This unusual work has had a leisurely path to print. Written after a visit to Prague in 1990, two extracts were published (in Aquarius, no less) in 1992. Twenty years later it appeared as a self-produced e-book. Now, after ten more years and on the heels of its author’s similarly slow-arriving but sporadically awesome short-poem collection (Owl Unbound), it’s finally made it out.
It’s ‘a mystical poem for voices’, or a verse radio play. Three unnamed travellers start their journey at a gibbet and so may be newly executed – or not. A riddling Fool with his dog ‘gather[s] their shadows’ and ‘take[s] them to be cleaned’. He uses a skull as a glove-puppet. ‘Your way is down,’ he says, so he may be a courier demon – or not. Traveller 2 says, ‘It was your country which sold mine/ for a few years’ peace’, which could refer to Chamberlain at Munich. Or not. They are left in a city where Traveller 1 loses a notepad (‘it was my ladder out’) and they tour a church at some length. All at once the Fool is surreally on trial:
Man: […] You stand falsely accused
that you did steal the throats of birds
and placed milk upon the housewife’s lips.
that you did upon such and such a day
destroy the fabric of the world
and wore a hat of many colours.
Then he has been executed, and the travellers are left disorientated. Traveller 2 meets capitalized Woman. The others find the dog, who is carrying his master’s bones. The Fool himself reappears and leads them all through a museum where in a Dantesque moment they see ‘the man who held the world in chains/ […], who ‘weeps/ for paintings he did not paint,’ and may be Hitler. Or, of course, not. After which they are mysteriously restored, like tourists at the end of an ersatz ‘experience’, to the outdoors and a square where they can have coffee.
The strange, orphic poem-world has gibbets but also photographs and lightbulbs. The characters similarly mix archaic diction with modern idiom, comedy with sonority, and verse with prose, song, nursery-rhyme and puppet-play. There are folklore motifs, Jungian archetypes and, as if the ambience weren’t dreamlike enough, more dreaming inside the narrative. Primary allusions are to the Bible, especially the Passion, and Bulgakov, though the numinousness, oneiricism and episodic composition made me think mostly of late Strindberg. The bathetic café-ending, even so, does suggest a kind of shaggy-dog-style cosmic joke.
The episodes often have arresting moments: I liked the idea that ‘Hell/ is a museum’, with the sense that time there has stopped and its denizens are either guides or exhibits. And the Fool’s trial scene is a mini-masterpiece of sinister absurdism:
Man: How do you answer these charges?
Fool: I am falsely accused.
Man: Then you are falsely condemned.
There’s also a Youtube clip of the poet herself reading a section, where the fine judgement of the line-endings becomes salient in a way not always clear from silent reading. Zoe Brooks is one of those talented poets of ‘early promise’ who sidestepped to prose and seems only now to be compiling and releasing her old stuff. It’ll be interesting to see what newer work is in the offing.
Guy Russell 9th September 2022