'Casket' by Andy Brown

Casket by Andy Brown. Shearsman Chapbooks, 2019. (31 pages)

I like this short collection very much.

The Casket in question is the The Frank’s Casket, a ‘whalebone’ box dating from the eighth century, covered with Runic inscriptions and almost cluttered with intricately carved and often enigmatic scenes.

For readers interested in Old English Poetry, the Casket is accidentally iconic. The cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Michael Alexander’s ‘The Earliest English poems’ (1966), which contained those ground breaking translations of Old English,  was a slightly blurred image from one of its panels. It is a pleasure to see the thing in the British Museum. And astonishing to see how small it is.

Brown’s chapbook consists of five poems, or five short sequences, one for each of the side panels, one for the lid. It’s very good.  I like the way it ghosts Old English.

Each poem begins with the relevant runic inscription and takes off from there. A note from the author explains the runic alphabet. Each rune has an equivalent letter and what Brown calls a ‘pictorial’ value… the word for Fish in runic script also contains the values for ‘wealth’ ‘ice’ ‘sun’ and ‘torch’’.  ‘To write the following poems I determined the sequence of images yielded by each runic word, and then used these images or variants of them, to write the poems’ (p.5).

As a concept, it’s interesting, but it puts conceptual intelligence into the architecture of the poems, where I think it should be. Whether or not you can map the runes directly onto the poems, and how much latitude Brown allowed himself in that ‘variants of them’, would require far more time than I’m willing to dedicate to the effort of finding out. The poems stand as poems.

The collection is thematically linked by the last line ‘…this shared and ever constant now’. The chapbook presents ‘the place where I live’ (coyly unspecified in a book about place)  as a palimpsest: modern golfers play where Britons and Saxons fought. On the water, New Foundland cod boats set sail and pass Danish raiders and ‘Dunkirkers’ coming home, while Flemish privateers have landed to burn the town.  Glimpses of history mingle with scenes from the present, graffiti’d bridges and frozen allotments, trail bikers and fishermen.

The poetry itself is skilfully written. The first sequence, ‘Whalebone’ picks up the echo of Old English alliterative verse. The Anglo-Saxon line with its triple crash and bang doesn’t sound good if sustained in modern English, so Brown’s handling of it here is skilful, evocative of Old English, giving the poem an onward movement but without sounding heavy handed:

This unforgiving trade, when the ice
Of February frets the core and fingers
And the sun’s declining disk smoulders
Barely bright enough to light the creek. 

The nod towards Old English is also beautifully done towards the end of the fifth section. One poem, beginning ‘I sing’ blurs the distinction between the Casket, its maker and the poet, since all three are ‘singing’:  the lines evoke the epigrammatic mood of Old English. 

This leads to that most Old English of poems, ‘the thing speaking’….(’prosopopoeia’ is not a word I get to type very often.)

Snatched from the creature’s warmth
And brought into the sun
I’ve made this voyage to artful box 

This sounds like the beginning of one of the Exeter book riddles. But ‘For month’s I knew the workman’s hands’ leads into the bone’s description of how it became a casket and we’ve moved from riddle to something more affecting. My candidate for ‘the best piece in the book’.

The last fourteen lines in the chapbook seem to offer some kind of conclusion, but I think they are perhaps the least convincing piece/s of the collection. The tendency of OE to epigrammatic, generalising is captured in

We have the measure of our lives all wrong
it’s not this time of flesh and blood alone,
but the slow millennia of dissolution,
when skin and bone return to whence they came

But the sudden shift from the previously specific ‘I’ to the vague ‘we’ and the equally generalised statement which slides off the fact the Casket has, after at least a thousand years, most definitely not returned to whence it came, might be the only flaw in the collection.. 

My only reservation may be irrelevant and whether you see it as criticism or observation depends on what you want from the poems you read.

As a reader of poems, and buyer of poetry, there are thousands of books to choose from. But increasingly I feel it doesn’t really matter. There are varying degrees of technical competence but at the end of some collections I wonder if life would have been any worse for not reading them. 

The problem facing writers and readers of contemporary poetry is that lurking, ‘Nice.. but so what? ‘

Bunting wrote ‘Then is now’ and produced Briggflatts . Eliot spun whorls with time past and time present being simultaneously present in time future. David Jones started with the idea of a past permanently present in the language and built In Parenthesis and The Anathemata. The idea of ‘a shared and ever constant now’ has been the starting point of some major poetic writing.

If you read Casket, you’ll never look at the Frank’s casket the same way again. Which is a good thing, though looking at the Frank’s Casket is not something most of get the chance to do very often.

If you live in England and don’t realise you are living in a place with a deep and varied history, some of it still visible around you, the collection might wake you up to that fact.

But if the last fourteen lines offer a conclusion, they are perhaps the least convincing piece/s of the collection. For all the verbal skill, there’s a step not taken, and ‘so what?’ is doing a passable impersonation of Grendel, lurking on the edges of the reading. Whether you let him or not depends on you. If you let him in, the effect is disastrous.

 I don’t know if this is an observation or a criticism.