joanne burns’s brush

joanne burns, brush (Giramondo 2014)

brush In a recent blog post my friend Will tells of a friend’s advice on how to visit a gallery:

Don’t try to see everything … When you walk into a room, scan the walls quickly, and then decide which painting you’d like to spend time really looking at. You’ll come away with a richer experience, and you’ll probably discover more.

That sounds like a good strategy for blogging about a book of poetry.

So, to start with a quick scan, joanne burns (this is how her name seems always to be written) is one of the stand-out Australian poets of the 1968 generation. Her poetry is generally witty, minimally punctuated, and not always immediately accessible. brush (again, my shift key isn’t broken) is in six sections:

  • bluff: where there is much play with the language of the share market
  • in the mood: prose poems, all interesting, with no common thread I could discern
  • brush – day poems: I understand these to refer to Frank O’Hara’s lunch poems, and they have elements of what Wikipedia calls O’Hara’s ‘characteristically breezy tone’ and ‘spontaneous reactions to things happening in the moment’
  • road: 21 poems, again with no common thread as far as I can tell – maybe they’re the non–prose poems that don’t fit into the other sections
  • delivery: poems related to a Bondi childhood
  • wooing the owl (or the great sleep forward), which could be subtitled ‘night poems’: poems with the feel of dreams or half-waking insomniac reveries.

Choosing just one poem to spend time with ain’t easy. I did a quick scan of poems I’d snapped with my phone on first reading (it’s a friend’s book, and phone-snapping was a non-damaging equivalent of turning down page corners), and settled on one that was outside of my comfort zone – that is to say, no obvious argument or narrative. Here’s a pic of it, and you can read it online at Best American Poets (not a misprint – they had a series featuring modern Australian poets).


I have no idea what initially drew me to ‘sesame’: perhaps it was a tantalising sense of a coherent argument just beyond my grasp; perhaps the play of images struck a chord in me; perhaps it just liked the sounds it made. It doesn’t really matter. I’ve now spent quite a lot of time with it.

Spending time with the poem wasn’t a matter of trying to decipher a ‘meaning’ as if it was a cryptic crossword. I did work out where sentences began and ended; and incidentally noted that the obvious punctuation – the extra spaces on lines 4, 12 and 18, the comma and the semicolon – are not indications of the poem’s turning points, but highlight the enjambed orphans that precede them. I learned the poem by heart. I recited it to the dog, to a paddock full of cattle, to the long-suffering Art Student, to the dark room when I woke in the night (though the effort of recall tends to send me back to sleep wink quick). I wrote it out from memory (and every mistake was a discovery). I went away and read other poems in the book and other books, and came back to it. I wrote a number of drafts of this blog post that went into great and (for any reasonable reader) tedious detail. Basically, I let the poem wash over me again and again. I’m pleased and relieved to report that I didn’t get bored. Here’s a bit of what I found.

First, the unconventional punctuation doesn’t create any real ambiguity. The poem just takes a little longer to decipher than it would with normal marks: the reader has to slow down, to pay attention, even on first reading.  (It does allow for some playfulness: the line break after ‘plate’, for example, conjures up a surreal image of a speedboat zooming over a dinner plate, which evaporates as soon as you realise that ‘plate’ belongs with ‘glass’, and we’re talking about the view.)

Then there’s the amount of patterning in the poem’s apparently casual language. There’s line-end rhyme (‘fast’/’last’), and buried partial rhymes that put stress at the start of lines (‘glass’/’reverse’; ‘access’/’emptiness’; ‘vanishes’/’crevices’). Definite articles – ‘the flowers’, ‘the cactus’, ‘the plate / glass’, ‘the wallet’, ‘the wall’ – communicate a sense of a particular room, a particular life. There are many times: the recent past of the cactus flowers; the distant past that the wallet comes from; the childhood past of touching the wall (of the rock pool at Bondi?); a generalised present (‘everything so fast’); the future (‘will not / help’).

Most interestingly, amid the apparent impulsive hopping from one subject to another, there is something very like a question raised and answer proposed. First a series of on/off moments: cactuses bloom, speedboats come and go, we wake and sleep. Then the longer term: the emblematic wallet is forgotten, goes mouldy, becomes inaccessible. In both these ways, we lose our grasp on things. The problem crystallises at the midpoint when ‘a thought vanishes [‘wink quick’?] into the air’s [wallet-like?] crevices’.

