Nicolette Stasko reviews brush by joanne burns
by joanne burns
Reviewed by NAME
‘It must give pleasure’
It should be no surprise that I am a big fan of joanne burns’ poetry. Although brush is not a New and Selected per se, it is a excellent introduction to her work and a substantial confirmation of the poet’s talent and importance in Australian Literature. This is burns’ sixteenth volume of poetry; her first title Snatch was published in London in 1972.
burns herself describes the volume as an ‘anthology of poems… written over the last five or six years’. It is a kind of sampler of her styles/forms and themes and in its compactness, brush is close to that wonderful rare thing—a perfect book. Divided into six sections, the ‘multifaceted’ collection encompasses the poet’s familiar preoccupations: language, society’s foibles, contemporary urban life, along with some more unusual personal recollections. These range in tone from the fiercely satiric to nostalgia ‘brushed’ with her trademark humour. Sometimes described as ‘acerbic’, burns’ work is always marked by a gentleness and compassion that understands the frailties of human beings and includes herself as one of them. There is an enormous amount of play in every poem that results in a singular lack of closure mimicking an illusive and unstable modern reality devoid of comforting truths.
Each section is made up of poems similar in theme and often similar in style. ‘brush’, the title section is subtitled ‘a series of day poems’ and each can be characterised as journal-like, although varying in line length and structure. These focus on the daily, often mundane activities that trigger various ‘epipthanic?’ observations, ‘such little things obscured in domestic/mess’ (‘verb 39). The first, ‘zip’, contains the telling line: ‘…that sweeps you into/neon’s rhetoric so what is it that you need to see in/such illumination’.‘tier’, a reflection on Anzac Day suggests ‘all you have/is what you have’ while ‘dues’, about a visit to the ‘office of births deaths & marriages’, ends with ‘lotsa death certs but how/sweet the sleep after/though not the snore’.
There are numerous allusions to poets and writers—resonances which set up a dialogue between the past with the present: long/black with nietzsche…9 grain goethbread’; the terror of a hopkin’s sonnet’ and significantly a reference to Neruda’s Elemental Odes:
i pull my 33 year old copy of neruda
off the dusty shelf estante polvo and turn to “oda al tomate”
where assassinated tomatoes become stars
of the earth in less than 2 pages el tomate astro de terra
Very few poets can do this.
burns can, for example, even make vacuum cleaning interesting and entertaining: ‘swirls of lost hair crumbs and/ missing peas/ no divining in the beige down there’ (‘frame’ 38) but she does it with aplomb—a crazy randomness of selection, odd details and her inimitable sense of whimsy.
As society seems unable to learn the lessons of the past (let alone from any of its great poets), the first section of the book, ‘bluff’, ghosts a future in which everyone, especially ma and pop investors, are doomed: ‘you ought to be/congratulated mums and dads for feathering your nests intoned the presidential spectacles/s/ from a harbour newsroom’. At once hilarious and grim, ‘does your portfolio ache’, this section comments on the financial world where specialist terms abound familiar and mysterious as ‘hedge fund’ and ‘bull market’. burns plays with and puns on the jargon (indeed one of the longer sequences ‘corrida’ explores notions of the bull fight) inferring an impending capitalist Armageddon while the theme from Casino Royale plays in the background:
some still believed it was best
to trim the hedges some were tight lipped
about the rosy picture — and this could
wipe out any benefit from the plan to divide
the good from the bad everyone was happy
though about the 19 billion sound rescue package
the final comment ‘we misjudged how quickly
syllables could turn around’
The central section ‘road’ is a wonderful bricolage of urban images/scenes which illustrate burns use of sound—assonance, alliteration, rhyme and half-rhyme to construct her poems.
past the front door packs
of paris hilton wannabes looking likely in sunfrocks
skim along the streets toward skinny lattes (‘sibilance’, 49)
One of the most interesting sections ‘delivery’ is unusal for burns because of its focus on the autobiographical. The poet has always and often sprinkled personal details in her poems using a first-person ‘i’ that could be herself or everywoman. ‘a later page’ [not quite after Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘In the Waiting Room’], is a wonderful take on that famous poem
there was the saturday evening post and maybe
the new yorker in the modest waiting room, nothing
to alarm me – or perhaps the wait was pretty short
at uncle bob’s
but those sharp eyes and mouths of racy laughter
bouncing off the walls dismissive and derisive
drill through collapsing years
‘comb’, a sequence of five poems, recalls past innocent times of boyfriends and beaches where
even the sewer outlet water, its stream
etched into the beach right down to the surf,
could not stain bondi’s ascendency
which was always as big as
tomorrow, or something wider
more thrilling than time –
The poems in the final section ‘wooing the owl (or the great sleep forward)’ are as one might expect, about sleep and dreams. (I wonder if there are any statistics on how many poets suffer from some form of insomnia?) The title poem asks the existential question:
to think like a pond
or a puddle
ponder this how many
sleeps til death
Frequently reviewers revert to using definitions when they have little to say or have trouble getting started and I confess I have used this ploy in the past. But nothing could be further from the facts regarding brush. For such a slim, compact collection there is so much to say that any review space is not sufficient to do it complete justice.
However, a look at the actual word ‘brush’ is enlightening and reveals quite a bit about burn’s methods. I came up with approximately eight definitions—brush obviously can be used as a noun or a verb—but checking in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, I found three more uses that were not known to me: colloquially it can mean ‘a girl or young woman’, a fox tail, and most interestingly ‘a piece of carbon or metal serving as an electrical contact especially with a discharge of sparks’. Now of course none of this would be a surprise to an avid reader of dictionaries like burns whose work often simultaneously holds all the meanings of a word in a poem or freely associates them to construct a kind of surreal/absurd narrative. Take ‘road’ for example from the section of the same title:
i am surprised by
my new interest in apples especially pink
ladies peak hour is not like the other peaks
burns’ work is a brilliant alchemy of objective reality and creative imagination, at times critical, philosophical or gnomic but always following Stevens’ dictum about what poetry should be:
It must give pleasure.
 Wallace Stevens, ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’, Collected Poems, London: Faber&Faber, 1966, p398.
 According to the media release ‘[t]he publication and promotion of brush has been assisted by an Australia Council Midlist Authors Grant, designed to showcase the writing of established Australian authors like Joanne Burns, who have made an important contribution to Australian literature, and to make readers more aware of the quality and character of their work as it has developed over many years.’
NICOLETTE STASKO has published seven collections of poetry the most recent under rats with Vagabond Press. She has also published books of fiction and non-fiction. Currently she is an Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney and is finalising her next collection.