Pam Brown, Stasis Shuffle (Hunter Publishers 2021)
I had written quite a long draft about this book, and was despondent because it wasn’t going anywhere. Then I read this from one of its poems, ‘(all you can tweet)’:
life's more fun ---____---when you ---------don't know what the hell -you're doing
Sometimes it feels that way in Pam Brown’s poems – but not in a bad sense. I’m pretty sure she mostly has no idea where a poem is going to go when she starts it. But I took those lines as an instruction to myself: have fun with the poetry and stop wrestling with the task of describing it.
There’s a lot of fun to be had.
First, let me talk a little about the book’s naming conventions. The title of each of the book’s three sections, and every poem’s title is enclosed in brackets: so the first section title is ‘(one idea on each dragée)’, and I’ve already mentioned ‘(all you can tweet)’.
I don’t want to spoil your own fun in working these things out, but this is what I make of the brackets. I read them as signalling that there’s an arbitrariness to where one poem ends and the next begins. Not that they flow into one another so much as that each poem is made up of fragments which can take it on unexpected sidetracks, recursions, associative leaps, even just distractions, developing its field of meaning on the way. The book’s first poem, ‘(best before)’, describes itself as ‘slowly accreting’. It’s a process could go on indefinitely – but you have to stop sometime, imposing a metaphorical closing bracket.
The idea of a dragée is important. A note at the back of the book informs us that a dragée ‘is a bite-sized form of confectionery with a hard outer shell’ – often used for purposes other than consumption. The note mentions Mentos®. I went exploring and found that Mentos® dragées, which you and I would probably call lollies, sometimes come decorated with ’ementicons’. The accompanying slogan is ‘1 emoticon on each dragée’. (Click here for a short and mildly tedious video on the subject, and here for a slew of images). As I read it, PB has hijacked the phrase to describe her own poems, which are to be enjoyed like collections of small sweets, one more-or-less stand-alone chunk at a time, with a lone asterisk dividing the chunks from one another.
This isn’t a cheerful book. It starts out with a poem called ‘(best before)’ that is full of images of the end of usefulness, hospitalisation, the possible imminence of death, the absence of loved ones, a rodent, a general blanketing melancholia and lack of forward impetus. And it goes on from there.
But the gloom and melancholy don’t define it. At the launch of one of her books, Pam Brown’s reading was rendered almost inaudible by the football-watching cheers elsewhere in the launch venue. She commented that this was fitting for her poetry – it’s poetry that is full of distraction. It has mountain-goat agility, leaping from image to image, thought to thought, recollection to observation to self-questioning to mildly silly puns. To use a different image, it has bower-bird curiosity, picking up bright objects from the environment or from other people’s poetry and repurposing them.
It’s rich with references, some of which are partly explained in the notes up the back (like the Mentos®). Some of them can be googled, and I’ve learned about some odd corners of the universe by doing so. For example, ‘(best before)’ sent me off to discover the detail of the story of Robert Johnson at the crossroads). Others, if you don’t recognise them, you’ll just have to accept your non-knowingness. I’m a bit frustrated not to know who the title character from ‘(mme nhu)’ is, especially as she turns up in at least one other poem – I assume she’s not the first lady of Vietnam from the early 60s. But it doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of ‘(dingaling byways)’ that I can’t find anything online about the film named in these lines:
was the limited theatre of thunder ---------the worst super8 film --------------------------ever?------
I want to give you some examples of the lines that made me keep reading, and then rereading.
In ‘(best before)’, just as the poem is under way, the the poet’s critic-on-the-shoulder breaks in to question if it’s getting anywhere, and that interruption generates a lovely epic metaphor, which is then shrugged off:
the it's-interesting bla-bla question is – --is your slowly accreting poem morphing into a larger cloud yet – -a major poem ----ghosting in to sydney --past the heads, making its way to ashfield --------darker & darker birds swirling around in it - ------leaves ---------rubbish & debris full of menace & meaning? (what to answer – ----nup -----or -----I wish?) ---------*
A rare moment of autobiography in ‘(weevils)’:
you guess ----your gripes are class-riddled – -------------the déclassé ---------your cultural pretension in the army ----where you're mostly from rank masked class
This, from ‘(best before)’, captures a lot of Inner-West Sydney experience. It strikes a special chord for me – the landing planes fly even lower over my flat:
across the wetland -a shirry whine -------------big plane gearing up for take off warm winter night all wrong ----you're not there & that can be ------sad--- kind of the roar of landing --sounds like both a blanket ---------& a shroud
Here’s a nice example of the bower-bird impulse, some gossip from the stars, in ‘(dingaling byways)’:
---------gina lollobrigida ----==----kept her films ------------in the fridge solomon & sheba next to dog food beat the devil with wilting celery
I hope the melancholy has lifted in the years since these poems were written. Failing that, I hope that this indispensable poet can continue to beat the devil, even if she feels she’s doing it with wilting celery.