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Sins of the Leopard
by James Brookes
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reviewed by the Judge

Brookes' ambitious debut collection challenges, surprises and earns its own spot in history

Sins of the Leopard, James Brookes’ debut collection, is not an easy book to write about. It is an intricate piece of work: the themes of the different poems seem to connect to each other in the most unpredictable ways. The titular leopard, for instance, appears in several poems; but how to begin discussing it? It is a throwback to Dante, who meets the leopard as early as in the first Canto of the Divine Comedy, and the ‘sins’ there are those of treachery and dishonesty. Indeed the book’s second poem is called ‘Fealty’ and is about leopards (or, more aptly, ‘[h]alf-leopards’). It ends with the motto "Felix ad mortis, kitty", which I’m assuming is a play on words, as ‘felix’ is Latin for ‘happy’, but also a popular name for cats (deriving from an almost identical Latin word, felis). "Felix ad mortis" (felix until death, or felix to the death) almost seems to hide an oxymoron: if this particular cat stands for treason, then it’s contradictory to think of it as a felix ad mortis. This is the same type of concern with linguistic camouflage that we find a couple of lines earlier, in the question "What if fidelity hadn’t meant fealty, then frailty?" The words seem to blend into each other, with truth crouching between them in its spotted pelt.

The after-life of the ‘post tenebras’ is also an after-history in which light can be – if not attained – at least hoped for.

It is this type of subtlety that makes Brookes so challenging, at least when it comes to writing about him in a cogent review. Recurring words and objects may be given different symbolic values according to which poem they appear in, but they always connect to each other in some way or another. Following these connections leads one into a small labyrinth. The leopard, for instance, may have something to do with Dante, but one of the poems is entitled 'Gattopardo', an archaic Italian word for the animal which is also the original title of Giuseppe Tommasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel (in English, simply ‘The Leopard’).

At the same time, it is impossible not to notice a connection between the leopard and the collection’s central carrying theme, that of history. There are many historical characters and vignettes, mostly but not exclusively English in focus. These are usually presented in terms of some form of guilt that carries over into the present. The two epigraphs introduce the theme…

Some are so stupid or so flexible
as they believe him innocent; all grieve.
(Ben Jonson, Sejanus his Fall)

Judas was paid! Judas was paid!
I am making a sacrifice!
(Enoch Powell, to a heckler, Saltaire 1974)

…and the rest of the collection reiterates it throughout, in lines like "Our gravest sin is doing" (Gattopardo), "I’m sorry I can’t be more sorry" (Eric Gill between Wisdom and Gaiety), "Pity those whose guilt, like a contagion / clouds their mind" (Three Remembrances for Colonel Pride), as well as in episodes involving Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac and the beheading of guiltless (if dubious) Sir Walter Raleigh. I should note, in passing, that all of these poems have strong historical themes (including ‘Gattopardo’, which refers to a historical novel). It is as though there had been some form of treachery in history; someone betrayed us, or we betrayed someone, or history betrayed us, or we betrayed history. Part of what makes history guilty of the sins of the leopard is precisely its stubborn refusal to arrange itself into clear (visible) relations between judge, culprit, executioner and victim. Moreover, the great cycles of history are also a re-cycling – of names, identities, truths, which contaminate each other as they produce new cycles.

We see this at work in ‘Concerning Plunder’, a poem in which a ship and the human body are presented each as a metaphor for the other:

I’ve seen the blueprint of the slave ship Brookes,
the cargo in its wooden gut
is at least in part
my inheritance.

Again, we are faced with themes of innocence and guilt in the face of our past crimes (those of our forefathers, whom Brookes often identifies with himself – see for instance the ‘Flying Officer Brookes’ who murders war prisoners in ‘Silent Enim Leges Inter Arma’). At the same time, however, this poem goes much further in establishing a historical metaphor:

My roving dog
with a stick in his mouth
loosed on the fields
forgives my horror

that the branch in his maw
like a spar or a mast
is the still fur-clad
foreleg of a deer,

a leg that once sailed
in a whole perfect craft
never threatening to spill
its slight ingots of bone.

History is given here as a representation resulting from a set of arbitrary connections between different categories. Something as simple as the stick in a dog’s mouth used to be part of a much greater system; the identity of any given item is lost in history as its fragments are turned to other functions. We find this concept all over the place: history is a "palace built from pulled-down monasteries" (‘Three Remembrances for Colonel Pride’), in which objects "[b]ound to be connected" make the poet wonder "how can I seize them, set them down" (‘Saint Peter ad Vincula (500 years)’), but "sans / pretence of innocence, be we outlaw or sheriff" (‘Eric Gill between Wisdom and Gaiety’). The horror of the speaker in seeing these "whole [and] perfect" systems being undone and dispersed suggests that they may be, "at least in part", ethical systems. This would certainly be congruent with Brookes’ understanding of the problem of history in moral terms.

