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Scraps of Shakespeare

Skies draft cover 2 (front only) (1)

My new collection, ‘Skies’, has just been published by Carcanet.

This brilliant new collection’        Penelope Shuttle

‘Her best, most urgent collection to date … tender, exact and unflinching’.

Helen Mort

‘These are personal moments which shine with the universal; a cosmos on a slice of toast; the waxing of the moon in a milkman’s morning round. ‘Whirled and free / the stars, my calm dead, walk with me.’

Poetry Book Society Bulletin, Spring 2016

Stop Press: ‘Skies’ has been featured on BBC Radio 4. I was interviewed by Kirsty Lang and read three poems on the lively arts magazine programme, ‘Front Row’.  Here is the link.  ‘Skies’ and I appear after 18 minutes! Please drag the marker along the time bar to go straight there. – click on marker again to play if necessary.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/b074vtkn

And delighted that ‘Skies’ is The Observer’s Poetry Book of the Month’!  ‘The seasoned craft and musicality of Alison Brackenbury’s poetry shine through in this humble, haunting and humorous collection’. (Kate Kellaway)

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/01/skies-alison-brackenbury-poetry-review

Can skies be bought? Yes, in this case, from
Carcanet , my publishers– at a bargain price!

http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784101800

or from Amazon:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Skies-Alison-Brackenbury/dp/178410180X/ref=sr_1_8?s

Readings 2016

Friday 6 May, 12 noon at Bristol Can Openers, Steam Cafe Bar, 15 Union Gate, 63 Union Street, Bristol, BS1 2DL.  FREE. Open mic.

http://www.poetrycan.co.uk/events.html

Monday 16 May, 7.30 p m at Leicester Shindig, The Western, 70 Western Road, Leicester LE3 0GA, with Shruti Chauhan, David Clarke and Lydia Towsey. FREE – sign up on the door for open mic.

http://ninearchespress.com/events.html

Wednesday 8 June, at Square Chapel, Halifax with Hilda Sheehan. Details nearer to the event at

http://www.squarechapel.co.uk/whatson/

Thursday 30 June at Words and Ears, The Swan, 1 Church Street Bradford on Avon Wiltshire BA15 1LN.  7.30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets £3 on door. Reading with Rosie Jackson. Open mic!

http://www.dawngorman.co.uk/words_and_ears_whats_on.php

Friday 21 October at Poets’ Café, South Street Arts Centre, 21 South Street, Reading RG1 4QU. Provisional time: 8 p m. Please check details nearer to event at

http://www.readingarts.com/southstreet/whatson/

Monday 24 October, at Emporium Theatre and Cafe Bar, 88 London Rd, Brighton BN1 4JF.  More  details nearer to event.

Scraps of Shakespeare

Scraps of S Sarah B

 

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet: early film still.

This blog is a disgrace.  As I begin, I hear the voice of a history student, forty years ago.  She complained that, to me – and to my fellow English students –‘Shakespeare equals God throughout’.  God? No.  But I feel I am scrabbling in the foam, at the edge of a great sea.

It is a sea which licks the feet of almost everyone who speaks English.  There are threads of Shakespeare woven through our speech.  They are so familiar that, if we notice them at all, we probably think they are proverbs.  They quietly defy anyone who thinks that poetry becomes incomprehensible with time; that it cannot speak of our own lives; that it is not for everyone.  I must admit, disgracefully, that when the Tory Education Minister, Kenneth Baker, made Shakespeare compulsory, I thought this would be a disaster in my daughter’s comprehensive school. Instead I found that her best friend, struggling in most subjects, spent lunchtimes with my daughter, rehearsing ‘Macbeth’: ‘Heaven knows what she has known …  God, God forgive us all.’

I consider the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and his burial beneath doggerel: ‘Curst be he who moves my bones’. I hope I will not be cursed because Shakespeare runs like a thread through the shabby cloth of my own poetry.  The young wear black.  When I was younger, I wrote, blackly, about ‘Hamlet’:

The Players Come to the Castle

 

It was a dream of welcome,

After miles of storm

The table steamed with cakes and game

The royal fire sprang warm.

 

Our leader’s lines.  Now I, the poor

Boy playing queen, tell what I saw.

 

The hall lay dark and icy,

Its scarlet rugs rubbed bare.

No word or gesture came from

The prince, slumped in his chair.

 

Alison Brackenbury

(From ‘1829’, Carcanet, 1995)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scholars would tell us, carefully, that we must not seek the man in the plays.  But I swear that the man who made Hamlet welcome his players so warmly had travelled in rain-soaked carts, and been treated like a dog on arrival. That he did not sleep enough: ‘Sleep, O gentle sleep’ – And that he paid a price for his London sexual adventures.  I think that ‘Lear’ was written by someone with a venereal disease:  ‘But to the girdle do the gods inherit; beneath is all the fiends’. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulfurous pit’ —

We do know something about Shakespeare and money.  For he carefully made money, in impressive quantities. He bought an equally impressive house in his home town. He would go to law to get what was owed to him.  The Sonnets are dense with legalities.  But, as a Shakespeare-loving Tory Cabinet brought in Clause 28, I wondered if poets frequently addressed their young handsome patron as ‘Dear my love’?  (For younger readers, here is an account of Clause 28.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_28.  And love? Read Sonnet 13, and decide.  http://www.shakespeares-sonnets.com/sonnet/13.)  Meanwhile, in middle age, trying to scavenge some rags of his metres, I glimpsed Shakespeare again:

 

The sonnets

 

 

I planned to take these lines apart,

The story lies too close to lose.

