Paul Brookes and Ian Parks: Mutual Readings

Paul Brookes

Windows: Two Poems by Ian Parks looked at and through by Paul Brookes

Ian Parks is a poet and academic. He is the author of eight collections of poems, one of which was a Poetry Book Society Choice. His versions of the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy were shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award. He is the editor of Versions of the North: Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry and The Selected Poems of Harold Massingham. His own Selected Poems is due from Calder Valley Poetry in 2023. He manages Glass Head Press.

He is cited as the finest love poet of his generation by Chiron Press. More of his love poetry later. Parks is renowned for the balance and poise of his sentences.

 

 

The Cage

 

My father relinquished

his claim on the light.

At sixteen he went down

 

to work the seams.

The cage was lowered

on a rusted thread;

 

the men were crowded

in behind steel bars.

And then began

 

the drop into the dark

- a sharp descent

that took the breath away

 

which afterwards he heard

in his worst dreams.

Through me his dreams persist.

 

Son follows father

in the way of things

and so I come belatedly

 

to where his lamp bobs

somewhere underground.

A smile breaks

 

as he touches me;

an indigo coal scar

tattoos his wrist.

 

(from The Exile's House,  Waterloo Press, 2012, page 8)

 

Parks father worked as a miner when the pits were open in his native Mexborough. I see this description of his dad as talking about his dad's death. And that Parks sees his dead dad. In the afterlife of the underworld. Divided into three line stanzas that use enjambement to complete the poem the reader gets the sense of a downward journey through the work. Only in the fifth stanza does this passage end in a full stop. And then the poem continues as if N has taken over from his Dad. This second section is almost dreamlike "And so I come belatedly/to where his lamp bobs/somewhere underground. The underworld of the dead where the closest to us still have a physical presence, and still bear marks of their trade. Folk are defined by their trade, mentally and physically. Which afterwards he heard/ in his worst dreams.

 

Cleverly, Parks leaves a gap between the word "breaks" and the next stanza, giving the reader pause and the opportunity to see the smile widen.


 

Sky Edge

 

To lie here, sleeping almost,

in an unfamiliar bed

with dawn-light breaking grey

over Sky Edge might prove

a blessing in disguise

 

except the city raises up a ghost

each time you lift

your disaffected head

and all my love

poems turn into elegies

 

as the earth rolls over

on its side. Up there

is where the Chartists met

before the planners

sketched their politics

 

in tower-blocks

along this edge of sky.

Their torches flare

across a ruined century

to find a place behind

 

our green and dreaming eyes.

From now until midnight

all the stopping trams -

their doors slid open

as they pass below-

 

revolve their progress

through a metal groove.

In all the wasted cities

of the north time builds

and time destroys;

 

while you and I

With nothing left to prove

Look down upon the fallen stones

On quiet days, you tell me

The silence makes a noise

 

(from Love Songs, Flux Gallery Press 2009, page 36)


Described by Chiron Review as ‘the finest love poet of his generation’.

Parks did his PhD on “Chartism” and is fascinated by Chartist poetry that was published throughout the life of the movement. Chartism was a working class movement for political reform in Britain between 1838 and 1848 and the first mass working class labour movement in the world.  Chartists campaigned for sweeping changes to the political system and in particular, the introduction of the Charter which consisted of six points;

Every man over 21 to have the right to vote. A secret ballot to be introduced. A prospective Member of Parliament (MP) should not have to own property of a certain value to become eligible to stand. All MPs to be paid to allow working men to serve in Parliament. All constituencies to be equal in population size. Elections to Parliament to be held every year in order to ensure accountability to voters. A meeting was held at Sky Edge and after leaving the meeting those who attended met Dragoons.

Parks is one of the few people to have poems published on the same day in The Times and The Morning Star.  In this poem the public and private are brought together in an elegy for the momentary defeat of love and politics.

 

 

In an interview with me for The Wombwell Rainbow about this love poem collection Parks says:

 

Temperamentally speaking, I'm of a reflective disposition and the exploration of loss suited my poetic sensibility. I also wanted to push the limits of the love poem. Auden had showed that the love poem occurs in a context, a social and political one. That was something I wanted to pick up on and develop… Looking back, I think the landscape my lovers inhabit is a northern one - the streets of post-industrial mining towns or the desolate stretches of the Yorkshire coast. 

 

In the opening lines he seems to be staring out of a window. Windows are a constant theme throughout his poetry. He says of this:

 

It's no coincidence that one of my favourite poems is Windows by Constantine Cavafy, where he draws attention to their dual nature - and it's this duality that fascinates me: they offer a (limited) view of the outside world (rain, snow, misty northern landscapes) while, at the same time acting as a barrier between the viewer and the view.

 

And of the blending of public and private

 

In Sky Edge, for instance, the speaker wakes up in 'an unfamiliar bed' and is aware that the hillside opposite is' where the Chartists met'. The private is never far away from the public, something that I tired to convey in these poems. 

 

…They aren't an attempt to understand the nature of romantic love or to explore it in all its dimensions. They are moments of insight, kisses in the dark.

