Sunday, April 6, 2014

Pam Brown Authentic Local (SOI3 Modern Poets, 2010)

very slightly edited extract from a club sandwich review
by Les Wicks in Famous Reporter #42 , February, 2011


Late last year Pam Brown started a bushfire with her blog the deletions. She questioned the uncritical acclamation of what some claim is a "new Australian lyricism". Over the course of the weeks that followed we were treated to a rich discourse of wildly differing views often focusing on lazy reviewing, inherent conflicts of interest (particularly amongst academics and those who study with them), gender in the 21st century, the effect of campus based writing courses and where writers stand within the spectrum of the various camps. Many raised the point that most of us have a voice that has elements of the Lyric, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E etc. Ours is a "mongrel" inheritance, we are free to pick whatever rags and ribbons that we like. Other disciplines are beginning to formally study intuition and I think this is the rudder to so much good poetry coming out now irrespective of the poet’s chosen platform. That combined with veracity; maybe even ferocity sees a vital, engaged and engaging book.

Reading Pam Brown's latest book Authentic Local is a kind of market experience; we're almost guided to that analogy with several references to shopping within the book. The reader wanders the aisles/laneways of the poems, picks treasures that personally resonate whilst wandering past other explorations with barely a nod. However, I'm almost sure the next along at that stall will pick up something quite different. This is a catalogue of concepts and experience.

The poet's voice, for so many decades so masterful, continues to enrich and astonish the reader through its deft use of deceptively simple language successively put up then burnt away by the incandescent.


in a gadda da vida
and other stormy music

*

a million droplets,
influenza
                                                                  Dry Tropics

a semi-droop enfolds
	the golden lens
of the globe
	in a halogen headlight
	caressing a shining
		chromium bullbar
                                                                          Thanks

Authentic Localhas much commentary on the quotidian, but is full of marvellous surprises. In 'Polka Squares' a film on climate change is described as "a snuff doco". Brown asserts
     I want to come back as
      a false witness
                                         Self-Denial Never Lasts Long

At her mention of having had 36 addresses, I found myself counting my own (24), this is a classic example of Brown’s deft explorations across language, enticing us into reflection and recollection.


	randomised,	double blinded
	dose and duration,
			pin drip red

	it worked
                            for the rat
                                                                     Pin Drip Red
Age, health and loss are all explored with a mix of white-light objectivity and vulnerability. She has a remarkable sense of play on various poetic styles.

A personal favourite is the final poem in the book: elegant, privately public, universal. She offers:
     knowing nothing,
     the true thoughts
     of an amateur thinker

     unconcerned
     with identity
     this is all
     I have to work with
                                         Alibis




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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

poetry today: position and process : a montage


I am going to present a montage. I'm going to read it. In this montage of a selection of quotations everything will probably sound like an 'aside'.  But as you know, a lot of things can happen in an 'aside'. Poetry now belongs to a subculture. It is no longer part of the mainstream of intellectual life, it has become the specialised occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. (Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter, The Atlantic 1991)...isolated from a larger engagement with society, 'with a lack of connection to the reader' and readings attended only [mainly] 'by other aspiring poets'. 'It's an unsustainable system. Even the most niche of niche artforms has a- [public] audience. Not so with contemporary poetry'. (Daniel Nester, The Morning News, Sept 2009/June 2010) Sometimes it seems as if there isn't a poem written in this nation [country] that isn't subsidised or underwritten by a grant either from a foundation or the government or a teaching salary or a fellowship of one kind or another. (Joseph Epstein, Commentary Magazine, web 2011)...the questions of relevance, of audience, of efficacy, will always haunt us. (Susan Schultz, A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry 2005) One of Malcolm McLaren’s art teachers told him : “We will all be failures. But at least be a magnificent, noble failure. Anyone can be a benign success”  not sure about magnificent and noble there, it was Britain in the 70s!  But we could all name dozens, maybe hundreds of “benign successes” and everyone knows what Samuel Beckett said : Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Only what does not fit into this world is true. (Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory)“…I feel whatever I say will be inadequate to articulate the hours we spend in a condition of poetry, or I find it difficult tonight to separate myself from my work and my work with the world. It is an unruly drama of desire and its depiction. A shape, or a sound, a sentence to compose what is and what isn’t. A circulation that travels an ellipse; sometimes it wobbles and then breaks and from that a poem will begin to take form. A figure announcing itself beside itself. It needn’t be fancy: not unlike a dog barking at its shadow, confusing its own sound as the other’s. Or a solitaire in front of the television speaking back to it out of habit. A mother singing in the nursery. A stoner at the light talking to himself with the radio blasting ‘it’s like this and like that and like this and a.’ I balk at description. It fails me just now. I question even this rhetoric.”(Peter Gizzi, from “An Open Letter of Poetics to Steve Farmer") Novelty is now so thoroughly established as an aesthetic virtue that "innovative," "experimental," "fresh," "original," and the like are all terms of praise. It was not ever thus: in the eighteenth century Lord Shaftesbury could write about beauty as a timeless, natural harmony, and condemn innovations in the arts such as orientalism or the gothic with the epithet 'novel'. Even as late as the romantic period (late C18th early C19th), when the concept of originality or novelty was gaining philosophical ground, it could still be looked upon with suspicion...much of the suspicion had to do with whether the new kind of art would be of lasting interest. In fact, this sense of the moment-bound nature of the interesting has continued down to our own time, although without the accompanying suspicion. (Robert Archambeau, Harriet blog August 2013)And here's a plug for the Elizabethans (the golden age of the late sixteenth century) :...the journalistic critical cliché about a young poet is to say that [these days] “[s]he has found his her own voice,” the emphasis being on his [her]differentness, on the uniqueness of his [her] voice, on the fact that he [she] sounds like nobody else. But the Elizabethans at their best as well as their worst are always sounding like each other. They didn't search much after uniqueness of voice…. It would hardly have struck them that a style could be used for display of personality. (Thom Gunn,‘Nowadays’) the poet's discourse can be compared to the track of a charged particle through a cloud-chamber. An energised field of association and connotation, of overtones and undertones, of rebus and homophone, surround its motion and break from it in the context of collision...Multiplicity of meaning, 'enclosedness', are the rule rather than the exception ...Lexical resistance is the armature of meaning, guarding the poem from the necessary commonalities of prose. (George Steiner, 'On Difficulty')Poetry shows the ink the way out of the inkbottle  - (Charles Bernstein) the way out of the hard drive - (Pam Brown )
Poetry’s social function is not to express but rather to explore the possibilities for expression. Poetry is difficulty that stays difficult.(Hank Lazer via Pound/Williams)
Conservative anti-modernism continues and appeals to those who claim they can't understand the dislocation, post-subjective non-narratives in much contemporary verse, for the conservative complaint often refers back to a supposed golden age of the coherent, stable "I" of a writer who has straightforwardly true things to express. (Al Filreis, March 2013) So much depends on what you mean by failure, what you want from success, and what you imagine poems do. Insofar as a poem is successful, it fails to fail, but, in failing to fail, it also succeeds at failing. That's a lose-lose scenario (which in the alchemy of poetry we imagine as win-win). Poetry is to the classroom what a body is to a cemetery. If reading poetry is not directed to the goal of deciphering a fixed, graspable meaning, but rather encourages performing and responding to overlapping meanings, then difficulty is transformed from obstacle to opening. (Charles Bernstein - NO: A Journal of the Arts #6, 2007, and in Recalculating, 2013) Mallarmé says he uses “the same words that the bourgeoisie reads every morning” – in the newspaper – “exactly the same! But… if they happen to find them in this or that poem of mine, they no longer understand them.” (Roger Pearson) Poetry anthologies pile up by the side of the internet, rusty as a prayer belt while witches dance around them in army uniform.(Michael Farrell, An Australian Comedy) Now I'd like to quote myself  about poetic process, extracting a few short stanzas from a poem called 'Twitching': 

