The Sins of the Leopard, James Brookes, Salt Publishing, 70pp, £12.95 (hardback)
Harm’s Way, Conor Carville, Dedalus Press, 76pp, £9.99 (paperback)
Recreation Ground, Tom Phillips, Two Rivers Press, 48pp, £7.95 (paperback)
The Sins of the Leopard is James Brookes’s first full collection. Still in his twenties, he received a Gregory Award in 2009 and a Hawthornden Writer’s Fellowship in 2011. On reading his opening poem, ‘Requiem for an Invasion’, one is struck by its resonance with the work of Geoffrey Hill, but impressed also by its precocious mastery of imagery and an ability to conjure up the past with a startling immediacy. Evoking the ghosts of the Mary Rose, Brookes takes us back to a period when England was a relatively small player on the sidelines of European history, but with ambitions to become something greater. Describing the mechanics of salvaging a boat, the poet re-creates the voices of those who went down with her:
By freight going landward,
our half of the Mary Rose,
sleeping through polyphonies of weather.
A time capsule from a bygone age the ship seems an appropriate symbol for a collection that is packed with history. However, along with an uncanny ability to present the reader with convincing cameos from past ages, Brookes shares with writers such as Hill and Heaney a finely tuned sense of the multi-layered complexity of the language in which he writes. ‘Fealty’ is on one level a witty description of two cats, while, at the same time, it depicts the decline of ‘some tumbledown country estate.’ In marked contrast to a pair of battered stone ‘half-leopards … slackjaw, and noseless’, the two cats seem sinuously alive. Yet this is very much a poem about the resources of the English language. Its opening words are solidly Germanic: ‘Gatehouse, outhouse’, but soon the cats are portrayed as if they were chattels on a title deed with a whiff of the notary’s Latin: ‘A. Cat et uxor’. We then explore the feudal heritage of Norman French: ‘fealty is somewhat fluid, almost a slipped disc; / the loyal vowel spilling from slick mime to stiff meme’. Between layers of French and Latinity the syllables shift and dissolve: ‘fealty’, ‘fidelity’, ‘frailty’, ‘felix’ until, finally, there is a brilliantly ironic conclusion when, given our current financial meltdown, the poem ends on the feline diminutive, ‘kitty.’
From cats heraldic and cats domestic, we move in ‘Maneaters’ to a study of predators at the end of their days and at the end of empire: ‘The leopard of Panar, lame from poachers’ potshots’ or ‘the leopard of Rudrapayang, raiding / along the pilgrims’ trail to Badrinasth, / a barely-walking study in gingivitis.’ A more straightforwardly descriptive piece than some of Brookes’ work, this is nonetheless an entirely successful poem; and if one were to express a quibble with some of the work contained here – and at close to sixty poems this is a very substantial collection – it is that sometimes, like Hill or Muldoon, the poet can become a little too bogged down in layers of obscurity. However, when he lets his lines breathe and the underlying logic is clear, there is no doubt that the effect can be powerful as here, in his Rilkean sonnet, ‘Hierophantic Head of Mao, Hunan Province’:
Whether he ever had the sweeping hair
of Keats or Shelley, is not for us to say.
Nor is their injustice in the air
of meditation, or the quiet way
his gaze is fixed, refuses to relent.
Perhaps the smooth-lipped stone looks indigent
above the lush and level park.
Impressive too are the elegant tercets of ‘Portents’ and the title poem of Brookes’s earlier pamphlet ‘The English Sweats’. In ‘Pharisees’ his penchant for linguistic archaeology has produced a poem in which he explores the dialect of rural Sussex where he was born and brought up. Delightful and highly musical, it is a poem in which he exploits this particular dialect’s use of ‘the reduplicated plural’, one result of which is that its speakers confuse ‘the ideas of fairies and Pharisees in the most hopeless manner’:
Dappen you come upon
the starked-up clay
of a plough field’s sidelands
dursn’t you go
through the hedge-shard…
Finally, mention should be made of several superb animal poems, whose anthropomorphic characteristics complement the collection’s historical themes. In ‘Badger’ the harassed creature has a ‘panzerfaust snout’ and is ‘1/34th scale / S-P artillery at large in Sussex’, while in ‘Mink’ Brooke’s lines assume a fluidity that successfully mimics predatory invasiveness:
Down the flooded season, down through swept
grasses to the puckered banks, the mink slipped
and was gone, without so much as a splash …
The Sins of the Leopard is, by any standards, an astonishingly rich and ambitious collection of poetry, which has an historic depth and breadth underpinned by a finely tuned sense of linguistic acuity. It is all the more gratifying to be able to say this in relation to the work of a poet who is still in his twenties and who will, hopefully, have many productive years ahead of him.
