It’s the voice that grabs your attention, the image that sticks. Not the Joan of Arc sort of Voice…you want to watch out for that sort of thing, the rapt, the Enthusiastic. It ends in tears. The voices I have in mind are the ones I keep writing about, one way or another…the ones that I hear that make me want to buy their owners’ pamphlets and collections. I can’t remember ever buying poetry because of a reviewer, though I sometimes buy collections because a friend says I must. Carrie Etter’s Imagined sons was such a one. Kim Moore wrote about it on her blog, and I bought it, and was not let down.
For the most part, though, I buy poetry because of readings. I’m sometimes surprised about how many, because I don’t go to Poetry Festivals, where I imagine you could rack up an impressive numbers of purchases and a concomittant debt. I suppose I go to more poetry nights than I think I do.
But voices and images, now. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate them.The first poetry reading I ever went to was Tony Harrison reading in our college staffroom..I remember the persistence of rhythm, the urgent rhetoric of it, [Wordsworth’s matter/water are full rhymes] but mostly I remember images, especially ones from The nuptial torches…the stray dogs whose skin grows/puckered round their knees like rumpled hose; or the imagined ghosts of the dead of the auto-da-fe: Let..no crowding smoke / condensing back to men float in and poke ./their charcoaled fingers at our bed.
Sometimes it’s the voice you’re caught by first, and for me it’s almost always got a sort of incantatory quality, it’s own rhythmical ideolect. Kim Moore reading Train journey from Barrow to Sheffield in the bland meeting room of a Premier Inn; Steve Ely reading A sin and a shame in a pub in a scoop of the moors at Marsden; Clare Shaw reading This baby in the back room of The Albert; Julia Deakin at an artspace in Huddersfield, reading with the precision of a Hockney pencil line..The half-mile high club. Most recently, David Constantine at Dean Clough in Halifax….I was completely entranced by the effortless way he said (rather than read) long and lovely poems with long looping sentences.
Sometimes though, it’s not the performative voice; some readers have a stillness and what superficially may come across as diffidence, but which is actually a voice that lets the image shine through, so it’s the image you remember first and the voice after. I’m thinking, say, of Tom Weir and the men with stubble like burnt corn [The cuts], and most memorablythe child with an ice cream which you wore / like a glove as it melted over your hand [Day trippin’]. Those particular moments, those images. Because, although you may , I never tire of repeating Clive James’ flat assertions that
‘you hear the force of real poetry at first glance’
‘declaring itself to be a poem is one of the main things a poem does’
‘everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the
moment..whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in’
Which brings us to our guest for today…let’s give a warm cobweb welcome to Judy Brown, who heard reading for the first time at Writers in the Bath, in Sheffield, on Valentine’s day this year. I like this poetry group which Cora Greenhill runs with a rare zest. But it’s a truth universally acknowledged that this particular room at The Bath can be one in which it’s hard to concentrate on the poems. It’s a corner room with a fireplace across one corner. Sometimes the fire is lit and it becomes a very warm room. If the door is opened to let out the heat, the pub noise of the tap room joins the reading. In summer there’s stuff outside. The second time I went (to hear Jo Bell, I think. Or Julie Mellor) I thought my new hearing aids had gone wrong. I thought I had rhythmical tinnitus. Turned out to be Morris dancers in the street. Of course it did. It morphed into a fight which involved shouting. What I’m saying is, it’s a room in which occasionally you may struggle to hear properly, if you, like me, are a bit deaf. The other thing, this Valentine’s day, never having met Judy before, and also being a guest poet, I was sitting next to her, and therefore slightly behind her when she stood up to read.She reads clear and quiet, without fuss or histrionics or show. And still the moments came, bright- minted and memorable. Moments like these from her second collection Crowd sensations.
There’s a joyous crowd of them in The street of the dried sea-food shops, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong. : ‘the ruinous bisque of dog-chew’ (it’s ‘bisque’ the nails it); cockled sheets of pemmican (the cockling of unstretched water-colour paper is what I see); kilos of brown mussels, complex / as rucksacks.
You notice that here’s a poet with the eye of a painter. I think that’s almost always a Good Thing. They’re not just pictures, or snapshots. That’s not what I mean. It’s true looking, true seeing. Like these moments: Spring was birdsong loud as broken glass, and the drunk outside Tesco face as bright as a rufous fruit; another one of her personae whose anger was rising like bread, and another, hauled back to Cumbria to this bucket of hills . And then there are the fires. I guess it’s a mark of how these moments stick that I think, somehow,there are far more fires in Crowd sensations than there actually are: cinders have shivered /to dead-bird ash as I froth up dust / with the balding brush. The surprise of ‘froth’ is dead right, the textures also. I said to someone a couple of days ago, as I was thinking about this post (which, you’ll have noticed, is late again. Slapped wrist/naughty step), that when I read through Crowd sensations for the first time, I decided I’d pack in writing poems and do something I’ve more aptitude for. Something with a chainsaw. And it was images and moments like these. But not just them. It was the emotional intelligence, and heft and range of the poems too. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Time to meet our guest.
