Gallop, an overview of Alison Brackenbury’s nearly 40 years of work, is appropriately named for its many poems about horses, but it could also be a gallop through her impressive career. Tonally, though, it’s probably more of a horseback ramble down a country lane, with many stops to take in views of local history and family lore, and to allow the horse to graze, like the fortunate creature in the fairly recent poem ‘John Wesley’s Horse’.
Nature writing, which makes up a good part of Brackenbury’s work (though always in close touch with the human world) is surprisingly difficult to do in a truly engaging way, but in many poems she uses the names of plants or fruit like charms (‘Apple Country’ mentions “Worcesters…sea-green/With darkest red” and “Coxes flecked with gold/Which wrinkle into kindness”), much as Michael Longley does. ‘Woods’ evokes Edward Thomas with its bleak, beautiful intersection between the destructiveness and fragility of nature, and the same qualities in human beings. But again and again there is the particular love for horses, in all their animal warmth and power but especially in the way that their interactions with people reveal things about those individuals and about humanity in general; of course, this is especially appropriate when writing about animals on whose backs civilization was built. In the poem ‘Gallop’, Brackenbury writes lovingly about the “unholy conspiracy/of girls and horses”, while the beautiful and unsettling ‘Grooming’ is a meditation on desire, and ‘At Eighty’ looks at both the fearfulness and comfort of long-ago work horses in the context of family aging and illness (death is a repeated and always sensitively handled theme in her poems).
Gallop is a very effective overview of Brackenbury’s poetry collections since 1981, starting with Dreams of Power, whose poems are both beautiful and slightly diffuse in a youthful way (“For earth has many flowers”, from ‘The Wood at Semmering’). The long sequence Dreams of Power is about Arbella Stuart, a cousin of Elizabeth I who could herself have become the Queen of England. Similarly, Brackenbury later examines the poet John Clare at length in Breaking Ground (1984). Long poems or sequences always present the challenge of holding the reader’s attention consistently, and in terms of the historical poems I was more drawn to shorter pieces such as ‘Tewkesbury’, which mysteriously brings the Wars of the Roses into the present time:
The quiet men come for the key.
They walk towards you from the mist,
you see them now, will always see
though swimming in the tranquil pool
of broadest sun, in Tewkesbury.
Brackenbury’s poetry is usually at least lightly formal and rhymed. Later poems such as those from Skies (2016) are generally a little more spare, in choice of words, than the earlier work – but effectively so; the earlier poems were also beautiful and skilled but she has refined her craft very carefully and successfully. At times, too, the later work is a little lighter-hearted, as in the poem ‘And’, which begins: “Sex is like Criccieth.” (I couldn’t help thinking that this puts quite a different complexion on Robert Graves’ famous ‘Welsh Incident’, which begins “’But that was nothing to what things came out/ From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder.’”)
Alison Brackenbury has the kind of calm, patient, skillful poetic voice which will always be needed and valued, but which can also be slightly under-recognised. This volume of selected poems should help to invite new readers into her carefully observed world.
Gallop by Alison Brackenbury is published by Carcanet Press, 2019