Friday, March 14, 2014

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
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.

'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,
      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.

Return to Reviews or the deletions or Pam Brown site