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Michael Schuller reviews James Brookes’ impressive debut poetry collection.
In the practice of woodturning, the block is placed against the lathe, which cuts against it on each rotation to expose a cross-section of the grain. That image – of the revealing of a mesmerising pattern latent in the structure of the material itself – is as close as I can come to summarising the poetry of James Brookes. He is a poet who has an unusual command of the language, the sort of writer that one images sites in front of a pile of books with a scalpel, rather than a page with a pen. But make no mistake; Brookes is no tryhard with a thesaurus. Even if you struggle to keep up with his myriad vocabulary and historical references, the poems themselves are attention-holding for their craftsmanship alone. Take, for example, this excerpt from the opening poem, “Requiem for an Invasion”, which imagines the recovery of one of Henry VIII’s warships from the bottom of the Solent:
By freight going landward,
our half of the Mary Rose,
sleeping through polyphonies of weather.
A hand snagged in the water.
Trowels and airlifts and gentry wafting silt.
Whorled, our native churchyard verdigris,
across the steeps
of chalk-familiar cloud, the hills of samphire.
Although Brookes draws repeatedly on historical events and motifs, his interest doesn’t actually appear to be the passage of time. His focus lies on the interrogation of the trappings of empire and state, and the individual human dramas that are implied by the vagaries of human enterprise. The giveaway here is probably “Moff Jerjerrod Redoubles his Efforts”, a short and sensitive internal monologue from the ill-fated commander of the second Death Star. Against “Robespierre faces the Scaffold”, the juxtaposition is almost too revealing. Figures like these appear repeatedly throughout the book, from Longinus to King James I to Mao, either in the copious and sometimes tangential epigraphs, or speaking directly from the body of the poems themselves.
There also seems to be some concern here about what role the trappings of empire have in the modern world. Brookes is more subtle (and less decisively antagonistic) than, say, Larkin (his “when will England grow up / it makes me want to throw up” being a case in point), but “The Star Chamber” finishes with a drawing of the chemical formula for Turbull’s blue, Ferricynaice, and the tension is acute. Like “Near All Hallows”, into which lurch Feynman and Planck’s Constant (rendered deliciously unpronounceable by the use of the mathematical symbol), there is an ambivalence about traditionalism in the face of the empirical.
The only fault here is that in his profusion of deft constructions and interrogations, Brookes sometimes doesn’t stop to enjoy the details of the immediate, mundane human experience sandwiched between his set pieces. There is much said, or implied, about kinds of philosophical and theoretical strains of contemporary Britishness, and plenty of images of the land itself. So when he does relax into a personal mode, as in “Concerning Plunder”, the resulting work becomes quite poignant.
Although he is unafraid to pile in Latin and Old English and epigraphs befitting his position as a librarian, Brookes is no dour classicist, and nothing about his writing is stuffy or staid. He is empathetic without being a romantic. If he does not permit himself more humour, it isn’t for lack of a certain wryness in style. Like all good poets, he’s willing to see his obsessions through to their natural end, even as he puts into the mouth of Walter Raleigh the rejoinder, “I think you want words indeed for you / have spoken one thing half a dozen times.”
James Brookes is a poet, librarian and teacher residing just outside of London.Sins of the Leopard is out now, published by Salt.
Michael Schuller is a poet, bookbinder and reviewer for Annexe.