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Review of ‘These Random Acts of Wildness’

As contemporary poets invent more and more forms for their poetry, it is perhaps surprising that the sonnet is undergoing something of a revival. Last year saw the publication of Hannah Lowe’s superb, award-winning The Kids , which demonstrated so well how this traditional form can be used for current content and now we have Paul Brookes’ Shakespearian sonnets in is latest collection, These Random Acts of Wildness (Glass Head Press, 2023) , which treat a range of enduring issues such as our experience of being alive and the nature of the natural environment.. His use of the form is as adept as Lowe’s, often concluding in memorable rhyming couplets, such as: ‘We collect the wild as ornamental/ Domesticate, put on a pedestal’; ‘My hard weight tames the uneven and wild/ makes it all proper, gentle meek and mild’; and ‘The wild dance of the swifts amongst the dead/ reminds us life goes on restless to be fed.’ The sonnet is clearly alive and well and has much to offer poets today.

What I find most impressive about Brookes’ first group of sonnets is his ability to elevate the domestic and to give the ordinary a lasting significance. He writes about cleaning windows, mowing the lawn, washing up, dusting and ironing. These are relatable experiences which he uses both to examine the experience of life today and to explore our relationship with the world around us. Lawn Cutting, the poem that begins the collection, sets the tone. Brookes describes a husband who has been asked by his wife to cut the lawn, insisting on ‘straight lines’. He is observed by a young boy next door, who imitates him with his mother, as they too ‘strip the wildness out of their lawn’. All the characters in the poem share this desire to tame their environment: they, like so many others in this first section, are seeking to secure some sort of control over the uncontrollable, for as the poem concludes ‘We all want the wild to be uniform’. This, however, is presented as no easy task: though the lawn is ‘short shorn’ today, it will not be long before the husband will have to mow it again. Furthermore, the boy next door is presented as acquiring some insight into the problematic task, with which he will have to come to terms as he grows up. His toy mower doesn’t cut, ‘so he stamps and bawls when his world don’t/ conform to his straight lines, because it’s bent’. The excellent Leaf Raking develops the notion of this struggle and its futility. In this poem a gardener is raking up leaves, trying to restore order to his garden. It is a task that never ends: ‘I gather with my plastic rake again,/ / and again.’ Each time he forms a stack of leaves a gust of wind destroys it and he has to start over. This is typical, for in Brookes’ poems life and nature are chaotic and to some degree anarchic, and life is a series of minor battles to secure some control. The war, however, is never won.

Having said that, there are poems in this collection focussing on the natural environment which record and celebrate its beauty. Brookes is a keen nature photographer and his powers of observation are reflected in the quality of his descriptions. The opening stanza of Cemetery Swallows captures brilliantly both in rhythm and imagery the erratic flight of these birds: ‘the morning in a swoop, bank turn over,/ around gravestones, between crowns swifts gulp light,/ arc over quietness, never hover/ dash between stillness, catching the quick bright’. Furthermore, in The Birdsong we find a vivid synaesthetic soundscape with some stunning images: ‘Dovesong fat as strawberries and cream’, ‘Wagtail umami, sour sweet, salty dream’, ‘Prickly, velvety, bumpy, blackbirdsong’.  There is an inventiveness here which is impressive and rivalled in the image of the ‘Blackbirds on unused terrace chimneys/ enigmatic variations in touch/ with other bough bright orchestral voices’ in When Making Senses.  In such lines Brookes invites us to admire elements of the natural world but he is no romantic. He is fully aware of the reality that he describes. Death is as much a part of the environment as life. Consequently the poem ends with the sober imperative: ‘Inhale sweetness of flourish and decay,/ sugar entices small deaths each sunned day.’

The collection concludes with more intimate poems: those that reflect upon personal experiences and  upon the lives of former Wombwell residents. Given the subject of Brookes’ drop-in last week I‘m going to concentrate on the former, many of which treat the subject of isolation, examining both its causes and effects. I found Intimacy Shy particularly moving. It describes a relationship between a boy and a mother, focussing on the boy’s inability to accept the affections of his mother, which later manifests itself in an inability to form relationships with women generally because of a painful shyness: ‘What do I say to women? Argued I/ couldn’t afford to wine and dine, talked/ myself out of talking to strangers./ Why/ I spent so long on my own. My words walked.’ The line division here and the closing image combine to convey both the physical and emotional aspects of isolation. The poem climaxes with the statement: ‘Always tongue tied, mind blank, touch, caress, wary./ Keep to myself, but hunger there, scary.’ Scary indeed and the sense of frustration that emerges is so sad.  His other poems in this section explore different reasons for such isolation. As the title suggests  Bullies tells the painful story of the victimisation of a child by other children that leaves him alone at the front of all classes pelted ‘with screwed up/ paper, board rubbers until staff turn up’; in Difference it is the school’s setting arrangements for History and his parents encouragement to work ‘towards best for us’ that leaves the speaker ‘bewtixt/ and between’ and the other pupils thinking ‘tha’s better ‘n us’; and in ‘No Time for Me, the speaker is left feeling like ‘plain wallpaper’ as if life is passing him by because he’s been abandoned by old mates due to family commitments and the demands of their partners. The speaker pithily concludes ‘Loneliness is sometimes a form of grief.’

In conclusion These Random Acts of Wildness’ is full of economic, resonant and highly relatable sonnets. Their subjects find life at times cruel and chaotic. Some try to seek control in daily domestic acts, and some by making the most of the pleasures life offers. These are sonnets of survival, of lives ‘salvaging what’s worthwhile’ that cannot fail to connect with the reader.

Paul Brookes is a shop assistant. Lives in a cat house full of teddy bears. First play performed at The Gulbenkian Theatre, Hull. His chapbooks include The Fabulous Invention Of Barnsley, (Dearne Community Arts, 1993). A World Where and She Needs That Edge (Nixes Mate Press, 2017, 2018) The Spermbot Blues (OpPRESS, 2017), Please Take Change (Cyberwit.net, 2018), As Folk Over Yonder ( Afterworld Books, 2019). He is Editor of Wombwell Rainbow Interviews, book reviews and challenges. Had work broadcast on BBC Radio 3 The Verb and, videos of his Self Isolation sonnet sequence featured by Barnsley Museums and Hear My Voice Barnsley. He also does photography commissions. A poetry collaboration with artworker Jane Cornwell resulted in Wonderland in Alice, plus other ways of seeing, (JCStudio Press, 2021). Recently, due to the bad influence of Ian McMillan he started writing daily sonnets. This has resulted in the following published and forthcoming collections: As Folktaleteller,( ImpSpired, 2022), These Random Acts of Wildness, (Glass Head Press, 2023) Othernesses, (JCStudio Press, 2023) . Pre-orders for These Random Acts of Wildness are still open. The pamphlet is £5:00 plus p&p. Contact Paul via his website to order, https://thewombwellrainbow.com/contacts/   or via Twitter, @PaulDragonwolf1

AVAILABLE NOW ‘UNMUTED‘ by Nigel Kent!

Nigel Kent’s collection of ekphrastic poems, Unmuted (Hedgehog Poetry Press), is inspired by a gallery of famous works by artists from the present and the past. Each artwork acts as a frame in a storyboard which he unfreezes and unmutes to reveal the narrative he imagines lies behind it. Even for those who have no interest in art these direct, accessible and moving poems will stand alone and promise to engage with issues that truly matter.

Kent’s poetry is succint, never bloated and always delivered with a poignant and very human point of view.” Priss Bliss, Dreich Broad No. 3

For details of how to purchase a copy, click here

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