and my grandmother’s steamed jam puddings. The photograph above shows her handwritten recipe, from her working days as an Edwardian cook.

You can hear me read the poem, read the poem itself (at the bottom of the page) and see a fine photograph of the Christmas foal who gallops through the second verse!  All at


P.S. If you’d like to read more poems, see details of my books, or send me a message on my contact page, please choose Poems, Books or Contact from the menu on the right! My latest collection is ‘Then’, Carcanet, 2013

Available from Amazon



or direct from my publisher


Whistlejacket’s Shoes

Whistlejacket, by George Stubbs

Whistlejacket, by George Stubbs

I think that many people have quiet, secular, Christmas indulgences, such as devouring intricate seasonal sandwiches in their favourite warm coffee shop. My own indulgence is less calorific.  I write happy, rambling pieces about horses – and art.  This year, I’d advise art historians to leave for the coffee shop, as I gallop towards the paintings of George Stubbs.

For decades, I’ve made pilgrimages to London to jostle my way to stare at Stubbs’ paintings in exhibitions. I persuaded my family to buy me a vast book in which all of Stubbs’ paintings, of horses, leopards, and haymaking girls are stabled.  What follows is a tumble of facts (and perhaps legends) from the untidy hayloft of my mind.  Experts, fired by double-shot expressos, are most welcome to email horrified corrections…

Do you know Stubbs’ paintings well? If not, does he carry a taint, in your mind, of aristocratic patronage, of pampered racehorses, of pictures of pet dogs for landowners’ firesides?  (Pictures of horses and dogs always sell well in England.)

Stubbs himself, of course, was not an aristocrat. His father finished and dealt with leather.  Stubbs walked out of an apprenticeship with an artist, and studied anatomy at York Hospital.  In 1754, aged thirty, he travelled to Italy. As an old man, he said that he had gone there to confirm his belief that nature was (always) superior to art.

So, with the classics waved into their place, where did Stubbs go next? To Lincolnshire, to a remote village called Horkstow, below a dark limestone ridge, with the vast and muddy Humber on the horizon. (My father’s father, a shepherd, worked for twenty years on Horkstow Hill.) Stubbs went there with a girl. His biographer said she was his young niece Mary, who had always entertained a passion for anatomy. Mary was, indeed, very young, but she was not Stubbs’ niece (or wife).  I hardly dare comment on the rest of the sentence, except to say that Mary and Stubbs must have spent most of their waking hours at Horkstow hauling slaughtered horses on to beams, then dissecting them. (I have also read that Stubbs’ long liaison with Mary was not a help to his career.)

Stubbs had the use of a Horkstow farmhouse – and a barn – due to the generosity of Lincolnshire landowners, who proved some of his most loyal patrons.  A Lincolnshire stud manager once told me that she had driven the artist Alfred Munnings around Horkstow, its flat farmland, and its hill, searching vainly for that barn. She assumed that Stubbs’ patrons lodged him at a remote grange, far from the small village.

I wonder.  Yes, the dead horses would have caused an appalling stink.  But, until recently, abattoirs and tanneries, and their accompanying stench, flourished in English towns. I don’t think that Stubbs’ kindly patrons lived in Horkstow. They might not have been too concerned about the air breathed by their labourers and shepherds.  There is an old farmhouse in the village itself, just opposite the small red brick cottage, owned by his employer, where my grandfather lived.  When he first came to Horkstow, he and his family camped out in the farmhouse, briefly.  My mother once visited them there and still spoke about that house in old age, though without any reported glimpses of a stocky man and an equally strong girl.

Stubbs’ illustrations of the horses he dissected, at Horkstow, in their grim beauty, have more life in them than most painters’ attempts at the living animal.

Anatomical drawing by George Stubbs

Anatomical drawing by George Stubbs

So, why would you go to London, or even cross a gallery floor, to see Stubbs’ paintings? Many are, of course, of horses.  The noses of Stubbs, Mary, (and possibly the inhabitants of Horkstow) did not suffer in vain.  Beneath the painted horses’ glamour are hard bones, every one of which Stubbs knew. Some are riveting in their size. Recently, I saw Whistlejacket rearing at the end of a tunnel of rooms in the National Gallery.  I walked towards him, almost blind to the people around me, then stopped, respectfully, a safe distance away, as I would before a live Arab stallion.

