Monday 28 November 2022

Review by Kathleen Bell of "Thorpeness" by Alison Brackenbury

In Thorpeness Alison Brackenbury’s poems explore rural life with love but also a strong awareness of struggle and hardship. A poem about her grandfather, 'Shepherd Brackenbury,' set in lambing season in the 1930s, ends with the tender, warning couplet:

          Best shoes scratched by rough straws, I learnt love meant
          Not glances, silky curls, but blood’s raw scent.

There are celebrations of achievement but also references to the limitations imposed by class and poverty as in the reference in 'Fern' to the old man 'who would have gone / to "Grammar," if they could have bought / a crested cap, soft shoes for sport.’ There is also the satisfaction of rebellion in 'Meeting 1919' when the returning soldier, Brackenbury’s Great Uncle Sidney, tells the lady of the manor 'I’ve not come home to be bossed round by you.'

Women’s domestic achievements and heritage are celebrated alongside the work of male farm labourers. The sequence 'Aunt Margaret’s Pudding' rejoices in the work of Dorothy Eliza Barnes, the poet’s grandmother who had been a professional cook before she became a shepherd’s wife. One poem recounts how she would provide sandwiches of 'home-cured bacon and white bread' for the unemployed men who tramped across England in the rain, searching for work. The sequence concludes not with the rich and heavy sweetness of cakes, puddings, curds and pies but with the salt of samphire, gathered hazardously on the dangerous Lincolnshire shore.

This combination of comfort and danger, risk and hope is characteristic of the poems in this collection. The six-line poem 'Sunday on the Coach' demonstrates a time of peace while hinting at its fragility:

           It is June. Tall grasses nod. On the back seat
           the last baby has hiccupped into sleep.
           No one swears, nobody phones. The south wind whistles
           white motorways of cow parsley and thistles.
           A helicopter hangs, but does not strafe.
           This afternoon the innocent are safe.

For all its focus on the vivid and the particular, Alison Brackenbury’s beautifully crafted poems often seem to hint at something just out of words' reach. It is therefore fitting that the final stanza of the final poem looks both toward an unreached Thorpeness and to something further beyond:

           In tall streets, low clouds press. 
           Three swallows snatch
           a gust, a breath, last fly.
           Small voices catch
           land’s end, storm’s edge, whirl high
           far, far beyond Thorpeness.

About the reviewer
Kathleen Bell is the author of two recent poetry collections: Do You Know How Kind I Am (Leafe Press) and Disappearances (Shoestring), both published in 2021. She also writes fiction and, on occasion, teaches creative writing and leads workshops.

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