Pam Brown’s Home by Dark

Pam Brown, Home by Dark (Shearsman 2013)

1848612885The 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.

From ‘Worldless’:

at the bus stop
_____long haired boys –
regenerate fashion,
_____retro,
fashions
_____arrive & go by
_______really quickly –
I had to live through
_________the entire decades!

______(peeved)

From ‘Leaving the World’ (I had to look up Jean Tinguely, but I’m glad I did):

along the LA freeway
black derricks
trundle up and down
like
Jean Tinguely sculptures
only__ominous
& witless
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
_______& you)

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.

awwbadge_2013 This is the fourth book I’ve read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

* I did recognise a couple of lines from Bob Dylan, though he wasn’t acknowledged.

8 responses to “Pam Brown’s Home by Dark

  1. Pingback: Don’t Just Be a Poet, Be MILITANT in YOUR Poetry | The Arkside of Thought

  2. Charlie Aarons

    Hi Jonathan – a great review and commentary on your experience of the launch. I nabbed a seat near the door early which meant I missed most of Pam’s reading. I enjoyed the introduction though. I’ve been a long time fan of Pam Brown and must admit I was a bit taken back by the melancholy and slightly depressive tone to so many of the poems. This has always been there along with the humour and sardonic tone, but was more pronounced in this book. Age catches up with all of us differently I guess, which is why I was sitting down up the back!

    • Hi Charlie. Yes, I was surprised by the dark elements too – the hints of illness, premonitions of death, four a..m. meditations, etc. But it’s great how the over-all effect is still buoyant

  3. Pam mentioned Sarsparilla to me on the night. I knew it was a drink. But did it come with sprezzatura? Perhaps the barmaid had rehearsed her reply a thousand times and so it came out with sprezzatura, a studied naturalness? Sarsparilla? I ain’t heard of it!

  4. I hang my head in shame, Adam. I’m not only ignorant, but also lazy. I did look up ‘precarity’, but didn’t look up ‘sprezzatura’. Both words are incredibly appropriate to Pam’s writing, so why shouldn’t they turn up in her cover blurbs? As for sarsaparilla, I was delighted to discover some decades ago that root beer, which I knew was a drink from US comics, is a very close relative. would the barmaid know about root beer, I wonder?

  5. Pingback: LITERARY BUZZ: PURPLE SILVER OPEN MIC SESSION (25th May, 2013): READING | Su'eddie in Life n Literature

  6. Pingback: Poetry Roundup Jan-May 2013 | Australian Women Writers Challenge

  7. Pingback: Don’t Just Be a Poet, Be MILITANT in YOUR Poetry | The Arkside of Thought by Sahm King

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