The young man’s fingers grip his heart.

 

Each betrays each.  The woman comes.

Both sleep with her.  How do they part?

He buys the grandest house in town

 

Where his wife stays.   The boy moves on.

Thick body creaking, he retires.

Only once, toils back to London,

 

Climbs to lawyers; on the landing

The short breaths stop.  The faintness flares.

He leans against the greasy wall.

Their laugh breaks round him, down the stairs.

 

 

(Alison Brackenbury

From ‘Bricks and Ballads’, Carcanet, 2004)

Hamlet rages against comic actors.  Yet the fools remain, especially in my favourite play, ‘Twelfth Night’.  It ends in ‘the wind and the rain’ of the Elizabethan street (or the player’s cart).  But first, Feste says ‘Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun. It shines everywhere.’  And my day once brightened because student editors, expert in the rags and patches of postmodernism, wanted to publish a poem, of my old age, where Shakespeare shines in an irreverent light:

 

To Mr W.S., from his agent

 

The sonnets were a flop.  But plagues are over.

Go back to plays again!  Don’t be cast down.

Plots aren’t your strength.  Steal one!  A fight, a murder.

And this time, please, a good part for the clown.

 

 

Alison Brackenbury

(From ‘Bricks and Ballads’, Carcanet, 2004)

 

So, queen ‘of shreds and patches’, I fold my borrowed finery around me, to say a last ‘Amen’ to that. To God?  To William Shakespeare.

P.S. If you are in London, you can see The Poetry Society’s exhibition of posters inspired by lines from Shakespeare. It runs until May 7, and is in the basement of their excellent Poetry Café. ‘Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’  I am not sufficiently virtuous to resist the Poetry Society’s food!

And there are special Shakespeare events there on Saturday April 23rd – a workshop with A.B.Jackson and a reading by A.B.Jackson and A.E.Stallings. More details here:

http://poetrysociety.org.uk/events/

Here are some of the posters which will be the backdrop to these events!

 

Shakespeare  (1)Shakespeare  (2)Shakespeare  (6)

 

 

I helped to suggest the Richard II quote. ‘For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground…’ In Shakespeare, the ground comes before the King.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Briefly

Skies draft cover 2 (front only) (1)

My new collection, ‘Skies’, has just been published by Carcanet.

This brilliant new collection’        Penelope Shuttle

‘Her best, most urgent collection to date … tender, exact and unflinching’.

Helen Mort

‘These are personal moments which shine with the universal; a cosmos on a slice of toast; the waxing of the moon in a milkman’s morning round. ‘Whirled and free / the stars, my calm dead, walk with me.’

Poetry Book Society Bulletin, Spring 2016

Stop Press: ‘Skies’ has been featured on BBC Radio 4. I was interviewed by Kirsty Lang and read three poems on the lively arts magazine programme, ‘Front Row’.  Here is the link.  ‘Skies’ and I appear after 18 minutes! Please drag the marker along the time bar to go straight there. – click on marker again to play if necessary.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/b074vtkn

Can skies be bought? Yes, in this case, from
Carcanet , my publishers– at a bargain price!

http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784101800

or from Amazon:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Skies-Alison-Brackenbury/dp/178410180X/ref=sr_1_8?s

Readings 2016

Saturday April 23rd, 2 p m at the Much Wenlock Poetry Festival. I am reading with Chris Kinsey at the Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock.
http://www.wenlockpoetryfestival.org/event/alison-brackenbury-and-chris-kinsey/

Much Wenlock poster

Friday 6 May, 12 noon at Bristol Can Openers, Steam Cafe Bar, 15 Union Gate, 63 Union Street, Bristol, BS1 2DL.  FREE. Open mic.

http://www.poetrycan.co.uk/events.html

Monday 16 May, 7.30 p m at Leicester Shindig, The Western, 70 Western Road, Leicester LE3 0GA, with David Clarke. FREE. Please check details nearer to the date at

http://ninearchespress.com/events.html

Wednesday 8 June, at Square Chapel, Halifax with Hilda Sheehan. Details nearer to the event at

http://www.squarechapel.co.uk/whatson/

Thursday 30 June at Words and Ears, The Swan, 1 Church Street Bradford on Avon Wiltshire BA15 1LN.  7.30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets £3 on door. Reading with Rosie Jackson. Open mic!

http://www.dawngorman.co.uk/words_and_ears_whats_on.php

Friday 21 October at Poets’ Café, South Street Arts Centre, 21 South Street, Reading RG1 4QU. Provisional time: 8 p m. Please check details nearer to event at

http://www.readingarts.com/southstreet/whatson/

Monday 24 October, at Emporium Theatre and Cafe Bar, 88 London Rd, Brighton BN1 4JF.  More  details nearer to event.

