May 16 2023
Poetry Review – LAIRS: Kate Noakes admires a sumptuous and surprising collection by Judy Brown
Lairs, Judy Brown’s third collection, starts with a couple of unsettling poems. “Postmonkey” tells of an experiment monkey sent into far space until it is too old to be useful and is flushed from the cargo hold, while “Settings” uses the inventive image of a tick in place of a navel piercing. And the disturbance continues with “Fish. Oh. Fish” which is a cry against the hideousness of corporate work where a junior lawyer, the ‘corporate fish’ is short of billable hours and works far into the night under the gaze of ‘a deep anglerfish clocking the hours’.
Brown is good on writing about work and its inequities as with the presenteeism with the “Fish” and the ‘Fruit for Offices’ which are available to clients, but not staff. This latter poem interestingly written from the viewpoint of the industrially produced fruit.
“Cravings for Pure Sugar” explains ‘the need to eat rhubarb jam/ off a blunt spoon’ and deploys another of Brown’s clever similes:
Soon the pain from family bereavements hung in the air like fish cooked earlier in the week.
The imagistic links that I spotted between these and poems like “The Coelacanth” and “Room Service Menu” can be no accident. This is a pleasingly ordered collection.
Brown is good too with surprising images. Who else might have thought of a poem, ostensibly about cheese, ending by asking the reader to consider ‘the store of teeth a shark is born with’ (“The Larder”) or juxtaposing ‘a chimera […] idling/ by a mirror pool, calm as a self-driving car’ (“The Royal Forests”)?
Part One – Lairs and Cages gives way to the collection’s second section – Curtilage, which is focussed on property. Again, we are in the company of Brown’s wonderful images. “Sea-Wan”’ blends food into her description of a sea-scape where ‘The sky itself has cohesion like a pale blue cheese’; and later on there is mention of a ‘tomato juice sunset.’ The fast-growing city is where
Through the river-soaked glass of the new station we can measure the torturer’s bamboo as it grows into a friable body [“The Property Market, From Platform 1, Blackfriars Station”]
And in “The Property Market, The Islander” we learn of ‘a confection of lies/ about bees as big as boiled eggs’ and are told how ‘Whitebait straighten, re-silver and swim off your plate’.
Brown’s residency at Exeter University’s Institute of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence informs much of Part Three – Apertures where she learns to frame questions about maths and her view point changes accordingly, so that a doe’s body is thought of as ‘preposterous geometry’ (“Ways to Describe Motion”). Her enquiries are straightforwardly literal in “Some Security Questions” but they elicit bizarrely original responses. Data gathering and measurement figure in many of these poems, along with interesting writing about the (often fractured) body such as “Steeped” (which deals with pregnancy), “The Baby Tooth” (about the pandemic) and “Winter a dropped stitch” (which is on the menopause).
Brown has written a sumptuous book which is concerned with the breaking world. It is packed with surprises to nourish this jaded reader’s eyes and I urge you to dive in and luxuriate in it all. I shall be doing so again, often.