Friday, March 14, 2014

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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