Briefly

Nzfauna – Own work CC BY-SA 4.0 Double white hellebore hybrid ‘Betty Ranicar’

Hellebore photo

Short poems are the hardest to write about.  I would rather review an epic than an epigram.  It is no easier, I find, when the short poem is your own

I have always loved short poems: Pope’s epigram on a puppy, Anne Stevenson’s astonishing ‘Vertigo’, which holds body and soul in a bold handful of lines. But I never tried to write them.  I was the university student who would take seventeen pages of scrawled essay to admit that I was both obsessed and confused by All’s Well That Ends Well. I still am, but, armed with a Delete button, would now conceal this better…

But what does Time say?  ‘Hurry, you need to take the cat to the vet in five minutes.’  ‘Of course you’re falling asleep, you’re sixty-two.’  And, very softly, in the unexpected tenderness of dusk: ‘You’re going to die’.  ‘Not yet!’  I snap. ‘No’, agrees Time. ‘But still, aren’t six lines enough?’ And often they are. Or four. Or two.  Younger poets read them kindly. Editors greet them with relief.  They can be whisked out of the drawer at the last minute to fill that awkward space left on page five. (How my patient, dead tutors would laugh…)

So one of the surprises of my retirement from day jobs is that I can write short poems.  They, I realise, are the ones I used to miss: the flicker in the sunlight, the tickle in the throat. You cannot catch them when you have aircraft tooling to oil or invoices to total.  Too often, they can only be caught once.  For someone who tends to map out stanzas, they are surprising.  They come with their own rhythms.  They settle upon their own rhymes.  Some have definitely met ballads.  Some seem to arrive from nowhere.

It is awkward, as an Old Poet, to admit how little control you have over what you have done for so long.  Surely a writer can choose subjects? Or at least avoid them? I never meant to write about Sylvia Plath, in poetry or prose.  I think I am under-qualified to do so, because I did not know the landscape of English poetry before her blood and bees descended.  I am, perhaps, a little too well-qualified to comment on her bleakest work.  Three months of my life at eighteen have left me wary of some of her most famous poems.

Any consideration of Plath’s story plunges us into two topics – mental illness, and marriage – which remain mysterious even to the most knowledgeable observer.  Her life is a dark mirror in which we each meet our own fears. I have chosen to concentrate on my favourite, memorised lines from her poems, especially ‘Wintering’:

What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?

The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

One day, I must track down an admired poem I dimly remember, in her fat Collected, about managing to stay on a horse.  It is always better not to fall off, not least (I write this with studied seriousness) because it is dangerous for the horse.

I was firmly seated on a chair, in London, a few years ago, when I glimpsed an elderly woman.  She was dignified, but very lame. I remembered, with a shock, that she was a contemporary of Sylvia Plath.

 

These five lines were scribbled down, I think, on the way home.  I hope they made a kindly poem.  They did not ask too much of my time.  They will steal still less of yours.

 

 

After meeting a friend of Sylvia Plath

 

 

She would have been as old as you.

She might have freckles on her hands,

a stick, one knee which would not bend.

 

Would she read slowly through her book,

not flick, so quickly, to the end?

 

Alison Brackenbury

From Skies, Carcanet, 2016

 

Carcanet

http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784101800

 

Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Skies-Alison-Brackenbury/dp/178410180X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1460153677&sr=1-1

Skies draft cover 2 (front only) (1)

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edward Thomas

Skies draft cover 2 (front only) (1)

My new collection, ‘Skies’, will be published by Carcanet on 31 March 2016.

This brilliant new collection’        Penelope Shuttle

‘Her best, most urgent collection to date … tender, exact and unflinching’.

Helen Mort

‘These are personal moments which shine with the universal; a cosmos on a slice of toast; the waxing of the moon in a milkman’s morning round. ‘Whirled and free / the stars, my calm dead, walk with me.’

Poetry Book Society Bulletin, Spring 2016

Stop Press: ‘Skies’ has been featured on BBC Radio 4. I was interviewed by Kirsty Lang and read three poems on the lively arts magazine programme, ‘Front Row’.  Here is the link.  ‘Skies’ and I appear after 18 minutes! Please drag the marker along the time bar to go straight there. – click on marker again to play if necessary.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/b074vtkn

Can skies be bought? Yes, in this case, from
Carcanet , my publishers– at a bargain price!

http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784101800

or from Amazon:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Skies-Alison-Brackenbury/dp/178410180X/ref=sr_1_8?s

Readings 2016

Saturday April 23rd, 2 p m at the Much Wenlock Poetry Festival. I am reading with Chris Kinsey at the Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock.
http://www.wenlockpoetryfestival.org/event/alison-brackenbury-and-chris-kinsey/

Much Wenlock poster

Friday 6 May, 12 noon at Bristol Can Openers, Steam Cafe Bar, 15 Union Gate, 63 Union Street, Bristol, BS1 2DL.  FREE. Open mic.

http://www.poetrycan.co.uk/events.html

Monday 16 May, 7.30 p m at Leicester Shindig, The Western, 70 Western Road, Leicester LE3 0GA, with David Clarke. FREE. Please check details nearer to the date at

http://ninearchespress.com/events.html

Wednesday 8 June, at Square Chapel, Halifax with Hilda Sheehan. Details nearer to the event at

http://www.squarechapel.co.uk/whatson/

Thursday 30 June at Words and Ears, The Swan, 1 Church Street Bradford on Avon Wiltshire BA15 1LN.  7.30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets £3 on door. Reading with Rosie Jackson. Open mic!

http://www.dawngorman.co.uk/words_and_ears_whats_on.php

Friday 21 October at Poets’ Café, South Street Arts Centre, 21 South Street, Reading RG1 4QU. Provisional time: 8 p m. Please check details nearer to event at

http://www.readingarts.com/southstreet/whatson/

Monday 24 October, at Emporium Theatre and Cafe Bar, 88 London Rd, Brighton BN1 4JF.  More  details nearer to event.