Ironically, the one overarching problem in this collection is that Brookes is not exempt from the ‘sins’ he denounces. As is often the case with debut collections, SOTL contains a number of poems lifted from the poet’s debut pamphlet, The English Sweats. Brookes’ concern is historical: he is clearly worried that these poems, if confined to that more obscure booklet, will be overlooked, forgotten, wasted. As one of his characters says, "half of life is mishearing, / half goes unheard" (‘Robespierre faces the Scaffold’). And so he has included them in this new book, that they may still be heard, and that their presence in the poetic history of James Brookes may live on. But if it is true that they are no longer unheard, they are most definitely misheard: not only are these poems distinctly weaker than his more mature efforts, they also seem to grate with the type of statements being made in the rest of the collection. Though they are interesting in their own right, when extracted from the original group of poems and sprent into another they become only spots on an otherwise very clear pelt (and they will be especially confusing, I think, to the eyes of someone who has not read the pamphlet). Brookes, hierophant of history, has not learned his own lesson. And perhaps therein lies the great lesson, and the reason Robespierre closes his meditation with something like a nihilistic statement: "Say, perhaps / death is the beginning of morality".

All of this makes sense: history, in SOTL, is made up precisely of such contradictions and paradoxes. At the heart of this collection – particularly in the second half – there is an investigation on how we may retain, negotiate, or rediscover our innocence and identity faced with this confusion in which the law of ethics is so weak that "[n]othing is inexcusable". Brookes certainly explores a great deal of options. There is the "cheery fatalism" in which you recognise history as an overarching form of determinism, in which "everything [is] providential, everything / spoken as it should be, attested, written down" (‘Three Remembrances…’). There’s responding to the paradox with another paradox, the notion that you learn the lesson by forgetting rather than by remembering, because "we make good when we are forsaken" (‘Eric Gill…’). There is the escape from larger history into personal history, as in one poem the two words "I know" seem to close and encompass a frame of the poet’s native Sussex, later turning into the lines "sunlight frowns / earthwards from any heaven I might know" (‘Planh’) – linking the poet’s personal knowledge with a salvational ‘heaven’. And there is the final approach to history in a form which resembles prayer, one we see in the last lines of the last poems, from the self-standing ‘litany’ (‘HMYOI Hymn’) to the Latin motto "post tenebras spero lucem" (‘Saint Peter…’). The latter line means "after darkness I hope for light", and by this stage the nature of the illumination has itself been illuminated. Brookes’ final answer to the problem of history transcends the epistemological dimension and is distinctly spiritual. The after-life of the ‘post tenebras’ is also an after-history in which light can be – if not attained – at least hoped for.

At last, the final poem ‘Prussia Cove’ ends with an image that seems to connect to the ship of history in ‘Concerning Plunder’:

and from this uterine and wholesome dark
our bodies disembark
and rise above the city and her guilds
with the hulks of Belfast and the Cutty Sark.

It is a poignant, literally uplifting closure to a voyage that is both beautiful and exhausting, in which history is transcended via the final paradox: the rising bodies sail beyond sailing, having forsaken nothing but their own weight.

It is worth underlining – because it is so rare, in journeys of the spirit, especially when narrated by a young man – that in the final poem we see two people rising together, rather than the poet on his own. ‘Prussia Cove’ is but one of a number of poems in this collection that can be read as subtle love poems. One other is ‘Bonfire Night’ (one of Brookes’ very finest in SOTL), which describes the alchemic confusion of identities in history in terms of a fire, mixing and melting together the elements. We find that ‘innocent Raleigh’ thought "heaven meant trudging through rubies thick as gravel" (his emphasis, underlining a quotation), which of course is ironic, if you read the rubies as the coals on which Raleigh’s historical identity had to walk. The poem closes on a note of tenderness, with these five lines:

& sorry love I’m not thinking your name but my namesake
and the power that comes with being the wisest fool,
of the last gasp where I have you at breaking point
your head on my shoulder, my protectorate:
your newly red hair I have dyed myself.

The poem in itself can be read as a traditional love lyric: he has dyed her hair in the sense that he has prepared the coals in which he burns, the scope of his love suggested by its sublimation with history, his innocence an expression of his deterministic condition (i.e., he has no choice in what he is feeling). At the same time, the last line is itself alchemic, and can be read as a sort of statement for what Brookes has done with his entire poetry: the ‘red hair’ is fire, and the last four words then stand alone: "I have dyed myself", in the sense that what he has actually coloured in this poem is his own identity, melting before the fire of history together with all other elements. This reading is not incompatible with the other – it was simply hidden within it, cloaked below the words as though under the spots of a leopard. Brookes’ language is as alchemic as the history which he describes, and in this sense it reflects and represents it with marvellous success. SOTL draws a brilliant parable that treats an ambitious topic in depth and with confidence. Its poems yield an interpretation, and then go on revealing others, cheating the reader’s expectations in a betrayal so delightful that it redeems itself. And yes, I know that’s paradoxical. Brookes made his point.