The Shearsman Review
Pam Brown – Home by Dark
(Shearsman Books, Bristol, 2013. Paperback, 132pp, £9.95)
Reviewed by Michael Farrell
Pam Brown owns, I think, a genre splitter. Her mode of collage is not so much disjunctive as it is like Mike Goldberg use of Sardines in Frank O’Hara’s ‘Why I am not a painter’: ‘Yes, it needed something there’. Brown alludes to this poem in ‘Holiday guide to everything’:
tried to understand
the jury plays sudoku,
short sentence dreaming
O’Hara’s specific clock times get a conceptual, postcolonial workout here. There’s a surprising – maybe I haven’t been paying the right attention – element of pastoral to Home by dark too: ‘Wet flannelette’ begins ‘who are those people / running on my grass?’, which is followed by the ‘frisky calves’ of ‘Country town’, and the hilarious ‘hot and stonkered / cattle lying in the road’ which begins ‘In Queensland’. The poem ends with a corresponding image (including the poem’s only pronoun, at line 21): ‘we lay down drunk / under the frangipani trees / on wickham terrace’.
There’s a fragment of an avant-garde detective novel in ‘Windows wound down’, where Brown’s own initials are split in a note found in a book by Vladimir Holan. The note is to P from B. The note itself seems to imply the splitting of the author, and possibly a headache:
I can’t bring myself to write
what’s in my head
I am splitting up north I guess
I love you
Paul Valéry writes in an essay, ‘Poetry and abstract thought’, that:
Each word is an instantaneous coupling of a sound and a sense that have no connection with each other… A discourse can be logical, packed with sense, but devoid of rhythm and measure. It can be pleasing to the ear, yet completely absurd and insignificant; it can be clear, yet useless; vague yet delightful.
Brown writes in ‘Like 1988’:
I touched your waist,
your dress fluted, like paper,
white and red
it seemed like 1988
walking with you on a walk
Vague yet delightful. Yet there’s another yet: the year, 1988, indicating the trace – or eros – of activism. 1988 was the year of the Bicentennial, marking two hundred years since the British invasion of Australia. For some it was a year of celebration, but others protested; for example by taking part in Sydney’s largest march since the Vietnam protests, in order to draw attention to Indigenous land rights, and to inequalities relating to health, education and justice. The curves of the year’s ‘8’s become ring-pulls in the poem’s soft pop.
In ‘American Memories, Melbourne’, Brown enacts a double displacement, collaging elsewheres in a poem moving constantly between lower and upper case type, where neither poet nor ‘capital’ can be seen to own too easily any particular discourse. Capitals might be ironised propaganda (‘ELEGANT and CONTEMPORARY melbourne’), but they might also emphasise complaints about ‘TIPPING’, or the fact that there is ‘NO POETRY MEETING TODAY – / EVERYONE IS WORKING’. There’s a performative posterishness to this centred poem, an exuberance that points away from the modes of peers Laurie Duggan (observational) and Ken Bolton (observational with soundtrack) towards language qua language. Brown has something of a fascination for the letter ‘z’. On her blog ‘the deletions’ she claims to live another life in ‘Zlin, Moravia’. The virtually moth-eaten poem ‘A Mo th of Sundays’ features the lines: ‘zot // double zot / zaps a month // zot that / sun spot / doc’, and some words that have lost initial letters; but not the final word, ‘zeugma’, which comes after an example of zeugma: ‘take your ticket / and your leave’. The poem that follows is called ‘Zottegem’ (a town in Belgium just east of Zingem and Zwalm).
A schema of majorness (‘is that anything like Loch Ness?’ Brown might undercut) can be imposed on poems from without, or can be read from within a poet’s oeuvre. Brown, and certain other poets of her generation, tend to steer clear of anthems and important-seeming forms, but sometimes / perhaps / nevertheless Stevens’s ‘pressure of reality’ has its mean way. A major Brown poem might look as casual as any other; it might just, considering its title, be ‘Rehab for everyone’ (a potential Collected Poems title): but, rather, it’s the following poem ‘Spirulina to go’ (also possible if you’ve never actually tasted spirulina). It is not made up of snippets but of chunks (meaning the poem not the, er, food). When a poem raises the affect stakes it can have you coasting at a new level on your cross-country poetry-reading skateboard. That level is ‘No worries’ and ‘Leaving the world’. ‘No worries’ includes the ace observation:
a spotlight catches
a few silver hairs
on the back of the neck
of the poet who has been sleeping
through everyone else’s reading
Not all the noodles(z?) are in the review.
15 March 2014