Yet Stubbs’ horses are vessels. They hold the light.  No pale reproduction shows how the flanks of Stubbs’ (rather unkempt) brood mares still glow.  You could warm your hands on their skin.  They are in Tate Britain, at the time of writing, in room 1760.  Do visit them, in their uncatchable shine. Or, more faintly, via this link- for I believe these valuable mares remain fenced in by copyright:


But Stubbs painted people too. He painted two huntsmen, father and son, paid servants of the Brocklesby Hunt (who still careered around Lincolnshire in my childhood).  The reproduction in the link below comes with comments from the public.  One is from the Countess of Derby, who remarks expertly on the riders’ position, and suggests that the Hunt commissioned this painting to commemorate the men’s loyal service. But, as another comment suggests, Stubbs painted the older huntsman as deeply dejected. Frustratingly, the image on screen is too small to show the old man’s closed expression. His slump in the saddle tells all.  It is a bold – and riskily honest – response to a commission. But, as far as I know, Stubbs was paid for his painting

I believe there was – and is – more open controversy about Stubbs’ depiction of workers in the fields, first in paintings, then in enamel.  Are they idealised? I think they are astonishing.  Like the glossy black horses, the labourers are young, energetic and dignified. A girl stands at the front of the painting, calmly facing outwards. The Tate’s notes suggest that Stubbs may have borrowed the girl’s pose from another artist, but acknowledges the painting’s easy realism.  If one painting could illustrate the phrase ‘the dignity of labour’ I think it is this, with the piled wagon, the purposeful men and the confident girl, with her tall hay-rake.


Although Stubbs is usually described as an ‘animal painter’, it can be the people in his paintings who catch the eye.  In ‘Cheetah and Stag with two Indians’, the cheetah is a bristling beauty, but it was the handlers, in flowing white, vigorous and commanding, who first held my attention.


Stubbs has a wildly Gothic streak. In a strange little loop of history, I once lent a book of Stubbs’ paintings to an old farm worker who lived next door to my grandfather, in Horkstow. (My grandparents always referred to their neighbours, with whom they had lived on excellent terms for decades, as Mr or Mrs, as if they were courteous strangers. It reminds me now of Stubbs’ own respect for his subjects.) Mr B., each weekend, painted on small rectangles of hardboard in his shed, carefully copying paintings he had come across. He was entranced by Stubbs. I had secretly hoped that he might attempt the mares.  But no, he loved best – and copied – Stubbs’ gloomy and ferocious painting of a horse attacked by a lion:


The painting which I most admire by Stubbs was not in the book I lent to Mr B.  It is a painting I have never seen, for it is too fragile to travel. It was commissioned by a racehorse owner, Sir Henry Vane-Tempest.  It shows his horse, Hambletonian, who had just won his race at Newmarket. But the horse had been cruelly whipped.  Stubbs, who was then 75, lets the thoroughbred stallion almost fill twelve feet of canvas, in its exhaustion and rage.  The stableboy, told to rub the horse down with straw, almost cowers. The tiny trainer hangs on to the bridle for dear life.  The furious owner refused to pay Stubbs for this unwanted masterpiece. Stubbs sued, and won, but, betrayed by patrons (including the Prince of Wales) turned from painting back to anatomy.  Even the paint on the horse’s flanks has now cracked open. Here is Hambletonian:

Hambletonian, by George Stubbs

Hambletonian, by George Stubbs

Hambletonian can hardly be held. By the end, Stubbs’ patrons could not bear his realism.  But its wildness rests on solid foundations: the bones he scraped clean at Horkstow, the patient detail of observation, especially of other men’s labour.  I noticed, with disapproval, that it was impossible to tell if the horses in some of the National Gallery’s most grandiose paintings were shod.  When I walked up to Whistlejacket, I looked first at his white-rimmed Arab eye, and then at his hooves.  Below Whistlejacket’s russet, rearing haunches – and his fluttering, fresh-washed tail – his hind feet rest securely upon skilfully-fitted shoes.  Look for their gleam.

Whistlejacket, by George Stubbs

Whistlejacket, by George Stubbs

And here is my December poem, which includes Stubbs’ great carthorses, which my father (and his trampled feet) knew much better than I ever will.


It began, like wonder, back there
in the village’s dark huddle
which I can never visit, like a star.

In high orbit, warm muddle,
my father’s hard-packed arms, I passed.
Winter wind stilled, hedge and puddle

pure ice.  Above my wreath of breath,
the weak eye of the one streetlight
beyond Back Lane and Temple Garth,

skies pricked with white until the night
swam with its stars.  In their grave blaze
they filled my gaze like wings in flight

which never left, unlike the house,
the anxious moves, my mother’s care.
For years I stood by my own house

with books and charts.  My father there
could only name the tilted Plough
he followed with the snorting pair.

But I found Pegasus, the slow
sweep of the Swan, a fierce red eye,
the Bull.  I watched the Hunter go

with frost’s belt, over towns where I
now lived, where, still, the galaxy
boiled by his sword in clouding sky.

The books are laid aside. I see
new roofs, more weak lamps.  Whirled and free
the stars, my calm dead, walk with me.

(In ‘Temple Garth’, ‘Temple’ refers to the Knight Templars, who once controlled part of the village’s land. ‘Garth’, a Viking word, is used here of a farmyard.)

Alison Brackenbury
Published in Scintilla


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