Reviews - November 2012

'As a friend seated beside the poet'

A review of Pam Brown's "True Thoughts"

True Thoughts

True Thoughts

Pam Brown

Salt Publishers 2004, 88 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-84471-515-2

The title of its first poem, “Existence,” signals that True Thoughts may be aiming for the high rarified light of metaphysics, but Pam Brown’s version of existence links a series of lived moments delicately by chance, proximity, irony and imaginative association, such that existence is this embodied bricolage of moments arriving obliquely at the unhurried pace of living. Brown’s embodied fragments render a texture which is accretive rather than dramatic, and paratactic rather than metaphoric, though at any moment “ready to blur / into a field of speed … [as] one less path / to torpor.”

Suspicious of rhetoric, these poems don’t avoid its use but render it harmless by revealing its mechanism — by showing the hinges of its operation. This builds trust between poet and reader, as the poems wryly comment on the method of their making, which is on one level transparent, but by no means simple. With haiku-like poignancy and brevity, the lived moments traverse multiple registers of self-awareness, observation, social critique, and literary memory, including sudden brutal humor:

war
is
imminent,
Sydney goes sailing

Indeed, war is ever present as background noise, and Brown is ever aware of an Australian middle class indifference, as long as the sun sheds sparks over the sea. Brown’s artistic eye claims for poetry a plethora of “unpoetic” materials, such as radio wheeze, text messages, Blockbuster, Google, commercial fonts and cooking shows on TV: “the kitchen man / agrees / it’s all about oil,” yet here the “all about oil” doubles as the reason for war, as both monetary plunder and the lubricant of economy and media. This kind of layering of meanings describes much of the action in Brown’s poems, as the ordinary surfaces of the day radiate messages prismatically, even as they resist symbolism in favor of an embodied materiality in pastiche.

The book’s second poem, “Amnesiac recoveries,” comments on war and this new kind of war media, which turns destruction into a business of entertainment, as a holocaust of national collective memory in the bombing of Iraq’s ancient library generates new memories for a distantly safe TV-watching audience:

I know the war continues
   on tv
    in the background of the frame
the investigator yawns.

memoricide —
     bombing the library.
collective memory,
       the treasures of manuscript,

the bombing filmed

as I write       as you read!
      the USA
            is bombing
             ______        ______                  ______
              (please fill in the blank spaces)

The poet and reader are held accountable for complacency (or merely powerlessness), and the fill-in-the-blank predicts that the bombing will go on, that fifty years from now a new generation of readers will be able to fill in the names of the current victims of America’s endless war. The “as you read” is ironically measured against, though distantly, Denise Levertov’s poem “To the Reader,” wherein “as you read / the sea is turning its dark pages.” Levertov’s absorptive image may hint at the turnings of history, but its mythic grounding provides a comfortably theoretical space for the reader. Brown creates a different effect, where the reader is hurled through a window toward “turrurrism // war on turrurrism cramped / by cost bungling.” Brown’s aping of George W’s pretend-to-be-Texas drawl is hilarious and even more so, perhaps, for an American reader, yet at the same time the power behind this idiotic neocon is terrifying. As is Australia’s response to Bush’s war:

we rally for peace
        we play with the kids
the armada heads for the gulf

But this book is not about war as much as it’s about living. Or better said, it’s not about living, it is living, neither a dramatic enactment nor a referent, but the thing itself. Brown’s lived spaces link naturally and horizontally without the imposed vertical arc of Aristotelian drama. In reading, one passes time with the poems, in the poems, and comes increasingly to trust and to like this poet, whether she’s listening to punk music, waiting for a bus, making tea or reading Samuel Beckett. In “Death by droning” we are given Brown’s not-autobiography. She compares her method to what memoir is not, a droning on, “I couldn’t write a memoir / to save myself.” Rather than linear biographical progression, Brown’s poems adumbrate the traceries of mind, which, among her political insights and lyric moments, include the daily, even bored, material of work-thoughts — and from this a life does come into view:

droning on is not
                          my way,
mine’s more a kind of
                  devolution
or         maybe,
simply,       to make art
through spaces

Brown’s not-autobiography collages poems that think on the page, often as notes passed from self to self through some internal space neither wholly private nor meant for the public. We don’t so much overhear them as an unintended audience but hear them as the speaker hears them, still inside the self, intimately bound to the thinking in which they float.

seems like   Brisbane
             summer grey
and I’ve come so very far
               to make this small comparison

This commentary is self-derisive, and self-directed, yet, once more, we overhear it not as a reading public, but from some privileged inwardness, or at the very least as a friend seated beside the poet. A remarkably intimate experience, not autobiography but auto-intimacy. This, then, is where the title True Thoughts earns its authenticity, a title so literal as to be ironic. The “truth” behind these thoughts is entirely subjective, and in making no claims beyond this lens, such thoughts are irrefutably genuine, and the experience of reading them is fresh and rewarding. Here, in the hands of an artist, subjectivity is not a weakness, but the very basis of intimacy, of honesty. Likewise, from the subjectively human experience, a new kind of nature-in-the-city materializes: Brown’s poems, whether in Australia or Europe, are committed to the cycles and bric-a-brac of urbanity, yet one which allows for calm and beauty, as of an urban pastoral:

all afternoon in a car
parked at the ferry wharf
gazing at sparkling waves,
not reading 
not listening to the car radio,
just looking out          at the boats
and the sea planes       setting off
and returning

These seaplanes seem as natural as migrating geese, their small circling replacing the seasonal cycles in a new rhythm entirely of our own making.

