REVIEW: SPOILS, BY JAMES BROOKES

by Lewis Buxton

Spoils is a poised and lyrical second collection from James Brookes. One of the first publications from new independent press Offord Road Books, Spoils enters the world at a time when nationalism, truth, and accessibility to literature are at the forefront of political and poetic conversation.

This book is interested in all these themes, but also in spontaneous celebrations; in romantic moments; in how words close in on one another and how deep vocabulary can take us into the natural world. Spoils does its best work when it is playful and generous with its facts. ‘Birthday Party, East Cicero, 1926’, is an immediately likable poem, well crafted and pleasing to the ear:

The gun in ‘Fats’ Waller’s back was flat and sharp

as the brims of the hats of the four hoodlums in suits

who forced him into the car, which was also black

like the suits and the hats and the guns and the flat and the sharps

on the shoddy upright at which he found himself sat.

Brookes’ sentence gains momentum and it is the skill of an accomplished poet which keeps it from veering off key or out of time. Each rhyme falls with a satisfying plink or plonk, propping up the narrative behind the poem. These historical poems contrast with the more lyrical poems in the collection. Poems like ‘Fail-deadly’ that Sharon Olds might describe as ‘apparently personal’ where we hear the nostalgic speaker remember

me, riding pillion deadweight on the mudguard,

clenched and crooked-of-limb, sincerely at prayer,

my heartbeat an echo of tell-tale vacancy

that brings to mind the death way beetle’s news:

the consecrated host is in it pyx;

the outboard motor idles on the Styx.

This poem shows Brookes pulling on the classical, the pastoral, and the lyric confessional. We see the poet’s classical knowledge which balances well with his connection to the earth, to animals, and we hook into that voice, that experience that pulls us back to riding pillion on our friend’s bike, fearing for our life, wondering why we trusted this boy to not crush us like a beetle beneath his wheels.

( book cover via Offord Road Books )

Spoils is lifted by its phonetics, its rhymes, its measured sentences, the way words chime against one another: this book sings. I didn’t always understand what it was saying, but I heard its music. It can’t be denied that a poem like ‘To A Semiconductor’ is a challenge to a reader’s vocabulary, or it certainly was to mine:

Gallium

arsenide in doped silicon

etched anisotrophically,

you are my kind of poetry

This does seem to overtly state a preference for poetry that has a specific and sometimes cryptic lexicon. Before one tugs at the meaning of a line some deciphering needs to be done. But there is a melody, the rhymes pressing into one another, the meter so often a steady foot keeping time beneath the poem. Brookes asks his audience to read in a particular way: slow, concentrated, first hearing the phonics and worrying about the meaning later. This could be a hurdle for some readers but each poem leaves openings for readers to access them.

Of the collection as a whole, this line from ‘Tenulla’ serves as a good microcosm:

How helpless and how fascinated I

watch you shiver, half nude, humourless,

your arms closed round your bundled legs for warmth

fencing yourself with bundles and bundles of thoughts.

These poems are often single images or ideas fenced in ‘with bundles and bundles of thoughts’. Though the poems are tightly packed, none of them exceeding a page, the reader is often faced with unbundling the thoughts. Brookes blends themes, calling home ‘a fetish, a passport no longer worth its watermark’, the thoughts on nationalism and sex twisting in and out of one another and leaving a reader to untie them. Ultimately though, this is what holds Spoils together: the structure of each poem.

this book sings. I didn’t always understand what it was saying, but I heard its music

Tonally there is a shift between the high register of poems like ‘Eschatology, Piscatology’, the pastoral urge behind poems like ‘Antigeorgic’, and the wry and funny work of poems like ‘Birthday Party, East Cicero, 1926’. So, whilst the content is wide ranging, with several sequences laced through the book, that single image surrounded by bundles of thoughts remains, along with a joy in language and a good ear for rhyme.

A final thought: it is worth noting that this is the work of a small independent press run by two editors and that the quality of the poetry is reflected in the quality of the production. Spoils is well-made, both in terms of the poetry and the printing. It is currently available in beautiful hardback edition, £12 from Offord Road Books.

Featured image via Amy Key

 


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