atoms of language

'her cinematic oeuvre'
     sounds like
    her breakfast

We appear to be reduced 
to apostrophe : the elegant
                       Gee Whiz

interstitial thinking -                                   
    everything's
                a particle
                ('Twitching' p31 Dear Deliria)


and this poem -

Retarded pretensions

        "They won't come through. Nothing comes through. The
death
          Of every poem in every line
         The argument con-
                                                 tinues."
        Jack Spicer

nothing more untoward
than monotony
has occurred

my process commences
without instruction,
with an artless question
"anyway, why communicate ?"

surrounded by scenery.
why don't those
migratory birds
leave here ?
is it such
a beauteous ecology ?

having landed in times
when the usual response
to beauty
is to buy it
or to try to
          win it,
I make my clunky gestures
towards
a build-a-bricks outlook
(construction, not architecture)

how do I do this thing
& appear not to ?    at least
never be seen doing it.

not writing
for any cause
& feeling
consequent guilt
about it.

(exactly
how well-motivated
are you?)

an epiphytic magnavox box
clings to a telegraph pole
beginning the link outwards

transitive and optimistic -     
flick that crow off the antenna !
head pell-mell
for the grammar !

               (p150   Dear Deliria (Salt Publishing, 2003)

Now to return to some quotes:

Referring to John Ashbery - "I think he demonstrates more what poetic thinking is. It’s both a jumble and coherent."(Alice Quinn New Yorker poetry editor 2013) And John Ashbery says : For better or worse, I do not think that writing changes things very much, if at all. For the most part, I think it leaves everything as it is. What does your poetry do - I guess it gives a kind of blue rinse to the language. At John Cage’s 1952 New Year’s Day concert put on by the Living Theater. Cage played “Music of Changes,” an atonal, rhythmless work for solo piano - “I was completely taken by surprise,” Mr. Ashbery said. “It was just arbitrary bangs on the piano over quite a long period of time. And long pauses. I had been in a drought with my writing. I felt I hadn’t written anything good in almost a year. It really gave me ideas about how to write poetry again.”
_____________________________________________________________________

A critic's question: What would I like about this poem if I liked it? (Peter Schjehldahl)
_____________________________________________________________________

A change:
Distraction and digression as process :-

Poetry '... that can be seen to demonstrate [a] dynamic process; it is both distracted, and attends to that distractedness. That is, it is able is to detach, drift off, and to simultaneously observe those operations as they occur. Distraction as a mode of thought and perception is consonant with the ‘process poem’. The emphasis ideally bringing out something of the texture, the individuality, of one’s own thinking, a kind of ‘hearing the gears change’. (Tim Wright on Distraction) Distraction ‘allowed me a way to find out what connections my mind did make.’ (Ken Bolton, 2011) Distraction and digression are... methods – as well perhaps, as ethical, democratizing stances - from which to write, and which enable a reader to chart the movement of thought. That a process poem contain – or live with - the contingent knowledges it admits is part of the poem’s contract, and, actually, part of its process. The connection between thought and affect or feeling is important.(Tim Wright on Ken Bolton) Digression has something like the form of bliss. Repetition of the theme is the very opposite of that. (Friedrich Schlegel, Literary Notebooks 1979-1801) Any digression enacts (although it may not intend) a criticism because, once one has digressed, the position from which one departed becomes available to a more dispassionate or ironic analysis: it must have been in some sense inadequate or one would not have moved away from it. The option in favour of digressiveness implies a general critique... critical of modes of authority (let's say kingship, or the power of the law, or academic authority) that depend on cultural conventions. (Ross Chambers, Loiterature) While poetry is, in theory, available to anyone, it is demonstrably not for everyone. (Ted Pearson) 

Ludwig Wittgenstein said 'Explanations come to an end somewhere'
_____________________________________________________________

Friday, March 21, 2014

Kerry Leves reviews True Thoughts

Click on the image to read the review :



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Astrid Lorange reviews Pam Brown, True Thoughts, Salt Publishing 2008


