Caught by the River

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

Melissa Harrison | 31st March 2016


Skies by Alison Brackenbury (Carcanet – published today and available here in the Caught by the River shop)
Review by Melissa Harrison

Some unexpected things happen to you when your novel is finally published. You begin to be sent free books, which you no longer have time to read; you realise how laughably inept you are at signing your own name; and complete strangers start giving you The Look.

The Look happens at readings and book signings, and is often preceded by a question about where you get your ideas from, or whether you write longhand or on a computer. The Look wants more from you, though, and is hungrier, too; it says Tell me, right now, how you are doing it. Let me in on the trick.

I understand The Look, because it leaks out of me around poets. I’ve done it at Liz Berry, and Caught by the River’s own Will Burns; I passed up the chance to meet Alice Oswald last year because I knew there would be no other facial expression available to me: I’d just be a vortex of need, a black hole screaming wordlessly TEACH ME HOW YOU DO THAT THING YOU DO WITH WORDS.

I will doubtless be the same if I ever meet Alison Brackenbury, whose new collection, Skies, is out now from Carcanet. I’ve loved her work ever since discovering her poem ‘Brockhampton’, from her 1995 collection, 1829:

The land was too wet for ploughing; yet it is done.
Even the stones of the ridges lie sulky and brown.
The roads are a slide of mud. The wet sky
Is blank as the chink of the hawk’s perfect eye.
A blink before the dark comes down
Drops the peregrine sun.
The land glows like an awkward face.
Broken posts, by which sheep graze
Shine pale as growing wood.
Above, the last crow’s wings
Cannot frighten from my blood
The stubborn light of things.

Years of reading those twelve lines and they haven’t lost their magic. Years, and I am still finding new things in it to love. Its halting rhythm mimics the footfall of the horse I’ve since learned Brackenbury was riding as she composed it; its images – the muddy road, the blushing light of a low winter sun, the crow overhead – are as vivid in my mind as things I’ve seen myself. And that last line never fails to stop my heart.

How to describe the power of poetry, a power quite different to that of other kinds of writing? It seems to me like gathering a moment of existence, with all its particular context and feeling, and packing it into a tiny room. There it sits, distilled for all eternity: and any of us, should we wish to, can walk in. The fact that it’s often taught so badly in schools, turning poems into riddles to be solved, is a tragedy; all that does, for many, is put a ‘Keep Out’ sign on the door.

Brackenbury’s poems repay repeat reading – as, I think, poetry should – but they also have a clarity that allows you to begin engaging with them straight away. They don’t show off, or play games; they just ask you to slow down and pay close attention for a moment. To do so in a world of easy distractions – of pop-ups and jump-cuts and advertising and rolling news – can feel both uncomfortable and revolutionary. But man alive, it does you good.

I think of Brackenbury as a poet of nature and landscape (Gillian Clarke says she “loves, lives, hymns and rhymes the natural world and its people like no other poet”), but in part that’s a reflection of my own interests: those are the pieces I’m most drawn to, and the ones that tend to stick. Skies is full of them: there are boxing hares (‘Down Unwin’s Lane’), greenfinches (‘Half-Fledged’), crab apples (‘In May’), migrant birds (‘False Thaw’; ‘November Began’) and ash trees (‘The Elms’). These are intensely seasonal and sensuous pieces that are, like ‘Brockhampton’, full of weather and light.

There are also several poems in this collection about war, and there’s a subtle and unresolved conversation going on between the ones about the natural world and those about man’s inhumanity to man. Edward Thomas’s ghost is here, in ‘Three Poems from Steep’: he, of course, wrote about both. ‘Break From Poppy Collection, Liverpool Street’ contrasts a modern bandsman in the Household Cavalry with a farm lad sent to Egypt in the Great War; its last line – so brilliantly underplayed – had me in immediate and unexpected tears.

Poetry asks something profound of both the poet and of us, as readers and listeners. It’s not just about being entertained (though poems can do that wonderfully) but to do with being present, which is no easy task. The poet must attend to the world fully, and to their own feelings and thoughts, in order to lasso experience to the page; when we read a poem well we open ourselves to it almost like a meditation, shutting out the rest of the world in order to hear what it has to say. None of it is easy, but when it works – as the poems in Skies do for me – the result is a moment of true shared humanity, and that’s why I consider poetry to be such a vital form.

I haven’t met Alison Brackenbury so I’ve not had the chance to give her The Look – which is just as well for her, because it feels uncomfy. God, though, I wish I knew how she does it; how she, and others like her, distil the world onto the page. Yet I know that there’s no point asking, just as there’s no point asking me how I write a novel. It comes from inside, and it’s made of everything you are; so I will just have to content myself with her words.


Several books of Mel’s have recently hit the bookshelves and all come highly recommended by us. Rain: Four Walks in English Weather (Faber & Faber) can be found in the Caught by the River shop, priced £12.00. Her critically acclaimed second novel, At Hawthorn Time, (Bloomsbury) is just out in paperback and Spring: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons (Elliot & Thompson) edited by Melissa can also be found in our shop.