Friday, March 21, 2014

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

Vigilant under fluoro

    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.

	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 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.

	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
		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 
	(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.)

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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