Vigilant under fluoro

    Half-real
    We blow the sentence pure and real
    Like chewing angels.
                           -- Jack Spicer, “Song for Bird and Myself”


At the Poetry and the Contemporary conference held in Melbourne this July [2011], Pam Brown inaugurated an evening of readings and book launches with a talk titled “The Complaints Department.” She spoke about a number of issues – from large-scale disputes and factional warfare to small, petty-gripes – that have been the topic of recent back-channelling and private conversations in and around Australian poetry and poetics. Brown, by airing the variously grotty flotsam, brought some of the chronic dysfunctions bifurcating and ailing ‘the poetry community’ out from gossipy corners and into an amplified, populated room. And then she claimed that poets do not, actually, belong to a ‘poetry community,’ but write in (and largely for) small coteries. This means that problems are not solvable by wholesale therapies, but require constant negotiation between different coteries and their eccentric, oddly-shaped umwelts. Poets often labour as reviewers, pedagogues, publishers, typesetters, designers, critics and editors in addition to writing poetry, and this simultaneity and feedbacking produces the orbit known as poetics as well as a fracas of jostling, rubbing and/or bickering coteries. Brown’s point seems to be that these coteries, when imagined together, don’t automatically suggest a community, nor does any one coterie necessary behave as a community. There are intimacies, alliances, attractions and antagonisms: these do not constitute a community. Brown’s insistence on coteries as the organising unit of poets is interesting, and no doubt objectionable to some. My point here is not to discuss her claim, but to begin by saying, by way of a disclaimer, that the very act of reviewing might support such a claim: a review is a critical attempt to locate and relocate the logics of a poet and their work according to associations, resemblances, equivalents and opposites. A review attempts a reading that suggests countless other readings, brings other texts to the conversation, looks for convergences at the smallest possible unit. A review does not affirm the stakes, territories or limits of coterie, but is a gestural reading-event that argues for the consideration of the conditions of the production of text: including, but not limited to, issues of coterie.

--
“Something that’s changed for me … is that I am now fully informed about the use of the first person in poetry and I’m bored to the back teeth with discussion about that. I have also tired of ‘the quotidian’ as both a descriptor and topic.” Pam Brown told Michael Brennan in a recent interview that she is no longer interested in discussions of I or the everyday, as far as her own poetry is concerned. As a reviewer, I am relieved by this, and out of respect for her gutful, I will not mention first persons or quotidians. Except to say: I is a funny little clusterfuck, and we all have everydays. (Like Gertrude Stein says about emotions, life is full of them!) And also to say: the irony of Brown’s claim to now being “fully informed” about the use of the first person in poetry is interesting. Or, wait, is it ironic? (This is the problem with irony, you suspect it’s hanging around, but it’s impossible to know what it’s doing, or why.) If Brown is being ironic, “fully informed” is a bit of a gag, since full knowledge of the ‘I’ must be an impossible claim. In this case, what she is fully informed about, and seriously bored by, is the conversation about the impossibility of ever being fully informed. Perhaps, in typical cunning Brownian form, this is a call for non-participation in the form of participation. Or, she’s not being ironic, and it’s a straight-up assertion: she’s well aware of the conversation, having been a participant, and now she’s withdrawing, because it’s dull territory. In this case, the claim to be “fully informed” is a closing remark. Either way, I support the right to leave the discussion. I’m right behind, you PB! I’m taking my little grubs for Is and I’m leaving this thread!

--
Reading True Thoughts led me all over the place. O’Hara, Koch and Schuyler. Spicer. Myles. Bolton. Forbes. Beckett. Benjamin. Little nuggets of Deleuze. I listened to Nick Cave and remembered Frenzal Rhomb. And O, the 2000s in Sydney! Sydney in panic about Bill Henson, Sydney threatening to bulldoze The Block, Sydney emptying out all its Video Ezys and Blockbusters. Sydney, touching itself from the water. Sydney on a train. Sydney cemeteries, now housing old friends. Sydney, full of screensavers, cables, glass and smack. Even when poems are “in” Hobart, Melbourne, Auckland, Rome, they’re still refreshing the SMH website, as though there might ever be something there to find. I wondered, along with Brown, whether I should carry my papers and books in a plastic sleeve, to combat the humidity. I wondered, along with Brown, whether there’ll ever be relief for Sydney from the rank banality of war considered distant, unreal and irrelevant, or from the festering lewdness of shock-jock pseudo-politicking.


		turrurrism
	
	war on turrurrism cramped
			by cost bungling

	cost cuts to vital weapons programs
		and border control demands

	war on turrurr setback 
                                                                       (“Amnesiac recoveries,” 8)

But these poems are not about Sydney, any more than they’re about books, trains, or wartime. Brown lives in Sydney, and this is not inherently meaningful. To be born somewhere, to live somewhere, these are curious things, curious because they could always have been anything else. It’s a unique fact, at the same time that it’s a very mundane one, like having a nationality: “it confounds me / to come from there, / to have, simply, / been born there” (“One day in Auckland,” 46). The Sydney of True Thoughts is an archive, and Brown is fossicking. And she’s always giving back to the archive: giving names, giving lip, giving grief.

there you are, 		back again,
	at the printer		as covert,
		reading the back of the recycled paper,
				cipher and sign,
vigilant under fluoro
	scrutinising discarded files of dissent –
		a single fist raised to the world
expressionist texta
	‘greetings from the resistance’
but nobody’s watching, 	just shadow,
					nobody’s thinking
	that you’re here	reading reports
on indiscriminate transmissions –
	avian flu, Hendra virus, lyssa virus –
insensible species’ leaps,
		no-bargains-pandemics,
no clues in the notes from darkening science 
                                                                    (“Darkenings,” 43)

--
Brown’s poems are populated with proper nouns. Some are surnames, like Stendhal or Nietzsche. Some are first names, like Ken, Eileen, Kurt or Sasha. Some are uncapitalised and smeared together, snap-toothed, like littlejohnnyhoward.


