Book the second full collection from J Brookes published by Square Books in Cardiff, following The Dresden Cantata of 2008, and many self published and self distributed pamphlets before that going back to 1990. He was for ten years the editor of the poetry magazine The Yellow Crane, a poetry fanzine really. Probably amongst the last of its kind: typed, photocopied, and stapled, with a simple but arresting linocut cover, distributed by its editor walking it door to bookshop door.
He was one of those editors who wrote back, a few notes with the returned typescript. I can remember a few discussions with aspiring poets, turning to fond memories of the magazine and its editor. Simple in construction it might have been but its quality was recognised by the Poetry Library on the South Bank among others, a few examples can be seen at Yellow Crane. I remember when I first became interested in contemporary poetry in the early 2000s finding a copy in the Cardiff Central library. It seemed to offer a slant and accessible alternative to the more established magazines that shared its shelves with.
JB’s own poems continue his poetic credo as an editor, he his very much a poet of walking distance, of local streets and local characters, his work captures and celebrates the minor detail of most urban people’s daily lives: small arguments, trips to the takeaway, incidents while queuing for a cashpoint. Most of JB’s poems have the feel of an anecdote, something you might tell to a friend or overhear told in a pub. Sometimes the stories come from far and further away, from Sudan, Spain and Belfast, but there is always a freshness to their telling. As a reader I feel the poems have been passed to JB and now he is passing them on to me.
JB has a developed and distinctive poetic voice, which he subtly adjusts to create a range of registers. Which ranges from delivering shocking detail as in Rum that includes detail of a miscarriage, through the humorous speculative fantasy of poems like Clouds where cloud watching turns to a humorous drama involving Greek gods, to the more substantial works like The Crescent, a song for the inhabitants of a rooming house that has seen better days. The uniting formal feature of the collection is metre, easily used, aided by unasuming rhyme and regular stanzas. It is with fine adjustments of these resources that JB adjusts his voice to suit the different subjects.
Many of the shorter poems felt too abrupt on first reading. I first thought that poems like A Loaf of Bread, The Cut, or Bobby Sands were fragments, perhaps a third of a poem that needs further development. Although on reflection I think JB had said enough, what I wanted added were the phantom limbs of the poem, in a way something already part of the poems. The abruptness a deliberate choice.
There is a lot worth reading in Book: some shocking detail of crime and drug use taking place alongside the everyday, playful surrealism, fry humour and song like metre. Amongst my favourites are CSCS a poem about finding casual work in construction; Franco a poem about the political importance of one particular Eurovision Song contest, where Cliff Richard acquires a surprising political significance; and my favourite Armchair a lightly handled fable, which trusts its reader to get the joke.
Four of JB’s poems from this collection, along with further biographical notes, can be seen at Square Magazine.