Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor
Poem Of The Week: 'All' By Alison Brackenbury
And all who died, from winter’s sleet,
From flu, from guns, from cells grown wrong,
Still stand, one breath from fingers’ reach,
Just out of touch, all colour gone.
The dead grow smaller. From a train
Mist takes the fields, drinks green to grey,
The fog has swept across their face.
In yard or park, they walk away,
Then wait in rooms, without a fire,
With tea uncleared, without a fuss;
In cushioned chairs, now closer drawn,
Nod to each other, not to us.
But in mid age it is not strange
To glimpse them in the empty street,
Quiet at the kerb, who are all dead,
From guns, cruel cells, or winter’s heat.
The sense of otherness which shadows Alison Brackenbury’s coldly atmospheric poem is somehow of another time, another place, though the anachronism is entirely reasonable; a feel for ‘presence’ may be corollary to ageing, to an increasing awareness of mortality. That the dead might not disappear from our cognition, occupying recesses of reflection in the domestic quotidian, the rooms and empty streets of the imagination, seems as natural a supposition as observed reality.
Here, ‘All’ are simultaneously present: the bloodless dead, occupying a parallel but remote plain – ‘just out of touch’, they ‘Nod to each other, not to us’ – congress in unseeing numbers, responding only to the blandishments of another time, to remembered accoutrements and familiars.
Brackenbury’s depiction of these anaemic wraiths is languid, melancholic; a feel for the vapidity of what she imagines is tolled in the bell of rhyme and iamb; her tetrameters are even, as unvarying as a focused gaze, and as haunting, in that moment, as the recognition of unfathomable distance, of irreparable loss.
The causes of death – war, influenza, physiological weaknesses – are subsumed in a condition of mortifying greyness, which overtakes all like the monochroming of landscape by mist. And the near-repetition of the first and final lines of this astonishing delve into a kind of underworld transform the hypothermic bitterness of ‘winter’s sleet’ into an oxymoron whose ‘heat’, for some, is illusory, a prelude to the cold of repose.
‘All’ is taken from Gallop: Selected Poems
and is published by Carcanet. The poem is reprinted by kind permission of Carcanet Press, Manchester, UK.
More information here: https://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784106959
The poem can also be found in the Bloodaxe Books anthology - Staying Human: New Poems for Staying Alive
Information here: https://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/product/staying-human-1185