Hi Kurt,					hi John T,
	hi Nick, 	Paddy, 	hi Shakespeare,
		peel me a zibibbo
				would you,
	one of you guys? 
                                                                 (“Peel me a zibibbo,” 51)

Brown once said, in conversation with John Kinsella, that this ‘naming’ has two functions: to send the reader elsewhere, should they feel the tug of a particular reference; and as homage, a writing-in of friends, real and imagined. In both cases, for Brown, naming also lessens the shame of writing alone. If Brown is interested in poetry, it’s poetry that is produced from, and for, partial attention. Partial in the sense that it is not-whole (because attention does lots of things and finishes few), and partial in the sense that it is invested, oriented, and liable to make claims. Writing alone runs the risk of mollycoddling a poem as though it were a fragile one-off. Writing alongside others ensures that partial attentions find each other. To paraphrase Spicer, poems, like sea otters, don’t want to be alone any more than we do.

And maybe there’s another reason why Brown doesn’t write alone: because she can’t afford the solitude. This book is written between work, on the way to and from work. In fact, some of the more uncomfortable moments in True Thoughts come from poems that Brown wrote during a residency in Rome. These poems tend towards the vague, diffuse, agitated, amnesiac or glum. They ask lots of questions, and break at a jab. “urticaria ghosts / my once-pale forearms, / calcium scum smears the glass, / everywhere seems brutal, / historically, / from steam torture / (how is that done?) / to hanging” (12). The Rome-poems exhibit the oddness of professionalised poetry, in the same way that skin exhibits a case of hives. They hound for relief, lifting flakes from themselves.

--
“[I]n my idealised world, I would prefer classical anarchism,” Brown says to Kinsella. Anarchism emphasises the fact of incommensurable things co-existing. In the same interview with Kinsella, Brown offers a name for the mode of thought that shapes partial attentions into poems: on the qui vive. Not just ‘on the look out,’ but also ‘who’s side are you on?’ Brown’s poetry works to elaborate these partials into high-stake claims. If Brown’s into anarchism, it is of the methodological variety, like Feyerabend’s anarchistic science in Against Method. It calls for a specific kind of approach (to the construction of propositions, in Brown’s case, making a poem) that is properly prepared for any kind of unexpected outcome, by product, breakthrough or breakdown. This kind of approach makes poems like “No Action,” which begins with a humid day in Rome, and, via the armpittish bodily memory of humidity in Sydney, moves through a scrum of associations: French television, a biography of Beckett, a postcard’s image, satellites and dirigibles, Bill Henson’s photographs and rip-off CK undies. The poem ends with Brown reading about Beckett becoming active, “not fighting for ‘France’, / fighting for his friends’ liberty’ (19). An anarchic methodology for composing poems (with associational, rather than causal relations, and an emphasis on affiliation and encounter rather than familial structures and inheritance) speaks more broadly of an anarchic sociality. (I am reminded of John Cage’s call for a new compositional mode in A Year from Monday: “I’d like our activities to me more social – and anarchically so.”)

This is something like what Craig Dworkin theorises, via Louis Roudiez, as “paragrammatics” – a tactic for both reading and writing poetry that forms networks of signification otherwise unachievable by conventional habits of grammar-use and interpretation. True Thoughts is a collection of paragrammatic poems: Brown reads paragrammatically, composes paragrammatically, and arouses paragrammatic engagement.


			everything’s
	in the planning stages
		but I really should leach the gel
			that carries the signal
				from node to screen,
		add some figures
			to this year’s calculations,
		then add some lines
				to the homilies

			as follows

		Dear toddlers 		I loved the 80s
			(my true thoughts) 
                                                                                     (“Lab face,” 56)

--
Jack Spicer insists that poetry is written through the poet. The language comes from elsewhere, is alien, and the poet is a device for the transmission of this elsewhere-language. Like a radio, a poet transmits noise, sometimes from several channels at once. Poet-as-radio suits Brown, who often seems to be jiggling frequencies, somewhere between Radio National, triple j of the 90s and some top-40 loop, stuck on Cry Me A River.


	the tinnitis
		of traffic, industry,
	railway,    wakes me early
	to
		another red sun
	rising 		to backlight
	satellite dishes, phone towers,
		abstracted antennae —
	rooftop silhouettes 

	we do here
		what we do there
	except that here
		we do it in wrong décor

	on RAI2 tv
		the military does the weather.
	the next band does 
	  twenty-four hour no-stop 
			catholicism
	(if you need them) 
                                                                       (“Euro Heatwave,” 12-3)

These partial attentions, never quite making one statement, stack up, rabble for meaning, suckle the poems as parasites.

The poems of True Thoughts are arranged so that these partial attentions are typographically marked as distinct-from yet related-to each other. The marker is a kind of double-line tilde, and it occupies a line on its own, dividing and joining a poem into irregular poemlets. I like to read this typographical flourish as the mathematical sign for ‘almost-equal to,’ that wavy, dreamy equals sign: ~ It’s a marvellous symbol for its suggestions of approximation, resemblance, equivalence, difference and similitude. One way to read this book is to read each poemlet as an approximate equivalent of the previous.

--
In True Thoughts, the moon is visible behind a phone tower, and birds fly in screensaver patterns. Things are “microwave brown” (59) or “the colour of pharmaceuticals” (70). Flower petals are viewed through the windscreen of a car, and saplings are wrapped in tight plastic tubes. These are Brown’s anti-pastorals, forcing a reversal of association that privileges the immediate facts of being on the qui vive in a city. The reversals are not fetishy, or damning, nor are they particularly ironic or wry, as reviewers often say about these kinds of moments in Brown’s work. They, like Brown in a conversation, are direct, interested and against-bullshit. Living in a city, you’re more likely to know the particular mock-wood brown of a seventies-era microwave than the brown of a wild mushroom or peat bog or pheasant-breast. There’s no trick to this likelihood. True Thoughts resists bullshitting at many levels.

