strange house

In somewhere worldbook cover

Poetry review by Angela Gardner

Home by Dark

by Pam Brown
Shearsman 2013
ISBN: 9781848612884


Pam Brown’s latest book is published by Shearsman in the UK acknowledging the international reach of one of Australia’s most published poets. Dear Deliria (2003) a previous collection, and winner of the New South Wales Premier’s Prize, was also published in the UK (by Salt). At 131 pages Home by Dark is a satisfyingly length and with five numbered sections there is enough real-estate of pages for the poet to explore her constant subject, the observation and wry commentary on a world that requires daily navigation. Brown identifies the separation between what is experienced and what is presented as ‘the world’ and with her considered line-breaks adds depth to the observation:

the experienced world
hasn’t been
the world itself
for a long time
                        More than a feuilleton, p.124

The first poem of this current collection, ‘Windows wound down’, charts a month in observational jottings, that are written in a sparse style, simultaneously dense with possible layers of meaning. Like the ‘spicy carrots’ recipe that is prepared within the month, a number of ingredients characterize the poem: notes found in old poetry books, news items, songs, neighbours seen through windows or descriptions of people on the street, all capable of connecting to actions and emotions, of revealing the past or questioning the present. The poem can move through the graffitiesque, the deliberately comic, to elegant alliteration:

f u Peter P
u know y

walk the spoodle
and the  labradoodle
past the pot of pesto
under the patio gas heater

                        Windows wound down, p.13-14

It is deeply satisfying to see both the fashionably hybrid breeds come up as errors in my spellcheck, realize the hard emetic consonants of the ‘pot of pesto’ and wonder at the connection to Keats’ pot of basil. Such layered complexity in such a few short words is masterful.

In the same section ‘Country town’, is a beautifully crafted telling of a day’s events, from cows seen in the paddocks and their ‘wondrous and plentiful/ green streams of piss’, to a poetry reading to dementia sufferers in a day care centre.  What then follows and connects the events is an interleaved description of life in the paddocks and the quote ‘what is this life/if full of care/we have no time/ to stand and stare’ that refigures the description of the audience to one of bovine placidity. The link from the  ‘green streams of piss’ also draws attention to an accepted language of poetry which if it is to have the force of connection with the everyday needs to use everything at its disposal including “gobs of gobspit” (Dry ice p.83) or “oxydised cat food” (Sugar tube p.123) as amongst the proper subjects of poetry.

Irony is never far from the poems. In section II the epigraph from Nicole Kidman and its riposte from Funny Papa Smith set the tone. ‘American Memories, Melbourne (not quite after Hope Mirrlees)’ describes inner city suburbs through wine labels and in the manner of a coach tour guide’s voice-over as well as deadpan descriptive passages:

Crème émolliente hydrante   blow wind blow
buy Magic Gloves at Dollarama
                        ‘American Memories, Melbourne (not quite after Hope Mirrlees)’ p39

This simple couplet can be read literally as product description and shopping list but the ‘insertion’ (pardon the pun) of  the refrain ‘blow wind blow’ is alive with sea-shanty, Shakespearean and/or Muddy Water’s references and the possibility of innuendo aimed at a lively audience in the cheap seats in the pit not far away.

The playful ‘A Mo th of Sundays’, in the same section, makes hilarious use of elipses and lacuna, able to tell an entirely different story than if the poem had not been attacked by moths. It left me asking ‘what happens on Sundays?’ and ‘not in a month of Sundays?’ Suitably the poem that follows finds Oulipo in the strange ordinary:

J Q K = 10
A        = 11

win $4
minus $2
initial purchase
                        Zottegem, although short, a saga p50

‘Opportunities’, the poem that opens Section III, is a poetic critique of a mindless consumerism, aided by the almost constant photographic capture of objects of desire, both material and immaterial. It appears that everything can be added to the cart until in the last line you run out of credit. Nor is Pam Brown about to let wrong-doing go unremarked, she has a wide political awareness visible. Here in two examples ‘water on mars?/let’s fuck mars up too’ (Windows wound down, p.12) or ‘five years after the day/you shrouded/the Guernica replica’ (Leaving the World, p.69) the voice ranges from resigned but angry to poignant through its language. The replica of Guernica in the Foyer of the U.N. was covered but there is pin-point accuracy in describing that act in funereal terms.

Three other lines, amongst many,  that made an indelible impression on me for their accuracy and precision:

a currawong
does that shrill thing
            into pink air
                        Rehab for Everyone p56

This is a personal observation, not scientific illustration but nor is it ‘poetic’, the poet is trying to get her audience back to actually hearing the currawong…not poetic excuses for not hearing, the warbling and trilling and liquid sounds but ‘that shrill thing’ that we might hear if we could listen again without the barrier of prior poetic description.

sometimes the clunky
           can incandesce
    but I want to know
how to vitalize gawkiness
                        Rehab for Everyone p58

Sometimes really seeing what is before you requires the lens of the past, a reminder of the link between things and therefore their meaning, from telephone trees to mobile phones, ‘phone isn’t/the same string/from person to/ person now/that we carry/them and /have no homes’ (‘A moving cloud’, p.90) where string both evokes childhood games of connection but how adrift the technology can actually make us. There is a play on words later in the same poem between ‘pile-driver’ and ‘(and no driver’) that draws attention to the word, its meaning, while behind that its placement in the poem draws attention to automation or more particularly the loss of the human. This multi-reading of subject and the sensitive use of words is visible throughout the collection:

thin transparent oil
                   slowly leaks
   from the barrel
            of the souvenir pen,
the plastic historical figure
      no longer slides
along the mini-city backdrop,
                        he’s stuck
at the bottom of the scene
                        Closed on Monday’s p.106

This is poetry that is sure but wryly provocative in its social and political observations, it abounds in well thought through word choices and line breaks, and subtle moments, such as the perfect page-break at p67 ‘from now on/I will certainly decline’, that can’t be beat. In this road-movie that travels the almost mundane we are “nearly home/the streets seem dark” (Worldless, p.114). The collection ends on an almost elegiac note with more questions than answers to who and where we are, or the notion of ‘the world’ and that complex question how to live. Pam Brown’s question, asked in ‘Haywire here’ p.73, “who prepared this future?” is part of that same question, and the multi-layered answering from her un-prissy, self-aware and humorous voice is one I want to hear. Should we “click on the link/ or leave until morning?// sleep the computer” (More than a feuilleton, p.129).