Friday, October 22, 2010

James Brookes, The English Sweats

I've been meaning for ages to post something about James Brookes' debut pamphlo-book The English Sweats. (Maybe it's time we had some new coinage to reflect how poetry publishing works nowadays – a microdex could be either a pamphlet or an e-book, which means that an e-pamphlet would be a micromicrodex or perhaps a minimicrodex or an electromicrodex, which we could shorten to, oh, iVerse for marketing purposes. No doubt I've got all the Latin and Greek roots mixed up together there (I bet James Brookes could tell me that, too). So, maybe not.)

Reviewers have related Brookes' work to Geofrrey Hill's, and this holds good both at the level of subject matter (a long view of English history, the Middle Ages impinging on the present) and at the level of style (dense sheaves of words, or perhaps phalanxes of Saxons marching over the tongue). It recalls Hill's early style most closely, which is good as I generally prefer that to the more pompous later stuff. 'Mons Horse Burial' is pitilessly performed, which makes the pity all the more effective:

Even clay, after some debate, and much
struggle toward the ditch, rejects its frame.
A week of repeat salvos – the parapet's
weak soil flensed to an equine shrapnel.

Like Hill, Brookes is, for me, weaker when the metrical and semantic density is unrelieved. I'm prepared to accept that may be my fault, not following things – but I prefer the poems where contrast and balance accentuate the thrilling effect of the high pitch. For instance, '1587' from 'The Crescent of Hearing', a wonderful sonnet in which 12 lines of focused shoreline fear suddenly open out via a pronounced volta, across the sea from England to Ireland, from now to later, from the fear of an inward-looking nation to the confidence of an imperial one. It's a great (by which I mean 'great', not 'smashing') example of how form can perform and amplify the sense of a poem. This poem and others like it show a serious talent at work.


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