--
On this point, I will finish. Brown resists bullshitting, which can make it difficult to perform a close reading of an individual poem. For this reason, these poems do what the title claims: they are true thoughts. True in the sense that they are thoughts, and not representations of thoughts, or even thought-experiments. As such, like with any arrangement of thoughts – my own or someone else’s – there are some thoughts that get into my head and thrust me into serious action, and there are some that I can’t relate to, or else, reject by way of forgetting or misremembering. This affords me a certain kind of pleasure in reading, paragrammatically, her book. I move from one thought – one partial attention – to another, tugging other texts in as I go. As I finish this review I have a fat stack of books, a browser full of mid-90s music videos, the desire to read Beckett all day, a sour feeling for my thuggish, neo-con Sydney, and a set of things to think on further: like, how always to be reading and writing, more socially, and anarchically so. More socially might mean, working for and towards my coterie(s) and their discussion(s) about what the fuck is going on. More anarchically might mean, working away from official efforts to re-brand poetry as a cultural industry worth tapping.


(Thank you to Corey Wakeling and Tom Lee for their suggestions and contributions.)

References:
Pam Brown in conversation with John Kinsella, Jacket, 2003
Michael Brennan interviews Pam Brown, Poetry International Web, 2011
John Cage, A Year From Monday, Wesleyan University Press, 1998
Craig Dworkin, Reading the Illegible, Northwestern University Press, 2003
Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, New Left Press, 1975




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Friday, March 14, 2014

Ralph Wessman reviews 'True Thoughts' by Pam Brown, Salt Publishing, 2008
in Famous Reporter, No 40, December 2009


‘Counterculturalist’ seems as good a term as any to describe Australian poet Pam Brown whose lifetime of oppositional poetry and politics - the legacy that culminates in her latest collection True Thoughts (Salt Publishing, 2008) - points to a decidedly individualist nature, to one whose choice has been the road less travelled. True Thoughts is 72 pages in length, a hardback collection of twenty-three poems freewheeling through a landscape distinguished by wide-ranging cultural, political and philosophical references.

Pam Brown has been a practising poet since the early seventies, was for five years the poetry editor of Overland, and in latter years the associate editor of John Tranter’s Jacket. Such exposure guarantees she is well acquainted with the various trends of Australian poetry, ('I have read practically every poetry book recently published in Australia.': P. Brown, her blog 'the deletions', Oct 2009), with its factions and subcultures. Yet for Brown - deeply conversant with (but largely blasé about) the reductionism of labels - it’s mostly about the writing.


            
droning on is not
my way,
mine’s more a kind of
devolution
or maybe,
simply, to make art
through spaces,
without notes to myself –
none - myself to myself),
chasing the unknowable,
(from 'Death by droning')

Brown's writing – not only in this collection, but overall - is neither coercive nor shrill. The predominant approach is for the personal, observant, matter-of-fact; 'essayistic' is the term David McCooey uses in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, 2009 to describe her poetry. Innately political, Brown extends beyond advocacy to reveal a poet very comfortable both with her ouevre, and herself; intelligence and intensity are on parade but there’s little effort at salesmanship, the writing remains respectful and accepting of others’ points of view.


            
he says (in 1940) that he lives
‘fatalistically’
that politics is useless,
& talking politics, worse.
he’s right,
I drop my fervour.
[from the poem ‘No Action’, referring to Samuel B. Beckett]

Utilising the full width of the page and accompanying white spaces, Brown is in turn generous, astute, inventive, unaffected, ironic - does the uncapitalised reference to ‘littlejohnnyhoward’ suggest anything so much as ‘diminished’? It’s a poetry of the everyday, refusing to take itself too seriously yet characterised nonetheless by a je ne sais quoi perhaps appropriately termed integrity:


        
            
then Samuel B. Beckett
forwent
the apolitical and became active,
dangerously, in
the resistance &, later, in the maquis
against the Nazis.
not fighting for ‘France’,
fighting for his friends’ liberty.
a person
any artist or poet
could only hope
to be as
courageous as
or, at most, as definite

True Thoughts is a well-designed and handsome hardcover publication from Salt Publishing, a welcome new work from a poet whose last major collection, Dear Deliria, was awarded the NSW Premier’s Prize for Poetry (2004).

Pam Brown : True Thoughts. Salt Publishing 2008. ISBN 978 1 84471 427 8


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Carl Harrison-Ford launches True Thoughts
at Hat Hill Gallery, Blackheath NSW, 20th September 2008


I read this book on generous PDF printouts; Pam Brown for the visually impaired.

I’d like to thank Pam for asking me to say something at the off-Broadway launch of True Thoughts. There will be a bigger launch in Sydney later in the year, doubtless with heavier hitters, but as someone who hasn’t had much to say or write about poetry for some time, not formally, I am delighted to make a few brief observations on why I enjoy this book so much. I’m delighted, and the book is delightful … though I suspect ‘delight’ is a word used more often these days to describe poetry that is more anodyne than Pam’s. But one of Pam’s great skills is the ability to be delightful and demanding at the same time. And roundabout and direct. I’m not always on her wavelength, aesthetically, but with most of Pam’s poetry I get static-free reception. More accurately, I feel great affinity for the way Pam negotiates the static of our everyday life, on the small scale and the big scale — and for this book the big scale events include a war — and finds the language to capture mood or an emotion … to assemble some ‘true thoughts’. I think this is different from what people say when they talk about a poem or a song capturing lightning in a bottle. She wants to capture something, but not in a bottle, just in the essence or on the wing. Sometimes it seems that what she captures is a mood shift, and the shift is more important for this reader — or as important — as the points between which the shift took place. This has some relationship with what some cap-T Theorists call ‘slippage’ [mention John Kinsella interview], but for me that association has negative implications — the Freudian slip (cliché!), the error (a slip-up), a falling-out with a cultural norm (too complex for an aside here), or worse still … the result of a lack of balance. But what I’ve enjoyed so much reading these poems over the last few days is how loose-limbed many of these poems are, making full use of the space available on the page, and the sure-footedness. These poems are nimble negotiations, precise and resonant.