Our second debut collection is Conor Carville’s Harm’s Way. Unlike Brookes, Carville, who is now in his forties, has bided his time before publishing. Where the younger poet immediately grabs the reader’s attention with the brilliance of his phrases, Carville’s poems are quieter, more self-effacing, and create a strangely disconcerting world that draws the reader slowly in. Born in Armagh and educated at Trinity College, Dublin, the co-ordinates of Carville’s poetry stretch from the Northern Ireland of his formative years, to the UK, where he now works, and then on to Japan, where his wife was born. Appropriately enough, Harm’s Way opens with ‘Touchdown’ whose protagonist finds himself jet-lagged and in transit with his ‘senses gloved’ after ‘thirteen hours on the redeye’. Yet even in this disorientated state he retains his eye for detail: ‘following the pulse’s boom to where a carousel // staggers into uneasy life.’ In ‘Shiso’ the business of getting used to different food gives Carville the opportunity to show his Heaneyesque powers of description:
Hungry? A shiso leaf, its slick wedge
around a central cicatrice,
the teeth of each serrated edge
green against the white rice.
Broader at base, smaller,
it’s something like a nettle leaf …
However, beyond the strange food and the polysyllabic invitation to eat, Itadakimasu! there is the insistent memory of a field of nettles from the poet’s Irish childhood:
… those touchy crowds
their crepuscular murmur,
how they seem to gain ground
when your back is turned.
In ‘Kunozoha’, where the poet is referred to as ‘Conor-san’, he creates a feverish atmosphere in which an unfamiliar reality merges with the world of folklore:
If you still love me, dear
then search me out beneath the pines
of Shinoda forest in Izumi,
where those shivering trees
cast upon my back their rain of tines.
In ‘Failing to Climb Fuji’ the impossibility of completely bridging the gap between two cultures is implied in the poem’s title, while its concluding stanza suggests that union can only be fully achieved on a more directly personal level:
So let’s just sit in silence here, turning
round and about in our heads once more
the perfect volcano’s invisible core.
Carville’s teenage years in Northern Ireland also give him plenty of scope to indulge his predilection for ‘making strange’. Particularly impressive is ‘Patrol’ where two lads have slipped off for an illicit smoke. Looking out across a bleak landscape of ‘extra-terrestrial cairns / and keshes, alien drumlins / and smouldering freshets,’ they observe ‘visitants’: ‘the leader gently scoping the cows / and nodding the others on, // their webbed skulls laced with leaves.’ It is only on realising that this is the 1970s at the height of ‘The Troubles’ that one appreciates how the poem’s sci-fi atmosphere is created by its precise observation of a political reality; while in ‘Top of the Pops: 1975’ another military patrol has temporarily interrupted a teenager’s enjoyment of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. In some poems Carville uses ostranenie to comic effect when he brings together the contemporary and the traditional in Irish culture. Satirizing the post-River Dance boom in an ancient art, ‘Irish Dancing’ highlights the glitches that occur when it is adapted to modern sound technology and the sound engineer presides over ‘his veritable archive of chronic distortion.’ Starman, another poem set in the seventies, is an entertaining narrative which shows what happens when a bunch of buachaillí, who are more interested in listening to ‘glam rock’, are sent off to the Donegal Gaeltacht to hone their Irish language skills. The sad futility of the experience is epitomized by An Bhean a’tí’s hopeless injunction ‘Ná bí ag caint as Bearla!’ (Don’t be speaking English!)
Slowly absorbing a culture that is alien to one’s own or moving on from the traditional values and the bleak history of his native land give the poet plenty of scope to exercise his descriptive skills and indulge his eye for the absurd. However, Carville has an enviable ability to make us see the most mundane reality with new eyes. Amongst his contemporaries I can only think of Paul Farley who has an equal ability to find his subject matter in seemingly unpromising terrain. At first glance ‘The Wheelie-Bin’ appears an unlikely subject and yet in this poet’s hands it is given a memorable actuality:
Monday mornings its gibber-flip
awakes me, the rough-and-tumble
of its drag against the cobbles
dislodging the grease trap
of its gob…
Not only does Carville’s almost clinical observation show us something commonplace in a new light, but also, without being preachy, hints at a theme of major significance for contemporary society. Equally impressive is ‘Two Cranes’. An elegant poem about two surreally elegant pieces of machinery, it also explores notions of ‘appearance and reality’ and the act of observation itself: ‘and if they seem to overlap // that’s not the case at all, / but rather where you sit, the angle / you are watching from, day in day out.’ Meticulously structured and precisely observed, Conor Carville’s poems are sometimes funny and frequently mysterious. They create spaces, shift perspectives, and tune in to distant echoes. They merit our careful attention and always reveal more on successive readings.
