Thomas Ovans is very grateful to Paul McLoughlin and Shoestring Press for republishing some of the best work of the poet Brian Jones.
New & Selected Poems
Brian Jones (chosen & introduced by Paul McLoughlin)
£14.50 232 pp
Brian Jones published eight poetry collections between 1966 and 1990; and at the highest points of his career he enjoyed a critical reputation comparable with those of Geoffrey Hill or Douglas Dunn. Yet from 1990 until his death in 2009 he published no more collections and only a few of his poems appeared in magazines so that his name nowadays is not very widely known. It is, therefore, very welcome news that Paul McLoughlin has reintroduced his work to a wider audience in this New & Selected which includes a generous sample (some 200 pages) from Jones’s previous collections together with some uncollected or unpublished post-1990 poems.
McLoughlin has been an admirer of Jones’s poetry for many years and his excellent introduction to the book does some of a reviewer’s job for him by identifying recurring themes and charting the development of the work in relation to the poet’s personal back story. This is an enormous help to me as one who is coming to the work completely fresh. When approaching a book which encompasses a quarter of a century of published writing and almost fifty years of composition, one should perhaps not be surprised by the variety of subject matter and style. But what is more immediately remarkable is how up-to-date even the earliest poems feel.
The book opens with a selection from Jones’s first collection ‘Poems’ (1966) and begins with ‘Seeing My Wife Go Out Alone’ – a poem which straightaway introduces us to a sense of vulnerability and unease that runs through much of the poet’s early work. Other themes and subjects appear in this first collection and recur throughout. There is a keen observation of character in ‘Visiting Miss Emily’ which consists of instructions to a child about how to approach an elderly aunt: you must say with unusual breeziness/How are you then? But don’t listen/ For an answer. Although the visit ends with
… Kiss her cheek as if it were lovely.
Thank her for the soft biscuits and the rancid butter
the poem’s tone is affectionate and not unkind. McLoughlin tells is that Jones admired his Aunt Em for her stoicism in enduring the curious and catching malady / Of never having been or done anything. A self-deprecating sense of identification with under-achievement shines through the delightful ‘Stripping Walls’ and ‘The Garden of a London House’ which perfectly capture the not-very-handy householder’s rare satisfaction after attempting and completing a domestic task. Jones also reveals a gift for close and original contemplation of the familiar. In ‘Bed-Sit. Night’ he sees his life summed up in the clothes in a meagre wardrobe Where a jacket hangs stiff / With tomorrow’s character.
Jones broke new ground with his second collection ‘A Family Album’ (1968) which consists of four long monologues, all written using the same seven-line stanza form. McLoughlin chooses the one which is in the voice of Emily – the younger self of the subject of ‘Visiting Aunt Em’ – telling her own drab history with eloquent brevity
Eldest. Little old woman
from the start. Loved horses
clacking nodding over cobbles.
Punched once by a carter who flogged
shivering flanks till I bled tears
ran shouting up to him
ended up on my arse.
‘Interior’ (1969) is a more conventional-looking collection of shorter poems which includes narrative pieces like ‘Smugglers’ Route’ which are vivid and dramatic while remaining quite unromantic:
and the men that scrambled on it glamorous,
this was a desperate scurry, scored upon
a midnight world by burdens of fear and greed.
Similar empathy for the victimised is also to be found in poems where Jones adopts a female voice (while keeping equally unromantic). In ‘A Girl’s Voice’ a girl tells her lover My father prizes me like a fragile vase and then chides him that reckless you gnaw my neck for the world to see. However she soon reassures both of them that I can learn / to groom my hair in cunning coils and waves. The feminine voice comes again powerfully in the long poem ‘A Wife’s Tale’ and in a group of poems based on themes from Lorca. The Lorca poems also include a remarkable stanza about an orange tree – in such contrast to the more restrained tone of many of the other poems:
Now it is wholly outcry: silver-dead
branches are echoes in green corridors;
they fling outwards, an appalled shout.
After publishing three collections in three years, Jones waited five years before producing ‘For Mad Mary’ (1974). The most striking feature of this book is the extended piece ‘The Courtenay Play’ which harks back somewhat to the monologues in ‘A Family Album’ and is a dramatic account of an ill-fated Kentish peasant revolt in 1838. This operates on several levels – sometimes ventriloquizing the real voices of figures of the time, sometimes seeming to report on a contemporary dramatic reconstruction, and sometimes challenging the reader’s twentieth century received opinions and contrasting them with nineteenth century certainties. The opening of the first act sets the bleak tone
Easiest, beginning with them dead.
In life they marched behind a loaf of bread
Raised on a pole. Now earth
hoists placards out of their heads
and scabs of lichen
clog the slogans of their names
and by the end of the piece, after rehearsing the sad story and its immediate consequences, the poet reflects rather helpessly upon the fate of one of the protagonists: across the universe eternally we will pursue / his agony with our suave / wretchedness always a century behind. Among other striking and original features of this fascinating poem/play are interspersed passages set in the present which look most unfavourably on the car factory at Dagenham and its products
The streets were lined with Fords, and men
lay like lovers on their bonnets, stroking the shine,
or beneath the vile parts, releasing
black flows of pus….
