Tim Wright Reviews Pam Brown’s True Thoughts
Drinking Water in a Suburb Called Zetland: Notes on Memory and the City in Some Poems by Pam Brown
by Pam Brown
Salt Publishing, 2008
Reviewed by TIM WRIGHT
In a recent discussion of the lyric in Australian poetry on her blog[i], Pam Brown wrote of her poetics that she was interested in ‘the occurrence of ‘the current’’. The current here could be both ‘the contemporary’ or ‘the present moment’, the moment of writing. In her latest collection True Thoughts this interest in the current merges with an ongoing interests in memory and place (particularly the local). The past and present appears often as a duality in the collection, along with others: stillness and movement, inside and outside, this way or that way, here or there. The poems’ mode is kinetic, they proceed by indirection[ii].
Brown’s noted critical take on the everyday – and sometimes hyper (and anxious) self-reflexivity – is integrated into the practices and habits around work, leisure, friendships, travel, reading, and writing. The title is plural: ‘thoughts’ as in products; not ‘thought’ as process. The poems are less about the kind of thinking exemplified by Rodin’s Thinker, an absorbed stillness; instead thoughts occur, one after another, amidst and in response to movement, radio, traffic, mobile phones. Thinking takes place in a city, and so the possibilities or potentialities latent within it become part of the thinking process. Subject and object are often captured on the move, going somewhere else. Glimpses of the poet appear – catching a train to work or sitting at a desk to read – alongside and simultaneous with records of various kinds of mental action: observing and noticing, worrying, hesitating, remembering or speculating on conversations with other writers and friends, making a decision.
The poems don’t lend themselves to scholarly close reading; they wriggle out from under the microscope; they don’t seem to me to be coded or contained in the way that that method, at some level, implies. They share concerns of memory, and a responsibility to continue thinking politically and humorously in an increasingly fragmented contemporary. About half of the poems are more than three pages long, and move by branching, link-and-node formations: shape mimics thought. I read the poems as a book length work; not quite a sequence, but a collection in which chronology is important. I suspect that a way of reading (or listening) to the poems is required that is more open to distraction – a state the poems themselves are written through – one which could skip across the poems, read them glancingly and let them go out of focus as much as reading lines and words in a sharply focussed way. In a sense this is simply to read in the spirit of the poems themselves. They are not, I think, written as contained aesthetic objects to be regarded. The poems (and their ‘speaker’) proceed by way of indirection, and this is realised in the heightened attention and care given to line breaks – those points of the from which it could ‘go anywhere’ (as one poem says). The anywhere is not fantastic – an escape – but a state of (distracted) openness to possibility which the poems want to maintain, to keep in the air. It is productive to think of them, for a moment, alongside the ‘talk poems’ of the contemporary American poet David Antin. Antin has explained that his style of poem comes from wanting ‘to think about things that are worth thinking about that lead to more thinking[iii]‘.
The two opening poems, ‘Existence’ and ‘Amnesiac Recoveries’ are responses to the US war in Afghanistan, and the Iraq war as it proceeded from dreaded possibility to reality in the summer of 2003. JS Harry’s ‘Peter Henry Lepus in ‘Iraq, 2003” (from Not finding Wittgenstein, 2007) and Jennifer Maiden’s George Jeffreys sequence (from Friendly Fire, 2005) are important reference points, being the major Australian poems I know of written in response to the second Iraq war. Where Harry and Maiden use fictional characters to imagine Baghdad, Brown’s response is autobiographical, remaining ‘herself’, in Sydney. In this context the description of a swim in harbour that opens the poem ‘Amnesiac Recoveries[iv]‘, seems luminous, a luxury, when posed against the knowledge of the distant war:
I get away
from the academy
and after breakfast
dip in the green harbour
under sprinkling rain.
I know the war continues.
in the background of the frame
the investigator yawns.
The speaker is both part of, and separated from the unnamed war by a screen. She is, after all (as I am), Australian, a citizen of one of the countries involved in the war, and so, in an obscure sense, involved. I borrow the word from the last lines of John Forbes’ ‘Love Poem’, perhaps the most subtle Australian poem to do with the first Gulf War[v]. The final lines of Forbes’ poem have its speaker watching the televised bombing during the Gulf war of 1991, knowing, ‘ … obscurely, as I go to bed / all this is being staged for me’. Brown’s poem also ‘knows’ the war mediated by a TV screen, but doesn’t stage the same moment of laconic epistemology; it sets the image, moves on to something else.