The poem “In europe” takes this reversal one step further:

a bird flock swarms
in folds & turns,
in geometric patterns
like a screen saver. 

Here Brown’s brilliant reverse metaphor, the “screen saver,” is afforded a priori status, yielding primacy to the simulacrum, the signified pointing backwards, bemused, toward the sign. Even as Brown takes pleasure in this reversal, the poem is asking how we can stop the war and ecological disaster when the culture has lost its connection to the real, to any natural point of reference. In the poem “Darkenings” Brown sketches a scene of going camping in which the natural darkness is non-normative, a disruption of the natural order of the light bulb: “you go on vacation / to an unmodified landscape, / towards a blackout / the cause impossible to source.” Yet, Brown remains an alert naturalist, and her urban spaces are deeply observed for those species that share in them:

                   it’s October so
the bogong moths
                           are back
and the koels  — the October
                      crack of dawn racket —
          are back again too,
mauve jacaranda petals
           are stuck
on the window screen wipers rubber

A large portion of True Thoughts takes place in Rome where Brown is living in residency. In another reversal she playfully positions this adventure as an exile from Australia, “remote, / yet, / in touch!” — far away, even as she resides in the center of the old empire, a wonderful irony, and again a profound subjectivity, to be exiled to the center! Despite Europe’s eccentric pleasures, one gets the sense that Brown would rather be back home. All that remains in “No action” is to “join a group to / combat complacency.”

Brown’s sophisticated wit and honesty resist easy lyricism, yet there are several places in the book where Brown artfully navigates between quotidian and lyric spaces, as in the poem “Lab face” where the soul finds its footing in the food court:

heavenly shades  of night
      are falling          it’s twilight time,
  thinking outside the tick box
                 on the last day of the past,
         to ready my selves
                   for an inurement of toil
I’m sauntering over
                     to a cheap eats turn
      at the food court,

The plural “selves” reinforces the book’s collage effect, as if identity is at best a momentary phenomenon, the self moving among selves as temporary frames, as the mind fills and empties of sensory experience, of memory and cognition. From there the poem swings into the elegiac, yet at once we recognize this has been a tone present all along, the struggle against helplessness and inertia felt throughout are merely the precursors to mortality:

but later, tonight, 
  knowing this is the last century
       of which I’ll partake,
             (my lassitude,
                  my dis-belief, and
           mon dieu, my grief)
     I’ll lie on the laboratory couch
(I’m looking forward to it too)

We might hear the distant sound of Prufrock’s “I grow old … I grow old … / I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled,” yet Brown’s self-elegy is undecorated and entirely convincing, as here: “my eyes ringed / and sagging, / like a beagle’s eyes.” A more apt comparison can be made to Woolf’s Dalloway, as Pam Brown is a Flaneuse, a wanderer through urban and intellectual spaces of which she is a product — a flaneusing of mind, of which we partake intimately. Her inquiries range widely from public to private, through humor, irony, outrage, and surrender, asking, “how shall we live?” and (dare I say it) “how can we be happy?” — yet it’s this elegiac tone that leaves the most lasting impression, a paradox of revelation and helplessness — as in, “I know how to fix everything / but, / obstinate in my resolve, / withdraw.” This self-awareness proposes a terrible irony which blurs the boundary between a politics of resistance and a mere personal exhaustion, a space in which many of us middle class (or culture class) progressives find ourselves. For this reader, Brown’s inquiry and her art are entirely satisfying and necessary.

The gestural lyric and beyond

A review of Amy King's "I Want to Make You Safe"

I Want to Make You Safe

I Want to Make You Safe

Amy King

Litmus Press 2011, 87 pages, $15, ISBN 0781933959238

Amy King’s poems are written from a place without an overview. The opposite of Olympian, this poetry is down here with the rest of us, mired in the details, some of which may be tedious while others astonish — a poetry just trying to keep its head in the air, mainly for survival’s sake. Sometimes those details come in lists, like this one from “The Strange Power of Lying to Yourself”:

I don’t know. A bunch of things. The mail, a bi-racial couple,

songs about a boyfriend who doesn’t understand, Thai people

gathered, mostly transsexual, sushi for the masses, bacterial

moments of half-crazed drunk when no one touches

your bag or wallet across the bar, a lovely candle refusing

to flicker, one wind, one shirt, one sky teeters

fireflies asleep between paperbacks,

their names that SOS me,

a painter’s bird red as plumes,

a bodily silence in dead-layered flesh,

and a hole, among other things, as I am a learning actress. (18)

