Nationality: British. Born: Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, 20 May 1953. Education: Brigg High School for Girls, Lincolnshire, 1964–71; St. Hugh's College, Oxford, 1972–75, B.A. (honors) in English 1975. Family: Married Guy Sheppard in 1975; one daughter. Career: Librarian, Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology, Cheltenham, 1976–83; clerical assistant, Polytechnics Central Admissions System, Cheltenham, 1985–90. Since 1990 electroplater in family business. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1982; Cholmondeley award, 1997. Address: c/o Carcanet Press, 4th Floor, Conavon Court, 12–16 Blackfriars Street, Manchester M3 5BQ, England.
Journey to a Cornish Wedding. Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, Outposts, 1977.
Two Poems. London, Many Press, 1979.
Dreams of Power and Other Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1981.
Breaking Ground and Other Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1984.
Christmas Roses and Other Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1988.
Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1991.
1829 and Other Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1995.
After Beethoven. Manchester, Carcanet, 2000.
Radio Play: The Country of Afternoon, 1985.*
Alison Brackenbury comments:
My poetry is a bad habit of talking to someone who may not be there. It is hard to know what this listener likes. I prefer my very long narrative and very short poems, but expect I will end up represented in anthologies by a single medium-length piece about toads.
I write a good deal about animals—especially unruly horses—gardens, and the past. This sounds comfortable. It is not meant to be. Do you—listener—take your poetry as Ovaltine? Or do you like space: wild grass at the end of the garden; sky, seen suddenly between houses?
I like poetry that is rhythmically supple and pleases by rhyme. I find it very hard to try to write like this. But I think a poem stands a better chance of moving its listener if it stops talking for a moment to sing.* * *
Alison Brackenbury's first collections were dominated by two eponymous long poems (or poem sequences). Dreams of Power takes its title from a sequence of eight poems "spoken" by the Elizabethan court lady Arabella Stuart (though perhaps the poems might best be regarded as letters and the sequence seen as a modern continuation of the Ovidian tradition stemming from the Heroides), who is trapped in the suspicions of others. There is much psychological acuteness in the poems, a developing sense of a convincing personality whose sufferings are forcefully presented through sensuously exact imagery. Only occasionally does one feel the obtrusive presence of the researcher's notebook, and for the most part the language achieves a plausible idiom, by no means pastiche Elizabethan, but not anachronistically modern either:
This fugitive and winter love
silvers the lips to frost. I wake, and shine,
The lean trees have no sap to write of us
—nor any rag of leaf, that we may hide…
I dare not write. One frozen afternoon—
cold birds—we huddled on the draughty floor.
You kissed my throat in firelight. The logs flowered.
Jasmine, clear yellow for the winter sun
burned on the sills. In darkness, half unsure,
the wind's dogs scratch the thick transparent door.
The title poem of Breaking Ground operates more by dialogue than monologue, recounting an imagined visit to John Clare in the asylum. It displays a similar control of iambic pentameter and the same sensitivity to natural detail. Again, the sense of isolation and imprisonment is powerfully evoked. In both sequences, however, there is a certain diffuseness, an occasional loss of focus, which makes the reader long for greater concision. When the sequences turn toward the concentration of lyricism, they are at their most compelling and become more than simply interesting. Nowhere is this more true than in the remarkable lyric "On the Boards," included in Breaking Ground, which has the intensity of Clare's own poems of madness without ever being merely imitative:
But He with eyes remote as stars
Reared up to twice my size
With one great blow, He split my head
and so I sank and died.
[The children] … filled the church and stood in rows
to watch the coffin pass
and on the bare and boarded box,
cast every flower there was,
marigolds of sun and flame
light stocks as sweet as women's love
briar roses, frail as wrists of girls,
with every thorn plucked off—
because I faced the sun for them
and cast the dark shapes down
still they will sing me, warm and free,
though I am locked in ground.
The shorter poems of these first two volumes betray an uncertainty of idiom; a few drop into somewhat prosaic anecdote, while others are rather archly poetic. There are, however, some definite successes, especially those poems that enact a kind of memorial invocation, summoning up family ghosts, in "Robert Brackenbury," for example, or renewing mental contact with figures remembered from childhood in "Two Gardeners." The opening lines of this last poem declare that
Too far: I cannot reach them: only gardens.
And stories of the roughness of their lives.
The poet proceeds to retell these stories, and the stories told, the poem can end thus:
Dazzled by dry streets I touch their hands,
Parted by the sunlight, no man's flowers.
Family themes are often at the heart of some of Brackenbury's best poems, such as "My Old," with its almost refrain-like repetition of the poignant phrase "my old are gone," or the attractive poems on her daughter's childhood, such as "Constellations" and "At Night." Equally in evidence is her responsiveness to the natural world, as well as her capacity to find language in which to articulate that response. Breaking Ground contains a whole section of poems on horses, and there is much vivid writing in poems such as "Hare" and "Tracking" from Brackenbury's third collection, Christmas Roses.
Although this last volume contains no long poem, it is marked by some fine lyrics that have a formal tightness greater than had been consistently present in the earlier collections. There is a genuine and attractive magic to the best of these lyrics, reminiscent of the best of that underrated poet Walter de la Mare or of Edward Thomas. Poems such as "Tower" or "Stopping" have a simplicity not readily found in Brackenbury's earlier work—a simplicity that is the product of considerable sophistication—and they are resonant with unspoken significance. "Owl" is one such poem that belongs in a long tradition of English song and that is not disgraced by comparison with its forebearers:
Love: I heard an owl call:
but none of you were with me,
dearest body or my child,
to hear the owl call.
Deep in the stranger's garden,
where ferns blew, and the wild
blue of tall flowers has gone to dark,
the bird drew near: then called.
The air sinks quietly. Now I shake,
drained, by clean, white walls.
Next day's broad sun will not bring you.
Listen. The owl calls.
Brackenbury's work has been uneven in achievement. Certainly her first two collections contain more than a few poems that one suspects would not appear in a later volume of selected poems. The best of her work, however, testifies to the sharpness of her eye and her intelligence, and she has produced a number of wholly successful poems with a distinctive beauty and power.