The poem is noteworthy for how it plots different points across the city, passing through three different environments, from the desiccated university to breakfast to the green harbour in three lines. The searching and questioning provoked in Australia by the wars – about what it meant to be a citizen as well as a writer, an artist, or a poet – are explicit in the poem, and haunt the collection. There’s an awareness that there is possibly more at stake now than then, but also that the ideals and lifestyles of the seventies and eighties have largely disappeared, and that certainties about politics and political affiliations have become more complicated and more fragmented. Ken Bolton has noted of this collection that ‘[t]here is a lot of lying down, small rests, boredom defeated—but also, to a degree, a withdrawal from the game, beyond maintaining solidarity with others’ humanity . . .[vi]‘ . Simultaneously, there is a will to continue, and to continue thinking in the face of what often feels overwhelming; this is apparent in the plural title (‘Amnesiac Recoveries’) which suggests a series of shocks that each bring about a return to awareness (of history, of politics) from a state of amnesia. The poem continues:
that empty-to-the stomach feeling
as I enter the building
my twelfth year of toil
I know how to fix everything
but, obstinate in my resolve,
would phone Interflora
for your funeral
There is clearly a self-conscious eye observing the poet’s gloominess in these lines. While moods such as these reoccur in the collection, they’re rarely entirely dark. As much as in earlier collections, Brown’s poems are humorous, and anxious–the James Schuyler quote ‘I order you: RELAX’ is a favourite–as they record the attempts of a person to make sense of the new decade, and a new, disappointing, age brought about by those wars. The poems attempt to register that disappointment, but also to try and unlock keyholes to counter it. At the end of the title poem from his 2003 collection, Kieran Carroll made a distinction between decades when he noted the change from the 80s to the ‘slicker, mentally tougher 90s[vii]‘. These two poems and others in the collection seem to be an attempt to do something similar, to find a word for the first decade of the 2000s, to try to understand what is and what was unique about it. By staying close to the body, by not protecting the poems from the grotty everyday and the ephemeral (the ‘tangled crepe-paper streamers,/napkins, plastic plates/& other picnic junk’ left after Australia Day), and also by stubbornly resisting, most of the time, to ‘get metaphysical’, the poems feel out an attitude for existing politically now, one that is as subject to distraction, mood, and change as a mind and a body are.
The first poem in the collection, ‘Existence’ shares many of the concerns of ‘Amnesiac Recoveries’, and could be read as a companion poem. It begins:
from here on in
if I follow
the girl in the
sweatshirt as her motorcyclist
warms his darkly bubbling engine
ready to blur
into a field of speed
one less path
a dishwasher whirrs above me
a slab separates us – water restrictions
Sydney goes sailing
The imminence of war suggests that both poems were written at around the same time: a Sydney summer with its rain, heat and frangipanis smeared on the footpath. Both poems, too, juxtapose the luxuriance and privilege of water (sailing, sparkling waves, the ‘Rose Bay Afloat’) with the obscured, but still dimly apparent, ‘rest of the world’ that the water separates Australia from. As with most poems in the book, other lives appear only as strangers observed, emails, the trace of a life through the whirr of a neighbour’s dishwasher. As an opening poem it flags some of these themes of the book: Sydney, war, memory, and finding ways to continue.
The anti-war poems are followed by five written during a residency in the Trastevere in Rome. Most of the rest–about two thirds of the collection–seem to take place in or around contemporary Sydney. Memory and the city emerge explicitly as themes in ‘Saxe Blue Sky’ and ‘Train Train’, which detail two Sydney train journeys, one from the leafy eastern suburbs into the city, the other down from the Blue Mountains and past the sprawl of the western suburbs. ‘Saxe Blue Sky’ begins with a train journey to work. One of the things I like about this poem is the particular stretch of train journey it describes. As the train comes out of Kings Cross tunnel the passenger seems to float for a few hundred metres, about half a minute, over a zone of the city which is a crammed mix of the old and the hypermodern. It passes over the housing commission terraces and luxury apartments of Woolloomooloo, the towers along William Street in the distance, the Cahill Expressway, and for a moment beside the Art Gallery and the Domain. Bookended by two tunnels—one into Kings Cross and the other into Martin Place—the experience is highly cinematic down to the jumpcut beginning and the sudden fade to black as the train hits the tunnel. Local landmarks are registered: Brett Whiteley’s ‘burnt match/live match’ sculpture outside the Art Gallery of NSW, a bronze frieze on the gallery wall. Soon the speaker looks away from the train window, down to a set of catalogue cards she will need to go through once she gets to work:
cards detailed with
traces of old colleagues
now moved on.