Edward Thomas

© Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0

© Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0

I was definitely not going to write another poem about Edward Thomas.  About ten years ago, I had a brief correspondence with Myfanwy, Thomas’ youngest daughter.  Aged ninety-four, she was generous with her time, enthusiasm and stuttering biro.  I still wish I had asked her if she did remember the rue bush which Thomas wrote of in ‘Old Man’:

I can only wonder how much hereafter

She will remember […]

Myfanwy did remember the titles and words of the songs she sang with her family, as a very young child, when they lived in No 2, Yewtree Cottages, in the small village of Steep in Hampshire.  After I read her description of her father’s voice (was she the last person alive to have heard it?) I wrote a poem called ‘Singing in the Dark’.

One short ballad may not seem much, after months of research, thought, and correspondence.  But poetry is a costly art.  My original intention had been to write articles (which I duly did). Myfanwy died a few months after she had written to me.  The poem was her gift, and I am no longer young enough to expect life to be an endless succession of gifts.

Yet chances come, and in the cold spring of 2014 I had the chance to go and visit Steep, and the Thomases’ cottage.  Emma Harding was producing a programme, narrated by the poet Deryn Rees-Jones, about Helen Thomas.  Helen’s passionate memoir of her husband is a book I recommend wholeheartedly. (It can be found, with moving contributions from Myfanwy, in Under Storm’s Wing, Carcanet, 1997.)

We tramped round Steep, which was partially flooded – what would Edward and Helen have thought of our world, with its half-wrecked climate? But if they could have seen us huddle from hailstorms, scramble up banks as lorries made tidal waves, and, occasionally, fall rather gracefully into the mud, I think Helen would have laughed aloud.  Even Edward might have smiled.

I did not intend to write any poems.  I headed finally for the Thomases’ cottage, talking to Deryn, resolved to record well for Emma.  I was deeply impressed by the cottage’s absent owner.  First, although the cottage is not open to the public, she had kindly said that we could record in her garden, although she would be out.  Secondly, her garden still had the strongest links with what Edward and Helen Thomas had loved: wild grass, vegetables, and birds.  A robin had been guarding Edward’s memorial stone up on the hill. Its village rival was singing from his tall, still-surviving hedge.

So, at Emma’s suggestion, I stood in front of the low cottage, which Emma and Deryn had visited earlier.  They had found it surprisingly small and dark.  It had been built for farmworkers by a wealthy socialist, but was, as Helen shrewdly remarked, jerry-built, originally with no bathroom, yet still too expensive for a labourer to rent.  Without thinking, I planted my feet in front of the small green door, and began to read the poem I had written about one of Helen’s, and Myfanwy’s happiest times there, when, with Edward, they sang the folksongs they called ‘the old songs’, islanded by dark, beside the cottage’s coal fire.

But, in the windy February daylight, something unexpected happened.  I felt a pressure on my shoulders. It was not touch.  It was the feeling you have when someone is standing very close behind you.  I knew it was a man, impatient almost to the point of anger, who wanted nothing to do with any of us or what we were doing, simply to get through the cottage door, down the path, and out into the wind. As soon as I stopped reading and could step away from the door, towards the budding rue bush, the feeling was gone.

I do not believe in ghosts.  But I think there are some places which keep a memory, which no longer belongs to the person who caused it but the place itself.  I think this is true of No 2, Yewtree Cottages.  I remembered later that I had heard another strange story about a recently bricked-up door in the wall of a house, left to Cheltenham Council by a reclusive antique dealer.  A woman standing in front of the wall, at an official ceremony, suddenly toppled forward, saying indignantly that she had not fainted; she had felt pushed.

I was not pushed to the ground but into writing a poem. In fact, there are three: one taken from a letter from Thomas, dreaming of tea inside that cottage; one set in its sheltered garden, and one which reported, briefly, on that minute before its door.  Here they are, with the repeated promise that I do not intend to write any more poems about Edward Thomas.

Three poems from Steep
I

Letter, 1917
I had one dream in France,
curled up before the fight.
I fell past the bugles,
stray blackbirds, stabs of light,
landed by our table.
Though you clasped Baba, smiled to me,
I was a sort of visitor, and
I could not stay for tea.

‘Baba’ was Edward and Helen Thomas’ youngest child, Myfanwy, (with whom I corresponded when she was ninety-four). The poem’s last two lines are taken from a letter written by Edward to Helen on 17 March, 1917. He was killed on 9 April, 1917.
II

No 2, Yewtree Cottages
(last home of Edward Thomas in Steep, Hampshire)
This was your garden. And the grass is long,
rough as a child’s hair. The wind gusts strong.
Only the half-pruned hazels in the hedge
shelter the new stone pigs, by the path’s edge,

broad rue bush, grey with buds, high fat for birds
you might have bought, if men paid more for words.
Stray vegetables, too few to meet your needs,
break old black garden soil, part-raked for seeds.

Could we live here, with scattered book or tool?
Does the cramped house recall you, kind or cruel?

It does not know you. It is not unkind.
The brief hail gone, spring nuzzles hard, behind,
bends primroses. March light, like your hair, thinned,
sweeps us down your cracked path, out with the wind.
III
Visitor
But while I wait by that low door
where he would duck, though rarely shout
I sense harsh pressure thrust me back,
someone in pain, who must walk out.
Alison Brackenbury
From Skies, Carcanet, 2016
Carcanet
http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784101800
Amazon:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Skies-Alison-Brackenbury/dp/178410180X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1457475542&sr=1-1

© Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0

© Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0

 

            

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playground

Skies draft cover 2 (front only) (1)

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

My new collection, ‘Skies’, will be published by Carcanet on 31 March 2016.

