Sex is like Criccieth. You thought it would be
a tumble of houses into a pure sea
and so it must have been, in eighteen-ten.
The ranks of boarding houses marched up then.
They linger, plastic curtains at their doors,
or, still more oddly, blonde ungainly statues.
The traffic swills along the single street
and floods the ears, until our feet
turn down towards the only shop for chips,
to shuffling queues, until sun slips
behind the Castle, which must be, by luck,
one of the few a Welsh prince ever took.
Or in the café, smoked with fat, you wait.
Will dolphins strike the sea’s skin? They do not.
And yet, a giant sun nobody has told
of long decline, beats the rough sea gold.
The Castle rears up with its tattered flag,
hand laces hand, away from valleys’ slag.
And through the night, the long sea’s dolphined breath
whispers into your warm ear, ‘Criccieth’.
Have I missed something about Criccieth? I’ve been there and don’t get me wrong, it was very nice; but if I was looking for something to compare sex with, it wouldn’t be my first choice.
I’ve talked a lot about beginning a poem strongly with no faffing about. Surely this beats them all. In an entirely characteristic display of gentle wit, Alison Brackenbury drops a startling idea into the first line and then walks away from it as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. We’ve also seen how the events related in a poem often stand for something else, and the rest of this poem is almost wholly about Criccieth. Except of course, it isn’t. Having seen it, we read the whole poem through the prism of that first simile. Alison doesn’t labour the point and goodness knows, she doesn’t need to. It’s memorable enough to stay in your mind through the poem, and very likely for many years afterwards.
I consult the Criccieth Town Council welcome page. “We have a very temperate climate,” they say, “and never experience extreme temperatures.” Ah, I see. Sex isn’t always like Monte Carlo or a thrilling roller coaster ride. With a long-loved partner, it’s perhaps a well-known resort you go back to; not as ‘it must have been, in eighteen-ten’ with its ‘pure sea’, but pleasant, familiar, with memories of the past and the occasional oddity.
Reading it in this way, with constant reference back to the first sentence, makes it a lesson in double entendre. Yes, the ‘tumble’ in the ‘tumble of houses into a pure sea’ is both literal and metaphorical. Is married sex really ‘the single street’ to ‘the only shop for chips’ in a Welsh seaside town? That’s a sad thought. Will there really be no drama, no dolphins to break through the surface – despite your hopes of seeing them? As for ‘The Castle rears up with its tattered flag’ – er, no, it’s not just you, that also is a metaphor. Good heavens.
How then does Brackenbury avoid making this sound like a pantomime or a Benny Hill gag? By its very gentleness. By the sense that this is not a joke at anyone’s expense but an observation of how things change, inevitably. Above all, by the tenderness of the last stanza which turns the joke of Criccieth into a place of safety, a haven. The old language of poetry comes into play. The sun is ‘giant’ and nobody has told it it’s in decline thank you very much. It ‘beats the rough sea gold’, the castle stands above ‘the valley’s slag’, there is a soft whisper in your ear; and look! there are even dolphins, though you may not see them every time. By the end Criccieth has become a lovers’ shared joke, a long-loved place that you both know.
There are strong end-rhymes all the way through but Brackenbury keeps them from dominating the poem. If you’re going to have a strong rhyme at the end of the line, remember for goodness’ sake that it doesn’t also have to be the end of the sentence or clause. You can enjamb it so that the sentence runs into another line, making the rhyme inconspicuous: ‘Sex is like Criccieth. You thought it would be/ a tumble of houses into a pure sea.’ You can throw in a near-rhyme or not-rhyme every now and then: ‘They linger, plastic curtains at their doors,/ or, still more oddly, blonde ungainly statues.’ And sometimes you can do the full-blown full rhyme: ‘and so it must have been, in eighteen-ten./ The ranks of boarding houses marched up then.’
What does the title, ‘And’, tell us? It appears only twice in the first long stanza, without any apparent weight of meaning. In the second stanza it means something else. It’s at the beginning of the stanza and then the beginning of a sentence, each time wearing its capital letter to draw attention to itself. This poem isn’t called On the Other Hand or But; it’s called And. All of the funny things may be true; the only chip shop in town, etc etc…. AND there is gold on the sea. AND there are dolphins. AND, a word that connects two things or two people, shows us that in spite of change, in spite of time, there is love.
[This poem appears by kind permission of the author and the publisher, Carcanet. Alison Brackenbury’s latest collection, Skies is available here. There’s a little video of me reading this poem on the Carcanet Facebook page, here. If you’re enjoying these blogs and would like to make a donation, no matter how small, click here to do so via PayPal.]