Friday, April 9, 2010

TRUE THOUGHTS — Pam Brown, Salt Publishing, 2008
Reviewed by Ken Bolton in Southerly magazine, March 2010.

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 humor 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. Fifty-Fifty 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 Fifty-Fifty, 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
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’—
where is that?

A moment later the poem has—

the kitchen man
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.

Fifty-Fifty, 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,
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.

Carl Harrison-Ford launches True Thoughts
at Hat Hill Gallery, 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.