This brilliant new collection’        Penelope Shuttle

‘Her best, most urgent collection to date … tender, exact and unflinching’.

Helen Mort

‘These are personal moments which shine with the universal; a cosmos on a slice of toast; the waxing of the moon in a milkman’s morning round. ‘Whirled and free / the stars, my calm dead, walk with me.’

Poetry Book Society Bulletin, Spring 2016

Can skies be pre-ordered? Yes, in this case, from
Carcanet – special offer!

**SPECIAL PRE- LAUNCH OFFER UNTIL 31st March **

To order your copy of Skies at the special price of £8 (RRP £9.99) with free UK P&P, go to http://www.carcanet.co.uk and enter the code: AMBER (case-sensitive) at the checkout.
Amazon:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Skies-Alison-Brackenbury/dp/178410180X/ref=sr_1_8?s

Readings 2016

Friday 11 March, 8 p m at the Dugdale Theatre, Enfield, North London
I am reading with John Godfrey – and an excellent jazz quartet! Details below…

http://www.enfield.gov.uk/millfield/homepage/17/whats_on_dugdale

Jazz poster

Saturday April 23rd, 2 p m at the Much Wenlock Poetry Festival. I am reading with Chris Kinsey at the Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock.
http://www.wenlockpoetryfestival.org/event/alison-brackenbury-and-chris-kinsey/

Much Wenlock poster

Friday 6 May, 12 noon at Bristol Can Openers, Steam Cafe Bar, 15 Union Gate, 63 Union Street, Bristol, BS1 2DL.  FREE. Open mic.

http://www.poetrycan.co.uk/events.html

Monday 16 May, 7.30 p m at Leicester Shindig, The Western, 70 Western Road, Leicester LE3 0GA, with David Clarke. FREE. Please check details nearer to the date at

http://ninearchespress.com/events.html

Wednesday 8 June, at Square Chapel, Halifax with Hilda Sheehan. Details nearer to the event at

http://www.squarechapel.co.uk/whatson/

 

Thursday 30 June at Words and Ears, The Swan, 1 Church Street Bradford on Avon Wiltshire BA15 1LN.  Evening event. Please check details nearer to event at

http://www.theswanbradford.co.uk/events.html

Friday 21 October at Poets’ Café, South Street Arts Centre, 21 South Street, Reading RG1 4QU. Provisional time: 8 p m. Please check details nearer to event at

http://www.readingarts.com/southstreet/whatson/

Thursday 27 October, 7.45 pm  at Pighog Poetry Night, Redroaster, 1d St James’s St, Brighton BN2 1RE.  Please check details nearer to event at

http://www.redroaster.co.uk/p-redroaster-events

Playground

Sheep photo

Public Domain File:Flock of sheep.jpg Uploaded by Ddxc

Shortly before my grandmother died of a stroke, she began to have vivid memories, and dreams, of her schooldays. She told me about the spring morning when she had lingered a few minutes in her Buckinghamshire village to play with another girl. Then they heard the tyrannical bell. The Victorian working classes had to learn punctuality. This was delivered, in my grandmother’s case, with stinging blows from a ruler into her soft palm.
The memories behind my poem, Playground, are less cutting, but did return with a curious sharpness. I began to think about the games we played in the breaks and long lunch times at my small village school, in Lincolnshire. Even then, I suspected that some of these were very old, with their own, ragged poetry:

The wind, the wind, the wind blows high
The rain comes scattering down the sky
She is handsome, she is pretty
She is the belle of [insert name] city…

This game, which was played only by girls, ended with them yelling the name of a reddening or angry boy, disturbed while scrambling inoffensively on the climbing frame in front of the wooden verandah of the oldest classroom. The teachers disliked this game, for its fight-provoking tendencies, and its precocity. I suspect that Victorian girls, sent from school and home, like my grandmother, to be chivvied housemaids at thirteen, began to look for an escape route early.

The words of this game came to me thoroughly garbled. Was I really meant to call ‘Brian, tell me who is she?’ I was more familiar with the words of another game, which began by flirting with death, and then swerved off into the dialect of playground abuse:

Wallflowers, wallflowers, growing up so high
You’re all pretty maids and you’re all going to die
Except for little [insert name]
She’s the only one
So turn your back, you saucy cat and don’t come home no more.

I secretly considered this a boring game, as it simply involved each player, when she became the ‘saucy cat’, turning to face the outside of the ring.

But my favourite amongst the older games was so wildly exciting that it too was likely to be banned by observant and nervous teachers. Unusually, it involved everyone in the big uneven playground. It was a catching game, where every child except one rushed across to the opposite fence in a breathless breaking line. Its words were so brief and clear that I remembered them all, from the 1950s, just as they appear in the poem.

What should I add to them? First, that my mother, who later taught in that school, told me that by the 1980s the children had abandoned all of the old games for new ones, based on TV characters. Secondly, that at the end of the poem, with the logic of imagination rather than chronology, I do not see the ‘you’ as the country child in the playground, but my daughter’s chic urban generation. But – thirdly – I live in dread of becoming passive: the child who is caned, the farm worker to whom wars and politics seem like the weather, but who is engulfed by them nevertheless. My father’s family, after all, spent at least five generations working with sheep… Here is their poem.