This breakup of lived experience into a scatter of oddly vivid yet disconnected fragments — registered with greater or lesser accuracy by a good deal of contemporary poetry, but rarely with quite the conviction that King brings to it — may have something to do with what Fredric Jameson famously diagnosed as one of the symptoms of postmodernity, namely that “waning of affect” whereby the supposedly stable bourgeois self has devolved into a congeries of depthless intensities. In retrospect, though, Jameson’s periodization (and therefore his whole argument) seems less than convincing. After all, this rejection of full-bodied representation in favor of a direct rendering of sensations was already the intention of modernist abstraction in painting; in 1947, for instance, Clement Greenberg had seen in Jackson Pollock’s art “an attempt to cope with urban life; it dwells entirely in the lonely jungle of immediate sensations, impulses and notions, therefore is positivist, concrete.” And of course Pollock was just going further along the path the Impressionists had already started on more than seventy years earlier, not long before Rimbaud’s Illuminations showed that something similar was possible in poetry. Today King, like many of the rest of us, is still trying to cope with urban life; and Greenberg’s astute turn of thought, in which what might have been thought utterly private and subjective (“immediate sensations, impulses and notions”) turns out to be what’s most evident and “concrete,” is just as applicable to her poetry as to Pollock’s paintings. King’s poetry is full of emotional content, sometimes harsh, often poignant — and for that matter consists of almost nothing but that — yet it never demands that you feel along with it. Instead, the feelings brush lightly across your skin like a passing cat.

When I read King’s first full-length book, Antidotes for an Alibi, in 2005, I noticed a series of basic words that recurred through the book — woman, love, God, sex, mother, child, man — and that seemed to structure its emotional plot. In I Want to Make You Safe, by contrast, such recurrent words don’t make themselves felt; they’re probably still there but more subtly. Yet the emotional tenor of her verse remains evident and I can’t help suspecting that words like love (the book’s final word), death, art, earth, and body occur more often in I Want to Make You Safe than in most of the new poetry that comes my way; even in those poems where such words don’t occur, they somehow seem to be lurking somewhere in the background. The puzzle is how King manages to square her work’s emotional openness with its semantic obliquity. I don’t think it’s entirely a matter of technique. It’s more an awareness that words were not born to be filed away in dictionaries and retrieved at leisure, but to lie heaped up around us waiting to be scooped up by the handful in the spontaneity of a linguistic gesture that can make do with whatever verbal objects come to hand. Thus a certain degree of arbitrariness or at least approximateness is not simply acceptable but absolutely essential to her writing — otherwise, the calculation of the gesture would cancel out its import.

There’s a paradox here: to make her poems work, King must be accurate in her arbitrariness, precise in her approximations. And she almost always is. It may be hard to specify why — but it becomes clearer in contrast to the relatively rare instances where things go awry and one senses the poet making a mannerism of her own method. One poem where this happens is “Our Eyes Register the Light of Dead Stars,” which overuses the device of combining a noun and adjective (or adjectival phrase) catachrestically: in short order we find “a glassy sun,” “the stewing universe,” and “our glassy brow,” followed by “That devil’s tuxedo promise,” “piano fire cures,” and “soft-focus silt” (20). As Kasey Mohammad pointed a number of years ago, “it is very unlikely that two different people will ever have exactly the same sense of when catachrestic language produces a dynamic poetic effect, and when it simply produces uninteresting noise,” but in this case I’d suggest that the quick succession of similarly structured catachrestic phrases gives off a clangor that diminishes one’s interest in the poem to the extent that it feels too mechanical (but on the other hand, if it were a mechanical effect that was desired, not mechanical enough); this diminishes rather than accentuates what is always the real content of King’s poetry, which is the concrete world of our everyday lives with its unfiltered sensations and sudden shifting microemotions.

Given that King is in this sense a poet of the concrete, of “sensations, impulses and notions,” it is not surprising that hers is a lyric poetry through and through. At a time when the lyric is widely denigrated and often practiced in a defensive mode if at all, her insouciant confidence that it will serve any end is heartening. Typical of the lyric, her poems are compact: mostly self-contained structures of a single page or at most two. But I Want to Make You Safe brings something new to King’s work: a pair of longer poems (the title poem and the final one, “This Opera of Peace”), allowing her lyrical impulse greater range. For a poet like King, whose subject matter by definition resists extension, the poem is most easily drawn out by dint of juxtaposition. After all, the shorter poems are already built out of juxtapositions, so the difference between a long poem (or, rather, long-ish: we’re talking about poems of eleven and thirteen pages here) and a long one is more about the decision to cut than anything else. The important thing is maintaining concentration — first the poet’s own, then the reader’s. In parts of “This Opera of Peace” King seems to be experimenting (very successfully) with the way more elaborate syntactical structures — the poem’s first section alone is twenty-seven lines long — can be used to maintain attentiveness through time while asserting a multiplicity of sensations in relation rather than simple juxtaposition, so that

This opera of peace

whirls and whorls around us

stretching darkness into light (75)

I’d love to see King continue “stretching” like this. The poetics that she’s been working with over the past decade seem ready to morph into a different sort, perhaps even stranger and more exigent. The prospect is electrifying.