 

I cannot recommend highly enough that you read all of his stunning, enlightening, memorable poetry. And his Selected Poems to be published this year, 2023 is a Must Read.

***


 

 

RANDOM ACTS

Two Sonnets by Paul Brookes

Paul Brookes is a poet, photographer, and poetry activist from South Yorkshire. I want to talk about the first two poems from his sonnet sequence Random Act of Wildness which is forthcoming from Glass Head Press. Above all else, Paul Brookes is an honest poet who stubbornly refuses to make more of something than it requires; subsequently his poems are colloquial, engaging, and deceptively simple. What we see on the surfaces isn’t necessarily what we uncover as we enter into a close reading of the poems. Living a few miles away from Paul I can pick up on the idiosyncratic rhythms behind his poems and the subtlety with which they are assembled. I say ‘assembled’ because there is a very real sense of these poems being put together from random fragments where the form they take not only gives them shape but meaning too. Of course it is a tremendous challenge for any poet at the beginning of the twentieth century to write in the sonnet form which has been around for centuries. And yet Brookes manages to breathe life into the sonnet and to find it still fit for purpose. In this skilful hands the sonnet isn’t so much a straightjacket as a template – something the poet works against rather than with to produce the tensions which make these poems worth reading. And it is this tensile quality – the everyday content of the poems encountering the structure of the verse – that makes them distinctive. This is an ambitious project, bringing together a group of sonnets that are at the same time related and yet distinctive in their own right. Each individual sonnet invites comparison with the rest in the sequence so that it can be approached as a whole.

***


Lawn Cutting

 

Wife likes our lawn to be cut in straight lines.

A mute boy next door in fascination

Keenly watches the geometric times

I reach the edge, marks the delineation.

 

He has a toy lawnmower of his own.

Sometimes his mam kindly allows him grip

her hands on their mower, grass mown

by both, her feet follow his as they strip

 

the wildness out of their lawn. His toy won't

cut grass but safely glides over its length,

so he stamps and bawls when his world don't

conform to his straight lines, because it's bent.

 

My wife says "Better" to our short shorn lawn.

We all want the wild to be uniform.

 

In Lawn Cutting, for instance, the first line casually drops the ‘The’ or ‘My’ we expect to launch it, beginning instead with ‘Wife likes our lawn to be cut in straight lines’. This makes for a more economic and concentrated line, while at the same time taking the domestic and investing it with a strangeness which is compelling and intriguing. The mowing of the lawn becomes, in its own way, the making of the poem where the poet ‘marks the delineation’. The ‘mute boy’ watching from next door is drawn into complicity with the act just as the reader of the sonnet is drawn into an activity that is at once concentrated and absorbing. The boy’s toy lawnmower can only imitate the action of the real thing, not cutting the lawn ‘but safely glides over its length.’ The form of the sonnet is integral to its meaning. Brookes has skilfully broken the structure up into three distinct and free-standing quatrains followed by a stand-alone couplet which offers a kind of summary of the whole poem. And yet the formal expertise isn’t too obtrusive: we are drawn away from the form of the sonnet and towards what it is attempting to say. The form is therefore for the poem and not the other way around – which is as it should be. ‘We all want’, the poem concludes wryly, ‘the wild to be uniform’. Just as the wife controls the lawn the poet controls language through form.

***



A Clock Watch

 

When clock parts of the lion's tooth are blown

apart, I see first and second hand their

fertility flight numbers broadcast sown

gusted chaotic in warm summer's air.

 

The exploded mechanism flits over

close cut lawns, weeded borders, neatly

fenced, dips over powerhosed driveways, stir

of cats on rooftops, prey hunting sweetly.

 

Organic time tamed, all about decay

not growth. Imagine accurate time based

on a gradually emerging way.

However, all things reduce to waste.

 

Our Dandelion's blown clocks are seeds.

to be uprooted as unwanted weeds.

 

The second sonnet in the sequence is called A Clock Watch and contains all the virtues of the first: the formal control, the understatement, the exemplary wit. A clock watch is, of course, the dandelion which, according to folklore, tells the time by the number of blows it takes to clear the head. In this poem the speaker watches them sown – ‘gusted chaotic in warm summer’s air’. Like mowing the lawn this is, in itself, a random and ordinary activity; something we teach our children to do. And yet, underlying this is the sense of our obsession with the passing of time. All things, as Shakespeare himself noted, are subject to the laws of nature and tend towards atrophy or – as Paul Brookes writes – ‘all things reduce to waste’. Brookes uses the same technique of splitting the fourteen lines of the sonnet into three distinct quatrains with a final couplet to summarise the rest of the poem. The ease with which he accomplished this makes the poem accessible, its message significant. Once again the ‘random acts’ he describes find a kind of unity in the form he uses to encapsulate them.

I hope that this look at the first two sonnets of Random Acts of Kindness will encourage readers to find out the work of Paul Brookes and especially the sequence we’ve been discussing. These poems are shaped by the guiding hand of traditional formal values and are yet stunning in their ability to engage us in the processes they describe, and in their modernity.

Ian Parks


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