The process of recording information onto a card by impression becomes analogous here to how memory can become "impressed" in material things, and here patina becomes important to thought over surface smoothness. What stays the same in a city over time? The poem details those things which persist: icons (the Harbour Bridge), identities (Brett Whiteley), official histories (plaques). Yet there is a frustrating weakness of visual memory, and the way it plays out in the experience of living in the city:
I remember most of them,
more, I remember their memos,
our names listed,
stapled to a corner,
memo read, name ticked, then passed along
to the next name—
The scripts of these old colleagues produce an encounter that’s placed parallel to those official histories embedded in the city, which flash past but leave little impression. One of the questions asked throughout the book is how to remember while avoiding the stillness, or endless replay of nostalgia (which in this case might be the colonial architecture of The Rocks). Cities change, taking memories with them, and so actively remembering former iterations (taking notes, documenting in some personal, experiential way) is a method of resisting what in ‘Amnesiac Recoveries’ is termed ‘memoricide’ – the bombed Baghdad library. Brown’s poems stay close to the built environment, and pay attention to inscription in all its forms (shops signs, old notes, memos…). Rather than history, it might be more useful to think of Brown’s concern with the materiality of memory in terms of heritage. Heritage as ‘that which we’ve inherited’, or ‘that which we are heir to’, allows a connection to history at the interface with the built environment. The political question then becomes, How is it decided what gets kept? In the poem, the sifting, sorting, chucking-out process that will shortly take place with the old cards could be the architectural model version of an answer: personal archivism.
The poem, ‘Today there is much more heritage than there used to be’, develops this concern while addressing a friend in hospital. The poem moves between several views, the ‘in situ’ view of the speaker, imagined views onto the Harbour, either from Brereton’s house or hospital, to a less inspiring view of a tv from her hospital bed. The poem begins,
built between the wars,
acts of social optimism,
our anachronistic homes—
but, or, even, so
we live in them,
sought after charm emblems.
in the block next to mine
a gang of workmen
is hurling the walls
and the tea break
and the lunch
out the windows,
bricks and door frames
plastic forks and curry packs,
like storm debris,
like broken twigs
across the car park
a lightning flash
I imagine your stormy view
over Elizabeth Bay, beautiful
small boats tossing and slicing
through the bay
do such tiny blinkings
towards Clark Island
or heading back
to the illuminated city
The poem transitions between contrasting scenes (day and night, land and water), blending interior and exterior with the lines ‘a lightning flash / interrupts computing’. It suggests a kind of noir city imaginary that the poems work out of. The poem ends comically, with the poet on her knees waxing the bathroom tiles, and the realisation that ‘a resemblance of heritage’ is ‘as near as we’ll get’.
Brown’s poetry might be usefully thought of both in terms of the flâneuse and of the bricoleur, but also of the rag-gatherer, that other nineteenth century Parisian character, collector of what the city dwellers considered of little value. In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin quotes Laforgue of Baudelaire, ‘He was the first to write about himself in a moderate confessional manner, and leave off the inspired tone.’ The description is reminiscent of the self-deprecating voice of many of Brown’s poems. The quote continues:
He was the first to speak of Paris from the point of view of one of her daily damned (the lighted gas jets flickering with the wind of prostitution, the restaurants, and their air vents, the hospitals, the gambling, the logs resounding as they are sawn and then dropped on the paved courtyards, and the chimney corner, and the cats, beds, stockings, drunkards, and modern perfumes) – all in a noble, remote and superior fashion . . . The first also who accuses himself rather than appearing triumphant, who shows his wounds, his laziness, his bored uselessness at the heart of this dedicated workaday century, its strange decor: the sad alcove . . . and to take pleasure in doing so[viii]
The ‘Haussmannization’ of old Paris in the nineteenth century, the period when Baudelaire was writing, might be the ‘Meritonization[ix]‘ of Sydney in the twenty-first. There are less smells to encounter, and not so many logs-being-sawn-and-then-dropped to listen to, but a pleasurable ‘bored uselessness’, certainly evident in Brown’s poetry, might be as effective a strategy as it was for Baudelaire. For Brown, the city is a grid for making sense of experience, as well as a mnemonic. The poems map the movement of thought as it occurs in a city space. The spare, pared back lines span outwards seeming to collect details. And while she is attentive to the world outside, she seems to be happy to not let it cohere: questions are permitted to stay unanswered, odd irregularities are often placed in the poem as readymades.