In ‘Amnesiac recoveries’, which I like as much as any poem in the collection, Pam notes that ‘shouting for trust’s / like demonstrating for peace’ but she prepares to demonstrate anyway, against war, though the poem is set before the Second Gulf War, then ends the poem with a rally not a demonstration: ‘we rally for peace / we play with the kids / the armada heads off for war’. It’s a sad ending, almost resigned but not quite, in a poem that’s as far from sad as it is from being triumphant. I like the poem for its capture, for the process of capture. It’s got recovery in the title — ‘Amnesiac recoveries’ — and a rally at the end. And of course a rally is a form of recapture: ask any stockbroker. I was going to say ‘ask you stockbroker’ but I doubt that many of us here this afternoon have one, want one or need one.

I hope I’ve got this right — not the bit about the stockbroker but the bit about capture and the process of capture. Many of the poems are for me about the nature of thought and the process of thought as they are about the thought itself, or its content. [Am I repeating myself here? Largely. Hope I don’t again] At times the main concern seems to be the flickering lights of association that might attach to a word, then change as the word remains the same. Though like most mainstream editors, I am wary of authors putting too many words in quotes, Pam does so brilliantly and usually wittily. To give one example, in ‘Amnesiac recoveries’ when she writes ‘not what you remember, not like that, vague, shadowy, / even “dim”’, it seems to me that putting ‘dim’ in quotes helps capture a shift in associations relating to the word, even as it is spoken, mid-stream as it were … from dim as in distant to dim as in not so bright. The trouble with saying it like this is such skill, and it is everywhere through this book, loses its lightness and loses its ease when it is scrutinized. Sometimes when I try to talk about what I like in poetry these days I feel as if I am explaining a joke. Worse still, as if I am explaining a joke to someone who has already got it! This is to do a disservice to the quicksilver quality of Pam’s poetry, to the ease with which she can play with a perception — e.g., regret in ‘No action’ that she cannot return to Australia to join some fight against the Howard Government, and then write ‘but here I am / for half a year, / (only five months to go)’. The ‘only’ here is brilliant. The nuances are beautiful in a poem that is unambiguous, even about its ambiguities.

But as well as these quicksilver strengths there are what I might perhaps call slowsilver ones as well. Take ‘Train train’ for instance, which is set on a train trip from the Upper Mountains to Sydney and chocka with detail that is as resonant as it is one-off — the noises, the silences, strangely self-conscious sound of suitcase wheels at Central, ‘the hillsides dotted with / green plastic-encased saplings’ seen ‘through the window / stained with the gels / of drowsy workers’, the four Italians who get on at Wentworth Falls and begin praying out loud (‘a woman leads, the others chorus / Santa Maria something something Dia’. The details are not Blue Mountains specific in any resonant way, though ‘Train train’ is a deeply resonant poem. And the ‘something something’ in the recollection of the chorus lends a wonderful, merely feathery touch of authenticity. [Cf ‘creative writing’ approach to ‘authenticity’, which would be mine in circs other than this] But a different trip would have led to different events, perceptions. A reader who had never been to Australia is not necessarily at any disadvantage. It probably helps to be able to associate the poem, via its title, with the song ‘Mystery Train’, but I wouldn’t want to stretch that too far either. Invoke the Junior Parker version and I might be seen to be confusing Pam with Ken Bolton; invoke The Band’s version and Laurie Duggan suddenly appears; Pam’s part of a cohort who know their rhythm ’n’ blues. But what this poem is more than anything else is a ‘mind at work’ poem, working as the mind must — surely — off information. And I say ‘surely’ in two sense of that word … as in ‘I hope so’ and as in Pam is, I repeat, sure footed though to the poems’ beautiful ending:

    if and if only
      if and only if
    that’s my track

The track can mean a number of things by now, all the way up to and including those associated with the idea as life as a journey. A good way to finish the book, as these lines do.

Having isolated a poem or two I now wonder if I should have been more general, for there is a lot to say about the book’s range. The poems are political, they are domestic, they are about travel — ‘“true thoughts” from abroad’ and, in ‘In europe’, ‘“true thoughts” for abroad’, but meditative travel pieces rather than decorative. The lightness of touch is often downright unfair, and I’ll return to an instance. How can one hope to end a poem ‘“frenzal rhomb! / what kind if a name [for a band] is that?”, / just doesn’t work’? Well, it’s the end of a poem called ‘Death by droning’ that in its own way answers its final, apparently slight, question in advance. In the middle of the brief poem Pam notes ‘droning is not / my way’, ironically in a few lines that have a drone to them, says her way is ‘to make art / through spaces / without notes to myself’. For all her seriousness I can invoke one of the most overrated poems of the last century when I say of Pam, she’s not droning, waving.
    At which point, it’s with great pleasure I declare the book open. May it do well and bring pleasure to all who sail through it.

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TRUE THOUGHTS—Pam Brown, Salt Publishing, 2008 Review Ken Bolton

Beginning is the hardest part—so I’ll let another critic make the initial hard yards. Here is Lyn McCredden on Pam Brown.— “There they are, those devastatingly onion-like little poems, with furled skins and layers, offering up biting street-scapes and cafes, half-remembered far-away places, distant friends … lost, ordinary cities; that deceptive, seemingly autobiographical voice cruising between wit, boredom, disillusion, nostalgia, paranoia, irony. Always irony.”

To this listing of characteristics one would add “humour” as a central element in Brown’s writing and thinking. Ever-present, I think, it hovers at the ready when it is not in fact driving the poem. (Having said that, I realise that most of these poems are driven, each within its own compass, by a succession of ‘engines of response’, not usually by any one humour or take. Probably none of these poems is jokey all the way through, or philosophical, critical or elegiac either.) But the latency in them, of humour, is a large part of the poems’ lightness and feeling of mutability.