Our final collection is Tom Phillips’s Recreation Ground. Like Carville, Phillips is in his forties and, although he has previously published two pamphlets, this is his first full collection. A journalist and dramatist, as well as a poet, Phillips’ work has an authority that belies its appearance in a ‘First Collection Series’. Like Brookes’s, Phillips’s poems are informed by history and like Carville’s they are geographically wide-ranging: from the English West Country, where the poet lives, then on through Mitteleuropa, the Balkans and beyond them to Australia. The collection gets off to an impressive start with ‘Life After Wartime’:
Some things never change.
The garden bushes wag their beards
like arguing theologians while the orange fists
of passion fruit take cover in the leaves.
The sky aches with unmapped distances
and the sun hides nothing.
At dusk, it surrenders to the moon.
When there’s small-hours muttering on the street
remember it’s only someone deciding to go home or go on,
pushing the night for the last of the great good times
and into a shell-shocked morning after.
From its boldly declarative opening, its hint of a quote from Ecclesiastes, and then through the cinematic sweep of its imagery, we gain a powerful sense of public and private history in a world where, however tough it’s been, ‘at least there’s coffee again’. In ‘Burning Omaha’ Phillips’s skills as both a journalist and a dramatist give his poem an epic resonance as he captures the voices of children looking back to a time when they got on with their lives, uninvolved and seemingly unconcerned with the bigger picture:
It was a summer
of talk. Of incidents, evacuations,
populations gridlocking ring roads,
four minute warnings, the hottest season
of their Cold War. We didn’t care.
We were racing through the woods
while parents stocked up on tins
and candles and stared at the radio…
In other poems Phillips takes us back through the layers of European history, as in ‘Dubliners on the Adriatic’, where, to his surprise, he discovers in the border town of Trieste the statue of ‘James Joyce among the Hapsburgs’. In this poem about a polyglot writer in a polyglot port ‘Trieste’ morphs into Slavonic ‘Trst’ which then, in Joyce’s ‘Babelous’ mode, becomes ‘Tristesse’, evoking ‘a century’s diminishment,’ and finally his ‘tryst’ with Nora Barnacle. In ‘European Union’ he gives us a brilliant re-working of Philip Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. Travelling in Romania, the poet’s attention is drawn to ‘so many car horns / shifting through the Doppler effect.’ However, before long he starts to notice the weddings: ‘new couples / emerged from a scaffolded church / with candles lit, and family groups / assembled in a park for photographs.’ It is only the poem’s title that makes it clear that these new beginnings set against a ‘Stalinist backdrop’ coincide with Romania’s entry into the European Union and the optimism of another kind of new start:
Such innocence again around the square,
these brand new starts, this expectation,
Romanian sunlight on dove grey-dresses.
However, in ‘Moving East’ this particular Brave New World is seen in a different light where, after the decline of the Hapsburgs and the Communist Party, it is the more insidious forces of globalization that are taking over: ‘Only now, among shrugging commuters, / you’re looking back, overseen by the church, / on a branch of Tesco and, last night, / pints of Guinness in a Mexican bar.’ An ability to see contemporary lives in a wider historical context is what gives so many of Phillips’s poems their depth and power, but this is always brought into focus by his eye for the telling detail, as in the concluding stanza of ‘Ornithology in the Balkans’, where a humorous image from the natural world seems a wry comment on mankind’s hubris and religious intolerance:
Across the promontory’s ruined terrain,
we were trying to work out which wall
had belonged to which religion
when, against the faithless sky,
a squadron flew in: dandy pigeons
stumbling around, wild birds
hunting for a roost in feathery galoshes.
Elsewhere it is the English landscape that captures Phillips’s attention. ‘Not Really Climbing the Malverns Hills’ is a marvellously sustained and detailed poem in which the protagonist considers urban ‘renewal’ against the backdrop of Langland’s iconic landscape:
Only, climbing granite steps
through log-fire smoke,
we spied an unexpected geography:
stockaded new towns, arterial roads
like a railway modeller’s indulgent scheme
for tunnels and impossible curves.
‘Fenlanders’, too, is a wry evocation of the English landscape: ‘Perfectly flat source / of glass-half-empty wisdom.’ However, much in the way that Patrick Kavanagh did in ‘Epic’, Phillips hints at a parallel between local disputes and bigger conflicts: ‘these unbroken horizontals / bred smallholders quick / to silence, feuds.’ On a less epic scale, Phillips is also skilful in capturing the more immediately recognizable details of contemporary urban life as in ‘The Centre, Friday’: ‘this is not a place to be at a loss: / you need wits and cash about you.’ In ‘The Breakage Suite’ he explores our reliance on technology, while ‘Portishead’ is both a love poem and a deadpan evocation of ‘what passes for life in Portishead’.
Tom Phillips has waited a long time before publishing this collection, but the wait has been worth it. Recreation Ground is a fully achieved volume in which history and its slogans loom large and the ‘documented dead look down’ on private lives. Without strain or posture these poems are elegantly poised and cadenced. Plain spoken and musical, they have the intellectual and emotional depth that is only to be found in work of the highest order.