Rather than the smoothly flowing motion of the car or bike, the poems move at walking pace, and with the memory of its rhythm, are able to turn around and backtrack. Brian Massumi’s appealing idea of walking as ‘controlled falling’ is a reminder that walking is as much a product of resistance, each step being the arrest of a potential fall, as it is volition. Brown’s writing proceeds, it seems to me, with this necessary resistance, by cutting lines short. One step, then another; one thought, then another. The distractions of a city street are rendered in the short lines and variations in spacing across the page. Brown celebrates the pleasures of distraction, of being able to go ‘in any direction’. At times this distraction resolves into crystalline moments of attention. The first two short poems are from ‘Zennish’, a series of short poems from the earlier collection, 50/50, the third from Little Droppings, a chapbook of out-takes from the collection This World, This Place:
like the look
of a lucozadey amber
the little dose
of gamma radiation
at the clinic
in a suburb called
There is a singular state of attention present in these poems. Duchamp’s concept of the inframince, or the ‘ultrathin’, provides a useful context for these poems. Some of the well-known examples Duchamp gives are the sound of corduroy pants rubbing against each other, the difference in volume between a freshly washed shirt and a shirt worn for one day, the taste of one’s mouth lingering in exhaled smoke. It is these attenuated feelings, Brown’s poems suggest, that make up an everyday plane of affective experience. There is a resistance to explanation in the three line ‘Zetland’ poem, a trust in language to do the work. We are not told who is in Zetland, or why, or indeed what Zetland is: the name could be a 1920s version of a future city, with its ribbon-like freeway overpasses and hovercrafts. In fact, the name derives from the former name for the Shetland Islands – I discovered this by punching it into Google. It is a suburb in an inner but slightly hidden-away, often overlooked, part of Sydney; rapidly gentrifying.
True Thoughts is populated by screens, junk technology, litter, buildings, freeways and cars, public transport, water (the harbour, the beach, the dishwasher), brand names, and now and then, glimpses or traces (archival, memory traces) of other lives. The poems often alternate between exterior and interior spaces (the interior of a train carriage and the view through the window; the flash of lightning illuminating a study desk sitting at the computer) and this is paralleled to the constantly changing relationship between thought and the outside environment. Brown’s poems, her forms, are ‘true thoughts’, at the level of the nagging ethical worries, as well as the jingle reverberating in a mind interrupting more serious thought, or the overheard conversation. They attempt to remain open to experience in an age of (that potentially optimistic phrase) ‘late capitalism’.
[ii] The phrase is from Edward S. Casey’s chapter title ‘Proceeding to Place by Indirection’ from the book The Fate of
Place: A Philosophical History, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997/98
[iii] ‘A Conversation with David Antin, with host Charles Bernstein and questions from Penn students’, University of Pennsylvania – March 16, 2004 [http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Antin.php]. A fuller quote reads: ‘I have a distaste for the jewel-like work, which I don’t tend to do very often as you can probably agree. I also don’t like it. That is in some sense I’d like to produce an object that’s an action. And it’s an action that leads to actions by others: mental actions or human actions. And on the other hand I don’t want it to be simply talk .. In a certain sense, simple talk that isn’t engaged with trying to figure something out or think something through, dissipates too rapidly for what I want to do, I want to think about things that are worth thinking about that lead to more thinking. I want to do thinking that leads to thinking.’
[iv] Taken from a longer collaboration with Susan Schultz, housed in the Department of Dislocated Memory, at the
International Corporation of Lost Structures [http://www.icols.org/pages/PB&SS/PB&SS.html]
[v] I refer to the final poem in Forbes New and Selected Poems (1992), not the poem of the same name from Damaged Glamour (1998).
[vi] Ken Bolton, from a review of True Thoughts unpublished at the time of writing
[vii] ‘ The Night I saw Terry Alderman Dancing to Nick Cave at Chasers’, from the collection of the same name, Ginninderra Press, 2003
[viii] Convolute J, ‘Baudelaire’, The Arcades Project (1999) Harvard University Press, Cambridge, p. 246
[ix] Meriton is a large construction firm, responsible for many apartment block developments in Sydney.