Of McCredden’s list I would argue against “little”. McCredden’s description likely pertains to earlier of Brown’s books. '50-50' may have had more small poems, but not 'True Thoughts'. That said, if one considers the Pam Brown back-list, there is plenty of continuity between one book and the next. Every now and then a distinct rupture or watershed occurs in Brown’s work and the style changes noticeably. 'This World, This Place.', for example, might have been the final consolidation of Brown’s early 80s manner. With '50-50', her next collection, the style became leaner and somehow tougher—the thinking, too, took a sharper, more incisive tack. The same manner has continued since, but with developments that might mean, now, change in the offing—might in fact be seen as change, as our perspective on her work is properly drawn.

For some time Brown’s poems have had their connective tissue, so to speak, much reduced: there is not any padding and the segue or bridging between parts is minimal or non-existent. We experience these poems, typically, as a sequence of mini vignettes, a succession of details, observations and nostrums. The connections between the segments that make up the poem seem, though, 'true' rather than tenuous, true though hard to name. The sequence is unforced and is true in each poem to a genuine pattern—of association, of experience, of thought—so that they are not hard to follow. Except possibly for the nervous reader who must ask always, How did we get here?

What usually is going on is a testing—of opinion, ideas-held, ideas-available (generally from the sharp end of Western modernist tradition), against the poem’s posited fragments of experience or really. These things—formulae, propositions—are shown to be on the money but somehow not adequate (shown not to provide plenitude at any rate), though they are often all we’ve got. What is found wanting is contemporary spin. Brown is a poet of consciousness, of ideology tested, examined, probed, and of change.

Tiny registers of the fall of civilization—hair-line fractures—are observed. The instances of false consciousness with which these cracks are bandaged-over are all observed—sometimes by seeming chance. The pillorying, the eviscerations in 'True Thoughts' seem to be much less the point than in previous Brown volumes: they occur, but the poet now seems less interested in trumping falsehood than in noting how she feels in the light of this clarity, or in mapping how that feeling is revealed by the pattern the observations make. This is how the poem ‘Existence’ begins—


from here on in
if I follow
the girl in the
        ‘your tv
         hates you’
sweatshirt        as her motorcyclist
warms his darkly bubbling engine
ready to blur
into a field of speed,
it’s probably 
one less path 
to torpor 
               for me

        *

a dishwasher whirrs above me
a slab separates us   —    water restrictions
                                          mean nothing
war
is
imminent,
Sydney goes sailing

        *

a thousand people
are surveyed—
how many vehicles on this freeway
that traverses the sprawl
around the swamp
we want to conserve  


        *

under a nasty sky,
rhetorical uncertainty 
dogs me

        *

the 326 
is never on time.
the bus interchange
              uses up
evening’s best hours

        *

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 at the sea planes       setting off
and returning

        *

his email began
‘I thought of you
while I was
driving to Blockbuster
last night’—
now, 
where is that?

A moment later the poem has—

the kitchen man
agrees
it’s all about oil

        *

a sandwich board
outside Rose Bay Afloat
advertises the sunset bar—
‘relaxed atmosphere
and tunes’

Note the different worlds each small picture conjures: contemporary excitement and anomie (the girl on the motorbike, her T-shirt’s diagnosis) with its implied urban street and traffic; next the private prison of an apartment, of concrete, the neighbour’s noise (a washing machine whirr) penetrating. Note the move from private to global worry—about war and water—though entertained here by the individual, and then Sydney’s collective individual response: go sailing (giving, as well as sarcasm, the travel-poster image and space of the harbour)!

There follows some clouded Sydney sky, some time awaiting the 326 bus (and a complaint which conjures a series of such evenings—“the bus interchange / uses up / evening’s best hours”); then the strange and bleakly pretty urban landscape of an afternoon spent waiting in a car near the water, idly watching seaplanes. Next the mental space of memory: someone’s cited Blockbuster trip—not the poet’s, another’s. (This last, interestingly, has someone offering a sketched experience-and-memory—to the poet—just as her poem is doing to us: a slightly en abyme effect.)

These mini vignettes diminish and swell out again, morphing from private, constrained, to wide-horizon shots, from philosophical unease, to shorthand exchanges between people, interior to exterior to interior, private thought to casual exchange, the casual exchange of “the kitchen man/agrees/it’s all about oil”. The last quoted, like the first with the T-shirt, seems to me at home in any of Brown’s poems of the last decade: it’s all about oil, as does the Sunset Bar, its “relaxed atmosphere / and tunes” so inert, inept, and perfectly indicating music aimed at pleasing no one in particular: the promise of generic ease, generic food, generic ‘atmosphere’. Are the tunes relaxed, or are they just tunes?

Formally—that is, apart from the interest and intuitive ‘logic’ of this sequence of scenes or segments—what I notice is the alternation of space and perspective and kind, from one segment to the next, a kind of constriction and release as the poem moves from inner to outer and back again, from personal to public, shared to private, present to memory, and so on.

'50-50', and Brown’s next collection, 'Text thing', encountered the world as ideologically coded. They did other things, got other work done, but a vicious deconstructive eye was at work in those books. It made them exhilarating and also rather testing, bracing. This consciousness, latent like the humour, is on hand in True Thoughts, too, fleshing out, colouring the images, but it is, here, only a part of the poet—available, along-for-the-ride—offering commentary but not holding the reins. A different attitude and its agenda are running these poems. A little more than hitherto the poems here follow a track of thought and do so to gauge feeling.

Accident, distraction, digression, are allowed intervene, are, in fact, the staging posts of the poems’ journeys or trajectories. This is what 'True Thoughts' shares with immediately preceding phases in the poet’s work. (Brown is brilliant at this tracing of logic, thought, intuition, which rarely needs to be stated.) A part of her oeuvre’s shared manner is the pared, spare, unrhetorical language, cool, uninflated, yet dexterous where it needs to be, able to register change in attention.


