Pam Brown, Home by Dark (Shearsman 2013)
The launch of this book last weekend (link is to a facebook photo gallery) was a convivial affair in an Erskineville pub. Unusually for a literary event, the football played silently on a large colour TV screen throughout, and a warm buzz of conversation echoed from the bar in the next room. Later, I saw myself in one of the facebook photos with a hand cupped behind one ear and a pained expression on my face. The pained look was, of course, nothing to do with the poetry or the company but was the result of my straining against the combined effect of Pam Brown’s quiet delivery, my deafness and the ambient noise.
On the day, Pam commented that the setting was appropriate, given the digressions and distractions of the poetry. As I was reading the book during the week, an alternative metaphor, even a fullblown analogy, occurred to me. For quietness, there’s the poems’ elliptical, almost throwaway quality – no assertive rhyme schemes, often no clear prose syntax, mostly no through narrative line; for deafness, there’s my ignorance of contemporary poetry – of the twenty or so poets mentioned in the acknowledgements or in the poems themselves, the only one I can honestly say I’ve read is Keats*, and L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry and Oulipo (also mentioned) are pretty much closed books to me; for noises off, there’s PB’s daunting reputation as a poet’s poet, possibly even an academic poets’ poet – she’s the kind of person whose cover blurbs speak of precarity and sprezzatura. I realised I was approaching the page with a painful intensity, a virtual hand cupped behind my inner ear.
Well, of course scowling and squinting and feeling stupid is no way to read poetry. So I stopped it – the scowling etc – and read on regardless, going with the flow. And had a much better time. Of course, there are some poems I just didn’t get. There are some I kind of got but didn’t care about. And then there’s a lot that’s funny, thoughtful, sad, memorable … revisitable. I even read bits out to the Art Student, self proclaimed hater of poetry, and she wanted to steal them.
I think what appeals to me most is the sense in a lot of this poetry that it more or less fell out of Pam Brown’s head straight onto the page. (I know that’s an illusion, because I accidentally found an earlier version of one poem online, and got to see some of the careful reworking that went into creating that casual, uncrafted feel.) A number of the poems read as observations made while travelling – whether around town or across the planet, they display the same apparent randomness, the same self-deprecating wit, the same eye for the telling detail, the same play of mind.
at the bus stop
_____long haired boys –
_____arrive & go by
_______really quickly –
I had to live through
_________the entire decades!
From ‘Leaving the World’ (I had to look up Jean Tinguely, but I’m glad I did):
along the LA freeway
trundle up and down
Jean Tinguely sculptures
in a waterless world
The line that the Art Student wants to steal, the opening of ‘Haywire Here’:
who prepared this future?
and later in the same poem some lines where I enjoyed making my own sense (that may be quite different from Pam Brown’s):
and the barmaid’s
__never heard of sarsaparilla
(worse for me
Sarsaparilla was the favourite softdrink of my childhood, but it can be hard to find these days, so a barmaid who has never heard of it is a young woman with no sense of history. Worse, for us literary types, she hasn’t heard of Patrick White’s Season at Sarsaparilla, so we’re left feeling doubly invisible. Heh!
I recently came across a quote from 1935 letter by Wallace Stephens (of whose poetry I’ve read almost none and understood less): ‘As soon as people are perfectly sure of a poem they are just as likely as not to have no further interest in it; it loses whatever potency it had.’ And just before that, ‘As a rule, people very much prefer to take the solemn views of poetry.’ I think deciding not to scowl as I was reading this book was going against the preference for the solemn, and opening up to the potency of things I can’t be perfectly sure of.
* I did recognise a couple of lines from Bob Dylan, though he wasn’t acknowledged.