The Island of Reil

Christine Brooke-Rose, ‘The Island of Reil’, Botteghe Oscure, 21 (1958): 101–5

Grey fingers wing
the sounds of time
down in a paradigm.
There is the thrumming
of a secret press behind
the headline of eyes.
There is the rune and rite
the rising damp of fear
the whispered veil
to the germinating ear.
Then the bristling night
rolls into hiding,
feathers, petals fall
from the stem
as from inflected skies.
And the ear is no longer the shell
listening to the world’s drum
but the drum
to the world’s


Gripped by the earphones of the night
I listen for a language
whose desinences decode.
Dispatch riders roar up at me out of the tide
but their eyes are upside down
and their lips muffled.
The waves trace messages along the sand
but provide no stylus,
not even the beak of a bird.
Surely some cover-word will come.


A for Adam, A for Adam.
Are you receiving me?

This poem was written several years after its author had left the dingy, distempered room in which she had spent much of the Second World War. Christine Brooke-Rose was only eighteen years old when, in 1941 as a young Women’s Auxiliary Air Force officer, she entered the gates at Bletchley Park to begin a new phase in her wartime service. There is a sense that the poems she wrote in the late 1940s and early 1950s provided a space in which she could give voice to an experience that she had signed away to silence upon entering Bletchley Park. ‘The Island of Reil’ is the longest of these poems, a sequence of nine parts that explores a hinterland of long-past vistas and half-remembered terrains, over which echoes boom and specks of matter thicken the air. The narrator appears to be under acute psychological strain, struggling in each stanza to make herself plain, blending memory with present action, language with landscape, and confusing the senses so that printed systems like braille whisper, while sentences ‘tremble’, a searchlight ‘drawls’, the eye has an inward tongue, a ‘trumpeting’ call climbs the walls. Voices transmitted, heard or sensed are duplicitous or demand decryption. Curiously, the poem is dedicated to the mental condition, ‘aphasia’, a scrambling of the signals between the written, aural and vocal nodes of the brain, whereby the patient may no longer connect the sound of a word with its meaning, or the look of a word with its sound, or the meaning of a word with its action. Words and sounds are lost, scatter, collide, or part ways. The condition began to receive increased attention from physicians and theorists in the years following World War Two, confronted with the high number of veterans that were displaying a myriad of complex language disorders, as the result of physical or mental trauma suffered during service.

by Natalie Ferris