Alexa, what is there to know about love? by Brian Bilston
Published By Picador Poetry
Available from All Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say
Brian Bilston is clouded in the pipe smoke of mystery.
He has been described as the Banksy of poetry and Twitter’s unofficial Poet Laureate. With over 50,000 followers, numbering J. K. Rowling, Roger McGough and Frank Cottrell Boyce amongst many, many other luminaries, Brian has become truly beloved by the Twitter community. His first collection, You Took the Last Bus Home, was published by Unbound.
He won the Great British Write Off competition in 2015 – and was the Poet in Residence for the World Economic Forum in 2016. There have been features on him on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the BBC news website, the Irish Times, the Independent and the Smithsonian Magazine. Most of these features seem to have largely centred around his pipe.?
What I Say
I have to be honest with you, I started out this writing this revew as an Instagram post, but do you know what? Sometimes when you love a book so much, the limited text of Instagram is quite frankly not enough to say everything!
First of all, let me get this out of the way and say right now that Alexa, what is there to know about love? is absolutely the perfect present for Valentine’s Day, or any day to be fair! This latest collection from one of my favourite poets tackles the age old question of what love is. It is almost a poetic journey through history at first, as we see how that thorny question is tackled at different times, but this is not just a collection of poems about love. It is a stunningly curated collection that also comments on Brexit, immigration, the former president Donald Trump, and homelessness amongst its many different themes.
In Three Postcards for example, we see the shared history of a husband and wife through three postcards that depict key moments in their life, until it ends with the line;
“The telegram had come two days before”
The wife has lost her husband at war, and now she is pregnant and widowed. This works so well because the poem taps into our own memories not only of sending postcards, and how the snatched snippets of our lives can mean so much, but also how seemingly everyday and mundane things can have the most impact. It is heartbreaking as a reader to slowly realise that the latest official postal communication is the one that will change their lives forever. Brian Bilston has the innate ability to turn a poem on a single sentence, and in this case, it makes you absolutely stop and re-read the poem.
For me, the way in which the poetry is collected and presented is really interesting. When you have laughed at one, the next one makes you cry, and another poem is just so beautifully written you have to pause for a moment before you read any further.
To try and choose a few examples from this book to illustrate the scope and skill of this poetry is really challenging, because they are all wonderful. Poetry has always been a slightly daunting genre for me, feeling that I wouldn’t ‘get’ what the poet was trying to say. I think that the way in which Brian writes is unique because his poems are accessible, they draw the reader to them as they refer to things that are happening in our lives that we can relate to, but also because they talk about themes so many of us can connect to and feel understood.
I loved As Easy as Alpha Bravo Charlie where the Narrator runs through their very personal rendition of the NATO phonetic alphabet. It just made me laugh because I always struggle with trying to remember it, and resulted in me telling my local garage that the last three letters of my number plates were and I quote: “Uterus Dominos Yummy”. This is one of the many reasons I love reading Brian’s poetry, because you realise that you are not the only one to have experienced these situations!
Meet Cute – which is the term used when a couple meet for the first time, really struck a chord with me too. In the course of the poem, Brian builds up the dramatic tension by alluding to different cinematic situations, and highlights exactly how complicated and at times convoluted these set ups really are.
“that real life is not a Hollywood movie,
that romance need not begin
with a set-to or a spillage”
The couple in the poem eventually meet in such an ordinary and understated way, it really helps ground the reader and makes us realise that the best and most wonderful relationships simply start with two people meeting in the most boring way.
I think Brian’s poetry is intelligent and creative, and the familiarity and accessibility of his poetry does that very rare thing in that it makes the reader feel connected to his work. It references situations and topical events that we are all part of, as well as embracing all encompassing themes such as love, marriage, and life itself. The poems change constantly in tone and pace, which not only keeps us engaged, but surprises us as we move from poem to poem.
Alexa, what is there to know about love? takes moments of humanity in its many forms and reflects it back to us. We see ourselves when we are at our most vulnerable when we declare our love, but also at our most courageous when we are fighting for what we truly believe in. One of the many reasons I constantly recommend Brian’s poetry to everyone is for the very simple fact that in these uncertain and unsettled times, his wonderful poetry provides us with a way to try and make sense of the world we live in, a chance to see truly how many shared stories we have, and most importantly at a time where we can’t physically be together, these poems unite us in our experiences of the world today.
I absolutely loved it.
Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for my gifted copy.