Playground

Children, you lined up for your game,
one tall boy called, ‘Sheep, sheep, come home.
The wolf has gone to Derbyshire.
He won’t come back for seven years.’
You raced across the wind-blurred ground.
But he was wolf. He plunged, he pounced.
Each child, when he clutched coat or cuff,
straight-haired, scuff-toed, became the wolf.

Are you a wolf, grey, slender? Yet
as, elegantly, you stroll through
the café’s buzz, the city’s dome,
what is it you do not forget?
How even then they lied to you?
Still they sing out, ‘Sheep, sheep, come home.’

Alison Brackenbury
From Skies, Carcanet, 2016

**SPECIAL PRE- LAUNCH OFFER UNTIL 31st March **
You can order a copy of Skies at the special price of £8 (RRP £9.99) with free UK P&P. Please go to http://www.carcanet.co.uk and enter the code: AMBER (case-sensitive) at the checkout.

Skies draft cover 2 (front only) (1)

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

 

Down Unwin’s track

Skies draft cover 2 (front only) (1)

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

My new collection, ‘Skies’, will be published by Carcanet on 31 March 2016.
Can skies be pre-ordered? Yes, in this case, from
Carcanet – special offer!

**SPECIAL PRE- LAUNCH OFFER UNTIL 31st March **

To order your copy of Skies at the special price of £8 (RRP £9.99) with free UK P&P, go to http://www.carcanet.co.uk and enter the code: AMBER (case-sensitive) at the checkout.
Amazon:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Skies-Alison-Brackenbury/dp/178410180X/ref=sr_1_8?s

 

Readings 2016

Friday 11 March, 8 p m at the Dugdale Theatre, Enfield, North London
I am reading with John Godfrey – and an excellent jazz quartet! Details below…

Jazz poster

Saturday April 23rd, 2 p m at the Much Wenlock Poetry Festival. I am reading with Chris Kinsey at the Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock.
http://www.wenlockpoetryfestival.org/event/alison-brackenbury-and-chris-kinsey/

Much Wenlock poster

Down Unwin’s track

Hare photo

Lepus europaeus in August 2013 at Köyliö, Finland.

Santtu37 – Own work  CC BY-SA 3.0

It was on a wide grassy hill path – ‘Unwin’s track’ – that I first began to see hares again. The hare has a strange double power. It is hazed by half-remembered stories. It is the moon’s creature, the wounded animal who is also a human witch. But real hares, flying off down the furrows, startling as small deer, have a strange knack of reappearing at turning points in our own lives.

I grew up in Lincolnshire, in houses owned by the farmer my father worked for, often totally surrounded by farmland. It was a devastated landscape. After the Second World War, (only a few years before my birth) tractors had replaced horses, hedges had been ripped up, DDT had killed the hawks. In my youth, the new generation of farm chemicals was often sprayed from planes.

Yet, in the great fields, hares remained. They like pasture land, field margins, wide verges, strips of grass by woodland. These remnants of traditional farming lingered on in my youth. So, as I walked down the lane from my parents’ house with my university boyfriend (later my husband) we would often see a pair of hares on the horizon, out in the vast ploughed fields, boxing. I thought they were both male. Never take on trust any fact about wildlife told to you by someone who has always lived in the country! When glow worms reappeared one summer, a Gloucestershire farmer, who had last seen them as a child, assured me that these mysterious points of light were male. They are, in fact, wingless females…

Brown hares, the experts tell us, have declined 80% since my grandfather was a young, and wildlife-loving shepherd, a hundred years ago. When I began riding around a friend’s small Gloucestershire farm, a quarter of a century ago, I rarely saw hares. If I risked a four-footed trespass into a local wood, I might glimpse one on a sunny bank, in a grassy No Man’s land between trees and field.

I often rode the broad path we called ‘Unwin’s track’. Do we own land? Only in the most temporary way. If we are remembered in a landscape, it is often for the good we have done. The farmer whose name I still give to that track has grown old, sold up, and gone. But he kept the track green, and allowed us to ride there, past its brambles and cranesbill, although it has no rights of way.

And along Unwin’s track, a few years ago, the old pony and I began to meet hares: a single one, sitting bolt upright, puzzled by the horse, then loping into the hedge; a mother, racing ahead of a large leveret to the safety of longer grass. There was no mystery about this. The EU had given farms environmental grants. These obliged farmers to keep wider field margins (often sown with wild flowers). Hares need these; they live on them, and feed on the varied grasses and herbs which grow there.

So, again, I met with hares. When my husband retired and began walking out, with me and the slow old pony, we saw more and more. Did you know that the brown hare is not a protected species in Britain? If the Hunting Act were repealed, it could again be hunted with dogs. Despite its continued decline, large hare shoots take place each year, legally.
But yesterday, from Unwin’s track, I saw two young hares, crouched quietly in the rain in a wide open strip by the edge of the crops, waiting for the weather to improve. One small farm; a handful of hares. Yet they show that things can be made better. It is up to us. Poetry can’t lobby for changes in farming and the law. But it can praise the mysterious animals which need these changes.
Here is a poem of time, and hares. In one respect at least, it is a more truthful poem than I would have written when I walked the windy roads of Lincolnshire. I now know that one of the furiously boxing hares is a female, fending off the male because she is not yet ready to mate.

Down Unwin’s track
And the rain stopped. And the sky spun
past the hills’ flush of winter corn.
The mare strode out as though still young.

You walked. I almost said, last year
I saw a hare run with her young
just past the broken wall, just here.

Two flew in circles. First, one rose
upon its great back legs. It boxed
at air. The second flinched, then rose.