Judy’s quite sparing of her biographical details…or concise, or succinct. I could learn a lot from her, and these posts would be over sooner. Still there’s a lot to think about:
Her second collection ‘Crowd Sensations’ (Seren, 2016) is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her first book, ‘Loudness’ (Seren, 2011), was shortlisted for both the Forward and Fenton Aldeburgh prizes for best first collection. Judy was Poet-in-Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in 2013, a 2014 Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone’s Library and is a 2017 Hawthornden Fellow. She has won the Manchester Poetry Prize, the Poetry London Competition and the Templar Pamphlet Competition (with ‘Pillars of Salt’, 2006). Judy was a lawyer until she started writing poems, but now lives in a churchyard and writes and teaches. judy-brown.co.uk
It’s worth saying that for a time she was a lawyer based in Hong Kong. and I was intrigued at that reading in The Bath by the way her poems ranged around the world, from Hong Kong to Grasmere, and, what grabbed me straight off, to the unfashionable, run-down, end-of-the world coast of Cumbria, the untouristy un-Romantic-daffodilly coast. Millom, Maryport, Workington. Old iron-ore ports. And strangely beautiful too. Haunted, maybe.Judy told how, during her Grasmere residency, she took off , Bill Bryson style, to wander down that coast, staying in small hotels and B&B’s along the way. I was hooked…years ago, visiting teaching practice students along that coast, I used to stay in those places. Often quite odd, or run-down, or eccentric, sometimes diffusely menacing places.There’s a sequence that’s stitched through ‘Crowd Sensations’ . Songs from West Cumbria, each poem voiced by an unaccompanied (solitary? lonely? it’s hard to say) visitor. I loved them, straight off. Here’s one that’s possibly my favourite.
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There was a goat outside the window of my Classic Double,
working a bald strip of tilted earth behind wire.
Between us lay a five-foot-deep concrete alley
through glass; my admiration at its brown head and neck
on a white body, like two beasts severed and sewn;
and some prison dreams neither of us would divulge.
In the bar, low sun glimmed off the sea. I couldn’t
get a seat near it. The men from the power station who could,
as a squadron, turned their heads from the window
to watch the TV above mine. For me too, it was hard
to believe in the beach that stretched for miles each side
like an adhesive strip ripped off something useful.
Breakfast was an open bag of Kingsmill White,
some soft croissants pouched in cellophane, plus
one bruised pear which I took out of fellow feeling.
I had to get us out of here: away from the owners
talking business in their sagging tracksuits, away
from this disowned ground, its hand-hot rain.
[From ‘Crowd Sensations’ (Seren Books, 2016)]
There’s so much going on here, like a film storyboard, all the deft edits from the goat seen through the window, and the fellow-feeling of the watcher; the narrator wanting to sit with a view of the sea but becoming part of the view of the men from the power station, unable to shift out of its awkwardness; the sad breakfast offerings..that one bruised pear. And the stick- in- the -mind images/moments: the beach like an adhesive strip ripped off something useful, that hand-hot rain. I loved it when I heard it. I still do.
The next poem is a traveller’s poem too. I realise that a familiar trope is rising in my mind. Dark watcher. That’s what it is that draws me to Judy Brown’s poems…the observations of the unattached and the simultaneously imaginatively engaged. The exact opposite of withdrawal and alienation.
From Platform 1, Blackfriars Station
There’s something over-familiar about the cranes
rising through the city. For centuries its huddle
was spiked only by the paraphernalia of spires.
Through the river-soaked glass of the new station
we can measure the torturer’s bamboo as it grows
into a friable body. The shallow-rooted boroughs
might be peeled off, easy as a roll of turf.
Here the earth has already crumpled, spills skeletons
which are coppery-blue from buried money.
Skyscapes are a story I’m bored being bored with.
Still, the latest towers are eating light like plants,
donating grace as they hurry into their final poise.
A confession has been exacted, then simplified.
All that remains as we sink down into the tunnel
between platforms is the city’s current heraldry,
its long bones opening our skulls to the air.
Published in The Scores (thescores.org.uk), September 2016)
I suspect I shall never see a cityscape in the same way again, never be easily entranced by the insouciance of cranes and steel and the swagger of engineering. It’s the image of the ‘torturer’s bamboo’ that exacts and simplifies a confession. The way the sky yields to the spiky upward thrust of steel and glass, the way the towers ‘are eating light like plants’. City as insatiable consumer. Memorable and disturbing. Maybe you see now why I thought I might pack in poetry and leave it to the grown-ups.
The last poem (which is not unconnected from the money – wonderland world of the Shard) I like because of the way it reminds me of what seem like revelatory personal poems in Crowd sensations : the ones that are the stories of love betrayed, or lost, or broken..the loves that may be exorcised by the fires I thought there were more of, and the loves that seem transgressive and tempting, like Eve’s apple or Pandora’s box.
The Frog Prince
This man believes a woman can feel the muscle
of money changing his skin, a second landscape
mapped over pectorals, biceps, his long back.
It’s a language that means she reads his body
in several translations: precious metals unfold
in the altered curve as thigh flares into buttock.
It’s not about the palm’s pleasure but signification.
No woman loves him without moistening her lips,
the word price commingling with mint on her breath.
She keeps his heat and spill in her throat: investment.
This is exegesis, the note of the glassware, the slap
in the lift to the thirtieth floor The actual moment
is nothing, it’s about what she learns of her value.
Down on the cushiony carpet is a private education.
You cannot touch me, he says but she’s expected to try.
Under his eyelids the message is: amethyst bruises,
unpettable dogs, as his hands mete out a currency
that more than repays the damage done to him.
[Unpublished: till now]
I’ll not say any more about it. It’s deft, it’s poised. It can speak for itself. Thank you for being our guest, Judy Brown. The least we can do is now rush out and buy your collections. Or the sedentary amongst us can go to the link below and then hit the Paypal button. Repeatedly.
I have no idea what’s happening next week. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Thank you to Seren for permission to print Was this review helpful to you? Let’s hope that we repay you by visiting your site and buying lots of books. Here’s the link