Originally published on everythingbutamisprint.tumblr.com in October 2010.
J. Brookes is almost certainly not as well-known outside his adopted hometown as he should be. Well-respected by the well-respected (Sheenagh Pugh and Robert Minhinnick have both offered particularly praising analyses of his latest collection), the South-East Londoner who moved to Cardiff in the 1990s is considered to be one of the Welsh capital's finest contemporary poets.
Brookes' road from The Big Smoke to his current home in south Wales took in many sights; born in 1951, he left Britain almost straight from school to travel Europe and the Middle East (although not before getting kicked out of Leeds Art College). After a decade of hitch-hiking his way across the Eurasian continent, he briefly settled in Ireland in the mid-1970s, where he achieved a degree in English at the University of Ulster. Brookes would then go on to teach his degree subject in the Sudan and Turkey, pausing only to complete a Masters in Sheffield, before making a permanent return to Britain to take a job at a psychiatric hospital in Brighton. He fell in love with a Welsh woman and moved to Cardiff in 1990, where he founded The Yellow Crane poetry magazine (1995–2005).
My first encounter with Brookes' poetry was at a Square magazine launch in Cardiff in 2008. A week earlier, Square had published The Dresden Cantata, Brookes' first collection of poems outside the world of pamphlet publishing. Flicking through the slim volume at the sales table, it didn’t take long for me to decide to part with £6.99. As Pugh notes, "Brookes is unafraid to say profound things, but in an unexpected context and with a wry humour." An example of this off-beat insightfulness is the poem that ultimately convinced me that The Dresden Cantata was an essential purchase.
Killing the Dog
The dog got cancer and the rot
carried half her face off
in six months.
With growing squeamishness
we took her out,
first minus a cheek,
then an eye,
then half a nose,
till, finally, imagining
not long from then
a single shin-bone
or a set of teeth
chasing a red ball
through the trees,
we led her firmly downhill
to the vet.
sank in through a patch
of shaved white skin
and she looked stung,
then, recognising that the tide
now washing in
and drumming through her head
she set up such a howl
we stopped our ears and wept
until she dropped.
Even the vet was shocked,
and the waiting room
when we walked back through
holding the lead
and identity disc
was stiff as wood
with faces, animal and human,
and watching us.
Killing the dog
was one of the last things
we did together,
and we did it so bravely
and so well
that walking back up the hill
it almost felt
we could go on together
for years and years.
(The Dresden Cantata, Square, 2008)
In 'Killing the Dog', Brookes presents a subject often explored in poetry – the fragile nature of human relationships – but does so in a way which means the poem isn't one you feel you've read a thousand times before, amongst the pages of uninspiring collections. This unusuality invites the reader back to Brookes' poems, and almost always allows them to survive a second reading – something which is perhaps the truest mark of good poetry. A well-crafted poem, like all worthwhile art, is something to return to even when it has become almost too familiar. '4am', for me, is another such poem, and although its subject matter is similar to that of 'Killing the Dog', I feel I must include it at the expense of other poems because of the way it shows Brookes' command of the free-verse form.
Worried by love I woke alone at 4am
in the big bed that all afternoon
we'd played in, and thought of you
halfway across the sleeping town
lost to me among your own friends
and lovers, maybe. Leaping up
I tore the bed to bits and threw
your body scent behind the door
and changed the sheets, thinking
O not love again, and down the line
as sure as dawn, the end of love
and all that pain. The new sheets
smelled of Dreft and corner laundrette.
I missed your scent, I missed the sweat
and stains of our long afternoon,
I missed you, and lay till dawn
all sleepless with that living ache
you'd left me with, as keen to see you
as a teenager, yet as full of doom
as Lazarus being called to in his tomb.
(The Dresden Cantata, Square, 2008)
As in all good free-verse poetry, the unique constructed form dictates how '4am' should be read. It has this wonderful rhythm which conjures up the breathless feeling of the early lust-filled days of infatuation, but slows to the concluding rhymed couplet to present the duality of emotion felt by the broken-hearted teetering upon the edge of new love. Brookes' line breaks are particularly effective in achieving this desired rhythm, as is his employment of internal rhyme ("I missed your scent, I missed the sweat / and stains of our long afternoon"). This free-verse is by no means tennis-without-a-net poetry – it is aware that in the absence of strict form it must create its own rules to adhere to. As Eliot noted: "No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job."
Throughout the collection, Brookes presents unusual yet always wholly believable snapshots of modern life. It is perhaps in the details such as the Dreft-smelling sheets of '4am' that these often curious constructions find their grounding, allowing the poet to say "profound things" without the poetry ever swimming close to cod-philosophy. Like Raymond Carver and the best of Bukowski, Brookes is a poet who writes of the terror and beauty of plain lives, a black-humourist who celebrates both light and dark in equal measures. As Minhinnick concludes "it's a skilful writer indeed who can combine elements both heartbreaking and hilarious: Brookes is that writer."
For more information about J. Brookes and some further examples of his poetry visit http://www.pure-poetry.co.uk/otherpoets/guestpoet2/jbrookes.htm
'The Dresden Cantata' is available to buy from squaremag.net/squareshop and amazon.co.uk
Everything But A Mis-Print is a poetry-centric blog which hopes to introduce the world to the little-known poets worth knowing about. From the serial small-press chapbookers to the well-respected wordsmiths largely unread outside their own countries, the EBAM blog strives to place a spotlight on the very best poetry that swims outside the mainstream. You can visit it here: everythingbutamisprint.tumblr.com