England has blackbirds, mice. To find
these strong black shapes makes the heart race,
as barley, under icy wind.

Boxing is courtship, failed. One broke,
tore past us to the rough safe hedge.
She crossed the sun. Her colours woke,

ears black, back russet, earth new-laid.
Her legs stretched straight. The late showers made
bright water fly from every blade.

Alison Brackenbury
From Skies, my new collection, to be published by Carcanet on March 31.

It can be ordered now from:

Carcanet (cheaper!)
http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784101800
Amazon:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Skies-Alison-Brackenbury/dp/178410180X/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1448388060&sr=1-8&keywords=alison+brackenbury

White Magic

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

Where are we now?

                           David Bowie

 

Where are you?  In the ache of January’s black

as though its cold clutching had crept up my back

I hear you are dead.  I hear track after track.

The illness stayed hidden.  Only the voice

grew careful and weary.  It sang, we have choice.

For you knew where you were, how our planet spun.

You found American rock, then breathed on

your English air.  You flew to the sun.

 

David Bowie said in a radio interview that he had added to rock the great gift of English music: melody.

 

Alison Brackenbury

11 January 2016

 

 

Readings 2016

Friday 11 March, 8 p m at the Dugdale Theatre, Enfield, North London

 I am reading with John Godfrey – and an excellent jazz quartet! Details below…

Jazz poster

Saturday April 23rd, 2 p m at the Much Wenlock Poetry Festival.  I am reading with Chris Kinsey at the Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock.

http://www.wenlockpoetryfestival.org/event/alison-brackenbury-and-chris-kinsey/

In the quiet dip between Christmas and New Year, I have finally dodged between unprecedented home renovations and all-too-familiar computer breakdowns.

So before the next paint tin or catastrophic updates arrives, I will just quote from an article which amused and touched me. It is a review, not of a book, but of a reading.

The Oxford poet and journalist Humphrey Astley wrote an article, in November, about a Hallowe’en poetry reading in the Albion Beatnik Bookshop.  It’s excellent to have poetry featured in the local press.  Here is what Astley wrote about my reading:

‘…there can be no doubt that we are in the presence of a master performer – reciting from memory, her incantatory tone and gestures give her the air of a kind of white witch of poetry. (That she’s getting into the spirit of things by wearing a cape probably adds to the effect.)

And there’s magic in her poetry, for sure…’

You can read the full account of the memorable readings from Mimi Khalvati, Claire Crowther and Jing-Jing Lee here:

http://www.oxfordtimes.co.uk/leisure/theatre/theatre/reviews/14099852.Broken_taboos_and_autumnal_alchemy_from_some_masters_of_modern_poetry/

I can’t, sadly, perform white magic – and the cape belonged to a kind friend.  But I do own one sequinned jacket…

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.

My new collection, ‘Skies’, will be published by Carcanet in March 2016.  I’m delighted by the light-filled skies of this cover. I think it is one of the best Carcanet have produced for me, in the thirty-five years we have worked together.

And, thanks to technology undreamed of when I first began publishing poetry, ‘Skies’ is already available for pre-order:

From Carcanet (cheaper!)

http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784101800

or Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Skies-Alison-Brackenbury/dp/178410180X/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1448388060&sr=1-8&keywords=alison+brackenbury

A very Happy and light-filled New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Esteesee

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

I must quickly post the cover of my new collection, ‘Skies’, which will be published by Carcanet in March 2016.  I’m delighted by the light-filled skies of this cover. I think it is one of the best Carcanet have produced for me, in the thirty-five years we have worked together.

And, thanks to technology undreamt of when I began publishing poetry, ‘Skies’ is already available for pre-order:

From Carcanet (cheaper!)

http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784101800

or Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Skies-Alison-Brackenbury/dp/178410180X/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1448388060&sr=1-8&keywords=alison+brackenbury

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.

And now, my December blog post – Esteesee.

Christmas is a good time for building bridges.  You can, I am sure, instantly supply the name of an aunt, lapsed friend or neighbour normally stranded from you on a conveniently distant bank…

But this blog celebrates a bridge between two of the best of neighbours: poetry and new folk music.  For about fifteen years, I have been scurrying between the two like an eager puppy, bringing back my discoveries of new songs and singers to the rather different audience of poetry.  I have written articles, given talks and broadcast about folk song, new and old.

am a complete musical amateur, and if any of my contributions has been particularly ragged around the edges, I can only apologise. I hope that a creaking bridge is better than none at all.  I think that all my clumsy efforts felt worthwhile on the day when a reader told me I had introduced her to Chris Woods’, ‘Hollow Point’, whose subject is the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in the Underground: a devastating, yet hauntingly beautiful song.

On a lighter note, folk music has just delivered an early Christmas present to me.  We all have idle dreams: stardom, the Lottery… Mine, by my sixties, was more modest but equally intense: to have one of my poems set to music by one of the singer-songwriters whose work has given me such pleasure.

I first heard Ros Brady singing live.  I greatly admired the energy and strangeness of her songs, and gave her some of my poems.  Cast your bread upon the waters… And now Ros has come back, like Noah’s dove, I feel, with a song spun free from two of my bird poems.  The song, provisionally called ‘Crow’, echoes and circles.  Ros has unerringly found both poems’ most intense lines, and their most musical names, for places and Birds.