And now, the dominant sense of sight yields to the sense of touch. If you don’t remember how to open the wallet, your fingertips can find a way; when the salt water stung your eyes you groped your way to the pool’s edge. A beachcomber’s manual is close to a contradiction in terms. The next lines move further, leaving not just sight but also speech:

__________[maybe] the best thing
to do between the tick and the tock
is to hold your breath

The ‘tick and the tock’ harks back to the on/off motif, and also possibly takes us back to the room with the cactus and the plate glass, which also evidently has a big clock. The air’s crevices have become veins, as in veins of ore, which yield a patient map: not on/off, not corroded by time, and quite different from an external manual. The thought that vanished into the air returns in a new, useful form, in response to a silent, groping approach. (The stinging salt water also suggests tears, and the air’s veins suggest blood – so perhaps as well as silence and groping the approach involves suffering.)

The poem reaches a climax with the word ‘open’ in the second last line, which arrives with even more force if you have the poem’s enigmatic title in mind. Only at this point does the title settle into place, assuming the reader knows the Ali Baba story (and just in case you don’t: that’s the story from The Arabian Nights where a treasure cave opens in response to the magic phrase, ‘Open sesame’). In effect the title announces that the poem is about opening up some metaphorical cave of riches.  The last sentence might mean ‘you’ll only need the one magic word, not a whole vocabulary’ or ‘contrary to the story, you won’t need words at all – the secret to getting access to these treasures is silence.’ I prefer the latter reading.

So what’s the poem about? Jeez, I dunno, he said, meaning it in the nicest possible way. The Art Student thought it was about dementia. I think the first half is about memory, and perhaps about the mythical process we’ve been told to call ‘age related cognitive decline’. But the whole strikes home for me as a meditation on creativity, on thinking of any sort, on how wisdom grows from concrete experience, perhaps from facing pain rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. What I’m left with, though, isn’t the ‘meaning’ so much as the beautiful, intricate, apparently casual but actually carefully structured play of mind.

Peter Kirkpatrick launched the book at Gleebooks. His illuminating launch speech is online at the Rochford Street Review site.

aww-badge-2015This is the first book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015. I plan to read and blog about ten this year.

5 responses to “joanne burns’s brush

  1. kathyprokhovnik

    What a fabulous poem (and this from a poetry sceptic) – your analysis really brought me into it. I agree that it could be about dementia, definitely about ageing, possibly about the last moments of life – something about the connection between ‘veins’ and ‘open’ and not needing a good vocabulary (where they’re going …)?

  2. Wow, Kathy! Ageing must be so much part of the wallpaper of my life I couldn’t see ageing and death as possible readings. Ageing is definitely there: it’s such a shock when the speaker harks back to war rations – how old is she? I’m not convinced about death, though.

    • kathyprokhovnik

      How about this – everything has speeded up (time is out of control, as in ‘life flashed before my eyes’); holding your breath between the tick and the tock (to stop time by stopping your breath); ‘the air’s veins open like a patient’ (so are they the patient’s veins opening?); not sure about the map, but as with the good vocabulary you won’t need one when you’re dead.

      • Yes, but … I can’t make it be about death. I’m wedded to ‘patient map’ as a single, inseparable phrase (though like ‘glass plate’ it allows for a momentary confusion each time you read it). The main connotation of ‘patient’ for me is its opposition to speeded-up-ness: it suggests a transcendence of time. Other associations that have struck me: Slessor’s ‘Time that is moved by little fidget wheels / Is not my time, the time that does not flow’ is what holding one’s breath between the tick and the tock aims for; the air’s veins’ opening carries echoes of those Christian hymns about the blood flowing from Christ’s side – or was that only the Catholics, and is joanne burns from a Catholic background, and would it matter? In the poem itself, the airs veins’ opening is parallel to the sky blue wallet opening – the emptiness of the wallet–keepsake is worth accessing, and the emptiness of the air yields something ‘like a patient map’. It feels far too positive to refer to death (though I suppose death could be seen as another way of transcending time). This is fun, even more fun than the paid work that has kept me away from the blog this week!

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