Another poem has this scene early in its progress:—

in the block next to mine
               a gang of workmen
is hurling the walls
                  and the tea break
                  and the lunch
                               out the windows,
bricks and door frames
         plastic forks and curry packs,
                       like storm debris,
hurtling
      like      broken twigs
                        across the car park

It is a great image: so disturbingly callous is the action described, that it shocks. Some of the initial shock is in the grammar, which, for a moment, feels wrong: “a gang of workmen / is hurling the walls”. Contemporary usage would allow “are” in place of the more correct “is”. The plural “walls” sounds too much. Hurling a single wall would be a lot, hurling plural walls is a bigger task. “(A)nd the tea break / and the lunch” sounds horrible partly because it is a shift in categories, from building material to foodstuffs, perishables. It produces a kind of shudder in the reader. It is also a matter of the repeated "and"s, connectives onto which the line throws its weight. But it is ‘the shock of the new’, or of the contemporary: we see the plastic forks, the silvered and cardboard food trays, the rice; we see the pile of rubble of which they become part. (Everything must go! All that is solid melts into air. Etcetera.)

The poem — whose title is a quote attributed to Daniel Thomas, ‘Today there is much more heritage than there used to be’— is addressed to a friend and begins by noting that ‘we’ live in old housing built between the wars, houses that now are sought after (that are “sought-after charm emblems”, in the words of the poem). So “mine”, in the next line, “in the block next to mine”, has some of that meaning: the block next to mine, next to my block, sure. But also, it is the block next to my ‘charm-emblem’. This sets up the destruction that follows to register still more as shock, or affront.

The next two sections of the poem remember, and re-envisage, the addressed dedicatee (writer Sal Brereton)’s view of the harbour, from her rent-protected charm-emblem. It is the naval end of the harbour, though, and a ship is returning with some pomp from the Persian Gulf—so the current wars, and the tensions within the post-New World Order of the second Bush enter in.

The poem moves next—taking ‘night’ and ‘harbour view’ with it—to television and cooking, and home cooking in the light of tv’s own ideas of, and shows dealing in, high order ‘cuisine’. (Is your meal “cuisine”, or just adequate—if tasty—food?)

It is a poem about making do, reconciliation to the given (the ‘charity of the hard moments’?). So, there is this accommodation, of one’s own ideas of nice meals and the media’s more exulted, or ‘racy’ at least, ideas on same. Yes, one could do these things, if one paid more attention—but who can? is the poem’s attitude. If one had studied, like the nurse, say—and an image of Brereton’s ongoing health regime is offered. One could, if one had studied ”like I know the little nurse / who taps your vein / and caresses your scar / has studied”.

It is a token of understanding and empathy on the poet’s part, of intimacy even—though the image had begun, I expect, as an illustration, merely, of ‘study’. But not study of the tv-recommended accomplishments of life: essential, work-related study. Begun out of this need of the poem’s argument, the weight of the image of course becomes the personal, empathetic essaying of imagination: and while Brereton, it is imagined, is “stretching out / the hospital days”, Brown tells her that she herself is waxing the coloured tiles of her own bathroom floor—flooring that ‘resembles’ heritage, that is “as near as we’ll get” to heritage. (Pace Daniel Thomas.)

The poems in 'True Thoughts' relate to each other—link and affiliate—in much the same way as the parts within Pam Brown’s poems do. 'True Thoughts' is an emotionally cohesive book. Each poem notes, and critiques, takes its own pulse, works out how to live, how to cope—at any rate, how to respond. The answer seems, increasingly—perhaps as the poet has aged—to detach a little, to avoid commitment to failure, and to observe. There is a lot of lying down, small rests, boredom defeated—but also, to a degree, a withdrawal from the game, beyond maintaining solidarity with others’ humanity, and a choosing of causes. There are of course flashes of anger—and there is humour throughout, as I have said—but not so much the humour of joke-making but such humour as stems from the irony that perspective makes available. Brown can be ironic about humour, too, about the need for it: the reflex resort to it is observed as a tic, neither admirable nor not.

‘Peel me a zibibbo’ is a more relaxed poem and slightly more expansive in style (the language bears less pressure of meaning, is less interrogated). It begins with a, perhaps desultory, taking stock—and with images of weather (heat, moths, jacaranda petals “stuck / on the windscreen wipers”). It is another poem of segments. The end of the poem’s sequence are segments in which various (male) friends impinge upon Brown's consciousness. Demandingly? disruptively? distractingly? The first is simply quoted, unacknowledged—“awake & refreshed / tho with nothing on the page”—and without comment. Next “John T phones / this cloudy gloomy / early summer day / is ‘like the fifties’ he says. / every day? / miserable childhood? / photographic weather memory / a la recherche du temps inclément” (the poet wonders). Next Brown reports on reading about “the sweet potato farmers / of Osaka / living such long lives”—to be interrupted again:


when Kurt called in with his new book
                               Hyper Taiwan
        Taiwan   —   it’s  ‘sweet potato island’

hi Kurt,                                   hi John T,
      hi Nick,   Paddy,          hi Shakespeare,
                peel me a zibibbo
                                        would you,
     one of you guys?

What a great ending, and shift of mood. “Peel me a grape, Beulah” is the riff invoked and alluded to. Amused by these guys, Brown smiles and addresses them, from her now relaxed frame of mind.

As I have said, the centre of the poems is an emotional stock-taking in the face of the judgements, bets, and bets hedged, that the poems make. In the light of bets made in the poet’s past, too. If it were the bets and judgements themselves the book would be harder and more cutting—as Brown’s poems have been in the past and for most of the last decade. This mode is still available to them, but is only one among the many modes or registers these poems adopt or pass through, part of their armory. Thinking is what the poems do—and hence the title—though it is what Pam Brown’s poems have consistently done. “Autobiographical” then? Yes, but only incidentally. There is data here that is probably autobiographical. We assume it is. But autobiography is not Brown’s business. This is true thought.

What more to say? The book looks beautiful, one of the nicest looking books of Australian poems around at the moment. Well done, to Salt, the publishers.

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