Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Anna Gibbs launches Home by Dark
at Parkview Hotel, Alexandria, Sydney 28th April 2013

I’ve always been a huge fan of Pam Brown’s special mix: ‘country and eastern’ with its ‘automatic sad’, the ‘true thoughts’ that come with being ‘authentic local’ in ‘this world, this place’ on which she opens ‘a small blue view’ of something that could go either way, ‘50 – 50’. Even her titles are so quotable collaging them in this way is irresistible. It’s a ‘text thing’, ‘dear deliria’, this ‘correspondence’, this between you and I play that Pam Brown sets up. ‘Keep it quiet’ – if word gets out there’ll be trouble, and besides, a certain stillness allows something else be heard and something more to happen.

In Home by Dark we start out with ‘Windows Wound Down’, a ’white paper poem’, an authoritative guide to this particular kind of Brownian motion in which you’re ‘parked under/a chalky old light pole/windows wound down/dozing on the front seat/on the radio/ Chinese classical music’. Rather than roaring through the world in a perpetual rush of hot air towards the ‘latest in new’, the world comes to you through the open window and you’re given the opportunity both to be part of it, feeling the music, and to observe what’s going on a short distance away, ‘as across the road/a man is wearing/his hat, indoors’. There’s always an oscillation in Brown’s writing between being porous to the world, completely in tune with its rhythms, and those moments of pulling back a little to observe and comment on it. There is also mimetic relation ‘so you want/to write in a cave/ _&_/take your source material/with you?’ Small incidents and images like that of the man wearing his hat inside come to represent the signs and symptoms of the times, a ‘Holiday Guide to Everything’ - when a holiday means you’re staying home cleaning, since after all ‘recessions [either the economic or the back of the fridge kind] don’t stop/for Sunday’.

Brown is renowned for being a poet of the local, but what this way of thinking about her work runs the risk of forgetting is that the local like other things is not what it used to be. Once one might have been able to equate it with the parochial, but in these days of mobile phones and pervasive media, the local is always permeated by the wider world (‘way too many/concurrent points of view’), and even, sometimes, indistinguishable from it.

From this vantage point, the present is adroitly diagnosed – for example through witty recalibrations of the hortatory imperatives of magazine speak. After receiving this suggestion: ‘why not/ recalibrate your life?’ the possibility that occurs is clearly not something anticipated by the rhetorical question. ‘How did Jean Genet/live in hotels/for so long?’, the poet wonders. Taking things seriously, taking them at their face value and taking them to their logical conclusions – all these ways of being a model citizen - ‘a unified I’ full of ‘anecdotal sincerity’ – turns out to make them unravel, exposes all their pretence an pretention so much more effectively than turning terrorist and chucking a Molotov.

No cures or conclusions are offered, only ‘imaginary solutions’ in the pataphysical way, where the prognosis remains open and who knows what will become of the present in the future. ‘The past/the past/is heritage brass//Now is always/only now’ in the ‘dog and bub burb’ (37). Nevertheless, ‘You’re the same age/as the ugg boot’, one more piece of the ‘schlock of the old’ and even more yourself than you were before. This is not armchair expertise, in spite of Brown’s disclaimer: there’s a hard won wisdom when you’ve put your body on the line and done a postgraduate degree in the university of life. You don’t come out of this educational process unchanged, with your ‘gamine haircut/for older persons.’

Need I say that these are really funny poems? They make you just want to quote and keep on quoting. There’s a certain laconic, understated, sly dry wit, and a wry irony that derives from this very engaging, conversational style of writing and the witty repartee it creates between voice and voice. In this constantly moving montage of voices it’s not always clear ‘who says that’ about this or that and who is talking to you when you feel yourself interpolated. Who’s speaking?, you have to ask when the poetry phone rings. Sometimes the lines are crossed (as we used to say in the 70s) and you get to eavesdrop on conversation between peers, for example in the form of Brown and Bolton, but in this b & b there are many rooms and it could be pretty much anyone prowling the corridors disguised as some one else, and spreading gossip.

In fact these poems are obsessed with communication in all its forms: with telephones and television, with the internet and with poetry itself. Brown is an engaged participant in conversation as a pleasurable form of everyday sociability between equals or peers (or those rendered as such by virtue of the type of conversation in which they engage in certain situations – like the much vaunted democracy of Bondi Beach or the virtual neighbourhood constructed by the poetry magazine). This is what nineteenth century French sociologist Gabriel Tarde would call ‘voluntary conversation’. This kind of conversation is the medium of social contagion, making things spread. To be engaged in conversation, for a poet like Brown, means to be alert to what’s catching on, that is, to the traffic of opinion, the very stuff of conversation. Opinion, according to Tarde, it is ‘something as light, as transitory, as expansive as the wind’, palpable and potent in its effects and yet hard to grasp until it’s almost passed. It is in the nature of opinion to want to expand and spread: it always ‘strives to become international, like reason’ (299). Brown’s poetry is ideally suited to grasping it, at once able to get it and to seize and identify it. It is, after all, in the middle of its own conversation, fully engaged with a particular poetry world, one extending beyond state and national boundaries to the US and Europe (via her roles with with ‘Jacket2’ ,’VLAK’ & other magazines)

But Brown’s work also has an ear out for the ‘obligatory conversation’ (Tarde again) which regulates relations within social hierarchies, and which so often comprises ‘the monologues pronounced by superiors’ – and all those reports, predictions and warnings beloved of the media, of political leaders and experts of various kinds, perhaps most proximate, including art critics and curators. Brown’s work is alert to this and works to undermine its authority, for example with striking, accurate, little darts of feminist analysis: ‘men make man made/you can study them/making memoir/under the summit’ (70).

Of course it’s also been said that scholarship is a kind of conversation. The poet’s professed ‘lassitude’ when it comes to undertaking certain kinds of scholarly research is more than compensated for by wide ranging reading: this work is full of references to other poets, living and dead. Sometimes their words are taken and twisted, sometimes simply reported or repeated in another context. This is part and parcel of a reflection, after half a lifetime spent doing it, on what poetry can do, especially in the brilliant last sections (iv and v) of the book. Precisely because this is poetry and it is hyper-alert to the history of its own medium, this question always tends to suggest its own reversal, rebounding on the poet to ponder what you (the poet) can do for poetry: ‘maybe/leap/drop/slip and slide/like a penguin/on Antarctic ice’.

Try to understand things, or something, anyway, not to tune out but instead to ‘give popular culture another chance’, or simply try to get by on the tricky terrain of the present. It’s getting late now, though: shadows grow a little longer and it’s just starting to get dark. There’s ‘another phone call/more cancer/and another/a month later//like Michael said/now we’ll spend/ the rest of our lives/watching our friends die’

And as for ourselves, well sometimes ‘Leaving the World’ actually seems all too easy: it’s ‘not as bad/as you’d think// the grand movement/ masks/ the small movement/ you pull your swifty/ and disappear – it’s as easy, in fact, as putting your ‘body on a bed and/ going out of the room’.

After all this we realise that to be ‘home by dark’, as we were all no doubt enjoined by our mothers before being turned loose in – or on - the world in the days when summer holidays seemed endless… to be home by dark is about having somewhere to go and something to do in the face of the fact that we’re all going to hell in a handbag. Meanwhile, thank god, even though we’re in the end times and ‘all fuelled out’, at least we’ve got home with a box of wine.

So ‘get a half life/or whatever’s legitimate’ (37), read Pam Brown’s work, and you’ll never be short of a good line in either convivial literary small talk or serious talk about the state of the world.

Return to Reviews, or Pam Brown site