Pj Kavanagh

Ode to the A202

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Collected Poems, 1952–2006

Alan Brownjohn

Enitharmon Press, pp. 479, £

A personal note, but relevant: I first picked up this large book at about two o’clock in the afternoon, and began to dip into it, a preliminary reconnaissance. I had an appointment at six with an impatient man, the sort who leaves if you are ten minutes late. When I next looked at my watch, the time was five past six. That is hardly a review, but surely an involuntary recommendation.

The first attraction is small poems that begin intriguingly:

If we are still together, it is because

Of the need to weed the garden.

You wonder what he means and he tells you, in a further nine lines (‘Eleven-thirty’). Brownjohn is much concerned with such precise timings, is a tidy man, the sort who likes to see chairs exactly aligned against tables. You learn this about him as you read, though he seldom talks confessionally, his self is merely one of the many things he observes and mentions, without pretension or strain.

Yet another dentist chalks up a low opinion

Of my courage...

— another inviting beginning (‘On My Recent Birthday’) moves on to larger things, such as unvariable moorhens, genetics, cowardice, and the dentist’s children, who are not moorhens,

. . . they have varied

Like everything made by man, including man.

Witty (sometimes merely playful), surreal (sometimes too much: ‘An Elegy on Mademoiselle Claudette’ eludes me; a youthful fantasy-girl? For once he provides insufficient clues). Angry (‘Ode to Centre Point’ — ‘a vast / Barren phallus of / Egg-boxes / Without eggs’); and his ‘A202’, ‘This coarse road my road’, is filled with dystopic disgust:

It takes out, in cars, arterial affluence

At weekends, returning it as bad blood

To Monday mornings in town. It is altogether

Like a vein travelled by hardy diseases,

an aged

Canal dredgeable for bodies left behind

On its soulless travels...

It is his obsession with time that comes across, time present as well as time past (he writes cheerfully ‘In Praise of Nostalgia’). Sometimes there are two people in a room, or outside seen through a window, time become frozen, the clock having ceased to tick — for a moment. The atmosphere is that of old sepia photographs, in which the long-held poses bring out every trouser-fold, or as in those famous old portraits of fisher-girls, draws attention to the bare arms, bare ankles (there is a sly, enjoyed lasciviousness in Brownjohn — ‘Sex has a problem with me’). Many poems — I am seeking images for his special atmospherics — are reminiscent of Edward Hopper paintings, in which a life goes on that has also somehow stopped, and there seems only solitude; or that painting by Walter Sickert (‘Ennui’, is it?) of a couple together but slumped, helplessly apart.

All this is suggested briskly, or certainly without languor, and the best example is a long poem called ‘Sea Pictures’, 40 formally numbered 12-lined stanzas in which just about everything is included, and connected (he mentions an envelope of sepia photographs): an adult bicycle-ride across wet sands; a fussy couple picking blackberries; another couple in a boat anchored off the coast who watch the man bicycling; a sea-front café, European travel, time past, time present; it is like a dream, but more like the way the mind actually works, going back and forth in time making its own, but never arbitrary, connections.

The unusual stanza form itself represents these shifts: 11 lines stick to the subject, the 12th jumps surprisingly to another, described in the next 11. In ‘Arnold’s’ sea-front café, Arnold remembers a song for 11 lines, then ‘a fly neglects its hind-legs but cleans its fore-legs’ ends a stanza, and the new one begins ‘On a burst éclair on one of Arnold’s stands’ and goes on from there: close focus, mid-focus, long-shot, jump-cut — marvellous. He even manages to include the Miners’ Strike, and some (sepia) grandparents.

At five past six I raced to my appointment, and caught the impatient man just about to drive off. I told him, to shock him, that I had been lost in a book of poems, and he laughed incredulously as I knew he would. Why doesn’t he read poems, if he’s so impatient? Good ones move fast. He won’t, of course. Poetry will survive because of word- and rhythm-obsessives like Brownjohn. In his Introduction he modestly claims, of culture in general, that he thinks his writing, poetry and prose, ‘consists of donations to that particular cause’. It does.