2014, Brits, Colette Bryce, Don't speak to the Brits, Forward Prize for Best Collection, Helicopters, just pretend they don't exist, Mammy Dozes, Picador Poetry, poem, poems, Poetry, review, The Whole & Rain-domed Universe, verse
Standing in front of an officer of the law wearing nothing but pants is a sobering experience and, even when innocent, it’s hard not to look guilty, not to feel guilty, when he steps inside and starts searching.
I was woken in the small hours by frenzied banging. Back then I lived on a narrowboat and its flimsy wooden door rattled like a greenhouse. I cowered in bed before assessing my chances of getting the phone and dialling 999. The banging intensified, and then a voice: ‘Open up! Police!’ Practically naked, I ran to the door, half expecting to feel a knife slide between my ribs but, up the steps and towering above me, there was a policeman, blinding me with a handheld searchlight. I was starting to wake up and realized that the whole towpath was in uproar. More police officers emerged from a van and crossed the footbridge to the other moorings. The whole area was illuminated. It was then that I felt the noise, looked up and saw the helicopter bobbing overhead.
The officer gave my boat a cursory sweep from lounge to engine room, deducing that I had not kidnapped a baby (and neither, dear reader, had any of my fellow boaties). However, that night the police had subjected me to a disorienting, humiliating, invasive, frightening search. Not once was so much as a scrap of an apology muttered. If a private citizen feels like this on the one occasion when he is arbitrarily targeted by the police, then how does it feel when it’s a routine abuse?
In The Brits, Colette Bryce presents a raid on a house during the Troubles. ‘Whatever it was they were looking for, they liked / to arrive in the small hours, take us by surprise, / avoiding our eyes like gormless youngfellas / shuffling at a dance. My mother spoke: / a nod from the leader and the batch of heavy rifles / was stacked, clackety-clack, like a neat camp fire / under the arch of the hall table.’ Through the impersonal ‘they,’ the poem implies a remote intelligence, the will of which is at odds with the boy scout soldiers, whose embarrassed, shamed lack of eye contact almost allies them with the family. The soldiers’ unimpressiveness is further highlighted by the fact that only the mother speaks, her authority and care undermining the silent ‘leader.’ Bryce’s collection is tightly structured and so, as each soldier’s face is ‘for an instant, hung in the mirror,’ the reader is reminded of Derry, the collection’s second poem: ‘A teacher’s daughter, I was one of nine / faces afloat in the looking-glass.’ The Brits’ appearance in the self-same looking-glass either heightens our awareness of the depth of their intrusion, or reminds us that, on a different day and in a different place, these soldiers might have been gormless first dates – guests. Likewise, ‘Thundered up the stairs’ either evokes divine anger, or a mock-heroic playdate. The poem’s single stanza break jump cuts to the present, inviting the reader to anticipate some moralizing about the scars of the past and other assorted clichés. Instead, Bryce gives us: ‘Last night I dreamt of tiny soldiers, / like the action figures I played with as a child. / Fay Wray soldiers in the clumsy hands of Kong, / little Hasbro troopers in the massive hands of God.’ At first, they’re not toy soldiers, they are just tiny soldiers, recast as utterly human but utterly helpless. Then they change sex, becoming Fay Wray: a sacrifice to something implacable and savage (or perhaps just plain misunderstood in a scenario in which both are victims). And as for those little Hasbro troopers – their frail limbs are a clear invitation to the childish mind: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport’ – all this handled with levity and a truthful attention to detail which lets the bigger picture speak for itself without recourse to the soapbox.
Helicopters is composed of miniature couplets, stacked up to create height and fragility: ‘Over time, you picture them / after dark, in searches // focusing on streets and houses / close above the churches // or balancing / on narrow wands of light. // And find so much depends upon / the way you choose // to look at them: / high in the night // their minor flares confused / among the stars, there // almost beautiful.’ Bryce’s stanzas, some of them comprising no more than a few words, suggest the restless, fitful sweep of the searchlight, finding an image of arresting beauty in ‘narrow wands of light’ – the sort of excitement watching children might feel despite themselves. As the helicopter’s lights hang in the heavens, we would be forgiven for endowing them with the gravity, of the stars but any similarity to the celestial bodies is coincidental, reminding us of our place in the big picture.
The Whole & Rain-domed Universe is about much more than the Troubles – but they form the backdrop against which a family understands itself and memory enriches as time advances. That mother, for example, so strong in The Brits, is revisited in Mammy Dozes: ‘Eighty years have leant her skin // a bruised look in composure, / a touch of purples / to the hollows, so Mammy dozing / resembles a boxer in defeat.’ When read against the portrait of the mother in The Brits, Bryce co-opts her readers’ memories – we become her – and our grasp of the significance of this dropping of the chin delivers a powerful left hook as we see it feelingly.