Sunday on the coach
It is June. Tall grasses nod. On the back seat
the last baby has hiccupped into sleep.
No one swears, nobody phones. The south wind whistles
white motorways of cow parsley and thistles.
A helicopter hangs, but does not strafe.
This afternoon the innocent are safe.
“I am obsessed by weather and season, as many of my readers may be if they have ever ridden a bike, or, (less probably), owned a horse, kept in a high hill field, or, (very probably), walked to green places, or doted perversely on a small town garden, prone, in turn, to drought and frost. I know that I am also not alone in taking the planet’s pulse, in my amateur manner, followed by a sharp intake in breath. Roses in December seem, to me, equally alluring and alarming.
“Often, asked for a poem, I will simply shuffle through my newest work like cards, matching the right suit of season and month. March? Here is the quatrain about the tender crescent moon, and the short poem about the pheasants who survived a winter’s shooting, to stalk between patches of thawing snow: ‘Bedraggled in magnificence’.
“But, unusually, I have chosen a poem for you which is out of season. It is not summer as I write. I am swaddled in my gardening clothes: three elderly woollen jumpers…This poem is not just at odds with the temperature. I could not have written it before, or after, the snatched moment from which it comes.
“For all of my life after university, apart from a year with my young daughter, I had a paid, non-literary job. For the 23 years before I retired, in 2012, I was 50% of the workforce of my husband’s family’s metal finishing business. I wouldn’t glamorise small businesses. They can devour time and oppress minds. And, as in any job, you cannot stop because a poem floats by… especially if a van is outside with an open door, and a chain-smoking driver paces the pavement.
“A busy life, for a poet, has its losses and gains. When you can stop to write, in whatever corner, the poems which tumble out often matter. They have many subjects. If they sometimes seem crowded or urgent, that may appeal to readers whose own lives are the same. Once written, poems are patient. You can go on polishing. But if you do not catch a first draft at the beginning, poems can be whiffs of smoke, or lost glimpses of the airy plants on the motorway.
“So I could not have written this poem earlier… Nor could I write it now. Its speaker thinks of danger as external: a helicopter hovering in the skies. It is not a poem from a time when people, with good reason, sat hunched in masks; when the very air inside that coach could threaten not only the poem’s grey-haired writer but the baby on the back seat. But at that time, the poem could come. Its first couplet brought a half-rhyme. Its writer, who loves songs, even the wildest music hall parodies, is tolerant of those. Then the sounds sharpened with the poem’s realisations.
“The poet is very proud that it was taken, for the New England Review, by Marilyn Hacker, whose own work often has a fierce political focus, and whose commitment to technique and formal experimentation is deeply respected by the poet dozing on the coach…
“In February 2022, the cow parsley and thistles will join Jimi Hendrix, a Welsh cob, a water vole, and poems which explore life, times and love partly through … puddings. All will be in my new collection, Thorpeness, from Carcanet Press.
“And I hope that there will be soon be a season when that baby, now on eager feet, and I, slightly steadier, still with notebook, can climb safely on to a coach again, on our way to collapsing shingle and to miles of light: the summer sea.”
Alison Brackenbury has published ten poetry collections. Her work has won an Eric Gregory and a Cholmondeley Award, and has been broadcast frequently on Radio 4. Her Selected Poems is Gallop (Carcanet, 2019). Her latest collection, Thorpeness, will be published by Carcanet in February 2022. She is also writing a prose book, Village, about remarkable people and places in Lincolnshire, and beyond…