McLoughlin chooses to follow the power and force of ‘The Courtenay Play’ with only a brief selection from the delightfully-titled ‘The Spitfire on the Northern Line’ (1975) and moves quickly on to ‘The Island Normal’ (1980) with its more contemporary themes (although now somewhat ‘historical’ to us) belonging to the emergence of Thatcher’s Britain. This is a rich and varied selection, ranging from the close contemplation of interior detail in ‘Overnight’ (a little reminiscent of ‘Bed-Sit. Night’ in the first section but going deeper) through a startling short sequence about a slaughterman and a group entitled ‘Aeneas and After’, many of which are uncharacteristically sparse and enigmatic. ‘Upon Crappleton House’ is a rollicking commentary on a grandiose architectural project which stands as metaphor for the so-called achievements of an ‘enterprise culture’ : No vision that they had of man / could be accommodated in / this bleak and bald / reverberating barn. This collection ends with a successful return to historical narrative from the Civil War period with fine poems involving Viscount Falkland and Andrew Marvell.
With ‘The Children of Separation’ (1985), Jones allows his poems to become more closely personal, dealing with the painful consequences of a failed relationship: We had known two people like that, the burnt-out vision, / the agonised dignity beneath inappropriate hats. As the collection’s title implies, the poems concern themselves not only with the main protagonists but with the children of a broken marriage: my daughter / struggling to breathe and sobbing ‘I never guessed.’ Children of separation, Jones writes, are those who are given / two Christmases to halve the pain / and find it doubled.
Personal and family reminiscence continues as a theme in Jones’s final published collection ‘Freeborn John’ (1990). Some of the best examples take a village war memorial as a starting point and look back at the struggles and values of his father’s generation and ask them to tell /your story endlessly like a faultless loop to help resist the bleakly self-interested motives of Thatcher’s Britain as they force our door like confident guests to overturn the post-war values of Bevan and Atlee. In similar vein to ‘Upon Crappleton House’, Jones lampoons 1980s ideology and language in ‘Caesar’s Progress’; and he is all-too prescient about the subsequent behaviour of, for instance, bankers: they gauged / their skills to the just unpunishable. Like Orwell, he scorns management-speak and saw the real dangers in its distortions and obfuscations
He phrases a meaning
We invert it with commas
He embarks on a search
We publicize his uncertainty
He observes boundaries
We declare him obstructive
Similar mockery continues in ‘La Trahison d’un Clerc’ which deals with secrecy and secretiveness some two decades before the names Julian Assange and Edward Snowden became familiar:
Our chief executive is wetting himself. He ranges
our dismal corridors howling ‘Leaks!’ like a deprived
Welshman on St David’s day, or an indigent plumber.
These puns might, in fact, be a rare instance of Jones going a bit too far over the top. But he returns to more measured and compassionate tones in the later poems from this section, which include some perceptive childhood recollections and a beautifully judged farewell poem set in the context of a cricket match
Soon you will not turn
when a bowler turns
but continue walking
The final section ‘Burning Through the Fade’ has the provisional title of the collection Jones never completed. McLoughlin’s selection from later published and unpublished work inevitably feels more fragmented than what has gone before; but there is a recurring theme of looking both outward and backward. Many of these poems were written in France where Jones lived for the final years of his life; and he is much concerned with observation of his surroundings and neighbours. Some images strike him forcibly enough for him to make repeated use of them: The hawthorn curdles to its moment (‘At Meopham Green’, 1993) and A hawthorn lingering its cream into the dusk (‘Different and Again’, 1999). Essential rural tasks, like removing brambles, are dealt with in ways that recall the wall-stripping and garden maintenance that figured in his first collection. Quite understandably, these later poems to have a reflective and reminiscent flavour to them. Indeed Jones often seems to be looking at himself from a distance and frequently uses parenthetical remarks to comment on the line he has just written. The final poem in the book is a sequence entitled ‘From Voltaire’s Garden and Other Entanglements’. In it he is asked by one of his Normandy neighbours whether he feels nostalgic for his homeland. He replies
‘I do, yes, but no more than when I lived there’
(For a moment, I felt quite like my old self!)
Such wry self-awareness continues to the end of the poem when, having hung a broken umbrella on a gatepost, Jones imagines that future generations will see it as a clawing hand / that vainly tried to write words on the wind. Hence he is able to compose himself the perfect exit lines
So, this grinning rationalist will have vanished into
metaphor! How I like that! (I’ve often pondered
on the right wrong-footing way to leave the stage!)
Thus, with Paul McLoughlin’s help, Brian Jones leaves us with a rather full and intimate record of himself. A description of him might include words like ‘complex’ and ‘troubled’ but would also have to mention ‘honest’, ‘compassionate’ and ‘perceptive’. He is certainly a craftsman with words who draws skilfully on a many different sources of inspiration. Even though McLoughlin implies that Jones was not a religious man, he clearly understands the rhetorical force in invoking the Almighty as a residual last hope against the undermining of the post-war welfare state when he writes Surely / God could swing it! Every night I prayed / to His common sense (‘My Father’s Faith’). He also uses a significant capital letter when he allows the conjecture that despite all the evidence, there smiles / Sense at the heart of things.
In short, then, this is a fine book that deserves to be widely read. If I had got my hands on it a few weeks earlier I would have nominated it as one of my books of the year for 2013 (if, that is, anyone had cared to seek my opinion).
After so many positive things have been said about the poems, the reader may wonder how it is that Jones has slipped somewhat from sight. McLoughlin suggests a few possible reasons for this – including the fact that he rarely submitted work to magazines and that his attitude to publication was not ‘the stuff of marketing ambition’. Indeed ‘it was the writing itself that was important to him’. This, evidently genuine, attitude of self-effacement is in noteworthy contrast to the equally evident imperative to self-promotion that operates as much within the writing community as it does elsewhere. Indeed Jones’s example could be cited as giving ample grounds to those poets who are urgently concerned to ensure a steady stream of publications, appearances and interviews. Not all of those who allow themselves to disappear by default will be fortunate enough to attract the interest of a McLoughlin who can so skilfully and eloquently re-habilitate them.