Paul Brookes’ writing is stark. There isn’t any word pyrotechnics in here. The use of everyday language is, unfortunately, not much used, or even accepted, in a lot of poetry – poets like to show off and dazzle with their use of complicated words and intricate plots laying metaphor on top of metaphor until the meaning of the poem often becomes almost impenetrable. This is not the case with Brookes’ writing. Take this poem –
with sellotape and put back on shelves
frail crisp packets that open before sale.
Kinked cans of beans, frozen cardboard boxes
lids open goods inside. Some marked down.
Take delivery, in urgency to unpack, knife
catches corner of a bag of sugar. Sellotape the dribble.
My mam told me don’t buy damaged
cans. It’s not healthy. Once the seal
was broken on her trust she refused
to consider the goods worthwhile.
This is the stock that Paul Brookes deals with. The simplicity of the language describing an everyday routine event – part of the job – adds tremendous power to the poem in my opinion.
Most of the poems are about the workplace – another thing that the poetry world often ignores or finds itself unable to accept. It’s a dirty subject is work done by people with dirty hands – how could they know anything about poetry? Brookes works as a shop assistant – behind a till – though this isn’t the most important thing – it could be any retail store, any call centre, any restaurant or hardware shop where a shop assistant interacts with the public. But they are also far more than just about work – his writing captures the shadows of an event – a transaction – that Brookes has seen actually contains far more than what just happened. And from that you get a unique insight into people’s lives – the minutiae of them – a throwaway comment that Brookes uses to explore the possibilities of, amongst other things, existence, loneliness, poverty, addiction, camaraderie and community.
small boy in an angry bird t shirt,
mock flight jacket,
Hawaiian shorts and trainers
bursts into the shop shouting
I’ve got fifty pee.”
I reply that we close at eight,
so he has an hour.
“Just ran all way here.
What can I buy? he answers
mouth before a wall of sweets.
I show him in one corner trays full
of small chocolate eggs at 49p.
“Yes. Yes one of these.”
His delight makes me smile.
The humour and warmth Brookes has for the ‘customers’ who are members of his community is evident throughout the book. In fact, I think one of the best things about these poems is the sense of community that permeates through them – which in an age where it has become increasingly more difficult to find any sense of community anywhere other than on-line is both heart-warming and uplifting.
A lot of writing is now about isolation and loneliness, finding some kind of identity or meaning in amongst the big cities and masses of people. And you wouldn’t really expect anything less considering that we now live in a post-Thatcherite, post-New Labour society where the dissolving of industry and the replacement of full-time work with zero –hour or part-time ‘hire and fire’ alternatives has caused so many communities to break up into little bits.
Some say that this was just an economic inevitability what with the high wages of the old manufacturing and miner jobs – others are a little more cynical and say that this was engineered, encouraged and goaded into happening so that the working class wouldn’t be able to stick together anymore as the only meaningful opposition to stand against neoliberalism and free market economics – clearing the way forwards for their progress – well, as evidenced by this poem called Caravan, those little bits still exist and they sometimes come together in Paul Brookes’ shop –
Three women in the queue
The first empties her packed trolley.
Do you need any carrier bags?
Three to start with. I have to sort out
What we’re taking in the caravan.
Why did I buy so much?
Yes please while I empty this.
We’ll do it for you offers one of the other women.
We’d love a caravan holiday. Don’t take up much space.
Five carrier bags full later she says. I’ll have to fetch my car round. I’ll never carry all this.
We’ll carry it for you. We’ve only got these odd goods propose the other two women.
I can’t have you doing that.
Yes you can.
A caravan of women carry bags
out the door.
Please Take Change is full of this life affirming feeling. Even when Brookes deals with the grimmer unluckier or sadder side of life he does so in a considerate way – never judgmental or vindictive and always with humour – dark or otherwise – because that’s the only way how Brookes – and so many more of us – can even hope to survive.
We’re together, but not.
If you know what I mean?
No, this is my shopping.
That’s his. It’s all for
in the same bag. He carries
the bags. What I married him for.
Aye he says Fetching and carrying.
I bag ’em up and lug ’em home for her.
She adds we don’t live together.
If you know what I mean.
Regular old gent works his stick
buys a loaf of bread, his stutterful
fingers offer a palmside up
full of change for me to focus
upon and pick out the correct change
whilst his uncut nails tremble.
On one occasion he told me,
“Never get to ninety, lad.”
As usual I loudly and clearly
wish him a grand day.
He pauses then says “I was woken
up this morning to hear my wife had died
in old folks home.”
I say I’m sorry to hear that
give condolences as he pauses
and the queue at my till grows.
The next customer who overheard
says “He needed to tell someone.”