I believe that this song (probably retitled ‘Off Course’) may soon appear on an EP.  But meanwhile, here is a link to Ros’ song on video – whose magnificent crows and crests of woodland bear a startling resemblance to those which lie behind the poems:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJqWu-QdUQ8

And Coleridge?  Ah, yes.  Ange Hardy, from Somerset, is one of my favourites from a marvellous new generation of singer-songwriters. (This too has a parallel in new poetry!)  Expert reviewers and the judges of BBC awards have already agreed with my amateur enthusiasm for her past work.

Now Ange has produced Esteesee, a CD of songs inspired by Coleridge, with the initals he frequently used himself as its title.  I can hear lovers of Coleridge’s poetry anxiously drawing in breath.  Yes, this could have been a disaster.  In fact, I think, it is a triumph.

Ange is an experienced musician.  The sleeve notes to her album bravely reveal that she also has the depth of life’s experience behind her: a runaway period in Ireland, as a teenager; the birth of a child.  She freely admits that she came freshly to Coleridge.  But her songs can send her listeners back to his work with the newness of discovery.

I have read Coleridge’s major poems. I knew something of his life.  But I was startled and fascinated by the material which Ange Hardy chose for the songs of Esteesee Esteesee.  She has one song based on an early fragment, ‘The Foster-Mother’s Tale’.  Another springs from a ghost story, told by Coleridge at dinner. (This would  have chilled the soup…)

Ange Hardy’s tunes are as fresh as her choices.  One of the loveliest is devoted to ‘William Frend’, a song based on a (highly topical) incident of Coleridge’s youth.  A tutor from Coleridge’s Cambridge college was put on trial after he published a pamphlet criticising the Church’s liturgy.  Coleridge was, allegedly, a keen supporter of Frend.  This may sound dry.  But when the song opens with ‘Oh sweet William Friend’, the passionate lilt of Hardy’s music is irresistible.  This song has been widely played on radio.  In a time of fear and religious fanaticism, its echoes are profound.

Amongst the strongest tracks of Esteesee are Hardy’s settings of texts linked to Coleridge’s faith.  Hardy is a fine writer of lullabies, and songs for children (which also move adults deeply).  Memorably, and without a trace of self-consciousness, she sets the prayer which includes ‘Four angels round my head’, in which, Coleridge wrote, he ‘most firmly believed’.  She also condenses Coleridge’s own epitaph for himself into a song, with equal measures of skill and compassion:

Come pray that he who toils of breath

As death in life finds life in death [,,,]

The Ancient Mariner speaks again… Ange Hardy writes in her sleevenotes that she could have written an ‘entire album’ on ‘The Ancient Mariner’.  But what she has done is fascinating.  Her CD has fourteen songs: all short, and the more powerful for their restraint.  She has left behind the old curse of the rambling folksong.  (The Romantics, too, could wander too far…)

Musically, her settings have a most unexpected quality: a briskness of rhythm; a kind of jaunty elegance, especially as lines end: ‘A thousand thousand slimy things/ lived on; and so did I’.  Hardy does not wallow in the Mariner’s misery.  She ends the line darkly, and abruptly.  This is immediately effective. It is deeply linked, I think, to two qualities in Coleridge’s own writing.

The first is the power of the ballad, which often moves ahead with ruthless speed.  But the economy, and what I have already called the elegance of Hardy’s timing, also remind me of the particular qualities of eighteenth century writing, whether in Pope’s couplets or the sharp lyrics of The Beggars Opera.  I think that John Gay’s wonderful marriage of high and low art – with savage social commentary – has its parallels in the best of modern British folk music.

Even my ignorant ears can appreciate the richness of the musical skills which underpin Esteesee.  Ange Hardy notes ‘Twelve of us appear on the album playing fifteen instruments’.  Amongst the twelve musicians is the West Country singer and songwriter Steve Knightley, with a memorable account of Coleridge’s own youthful flight from home.  And ‘Kubla Khan’’s dulcimer playing maid is accompanied, most artfully, by … a ‘hammered dulcimer’.

For Coleridge’s own lines are spoken on this album.  You can hear the whole of ‘Kubla Khan’ – which, I suspect, will not be known by every listener. An extract from ‘The Ancient Mariner’ is read by David Milton, the town crier of Watchet, the port which, allegedly, is the setting for the poem’s long meeting of the Wedding Guest and the Mariner.  I have never heard Coleridge’s work read by a speaker from the West Country.  I shall not forget the warmth of the vowels, in the grimmest of descriptions, and the slow lengthening of the lines which describe the Mariner’s ordeal: ‘Day after day’….

The richness of the songs spills over into the sleeve notes.  You will find poetry there, including the whole of ‘Kubla Khan’, and extracts from Coleridge’s little known play. A boy ‘all alone, set sail by silent moonlight / Up a great river, great as any sea’.   All of Ange’s lyrics are printed, so you can trace, at your leisure, her sympathetic translation of poem into song.

And Christmas? Well, if you have a friend, partner or relative who loves poetry and music, Esteesee, with its bold black and white cover, its fresh tunes and the long echoes of its words, would make a modest-sized but generous present.  Make sure that you can listen to it, too…

I will end with the tiniest of my own Christmas poems.  For decades, I have mulled over the description of Christmas in ‘Version B’ of the medieval poem Piers Plowman, by William Langland.  Here is my brief, admiring reflection:

                          Line 148

So who stood lit, shocked by the glow of birth?
The angels flew ‘to pastors and to poets’.
Poets, please note. Langland set shepherds first.

 

 

Alison Brackenbury

 

Merry Christmas!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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