the chestnut booth smells great (‘Susceptibility Song’)
Pam Brown’s poems are not inimical to close reading, but they do resist it. What they seem to encourage, however, is a new mode of conceptual criticism: one that thinks about the conceptual on the line – and even the word – level (rather than that of the project, say). The short poetic segments that make up each whole provide (potentially infinite) new takes on the matter at hand: as extensions, corrections, additions, relocations. Brown’s poetry suggests reading as an active process: the poem being made as you read, not the poem waiting for your interpretation. It’s like a live installation, perhaps a version of Bakhtin’s ‘consciousness of consciousness,’ or, (Bakhtinian) Ilya Kliger’s, ‘knowing-in-motion’. A Brown poem can be read as a static object, but this would be perverse.
Without noticeably changing the form of her poems, Brown slyly updates with each book. The poems in Click Here For What We Do are, to an extent, about poetics, in that they tend to include little demonstrations of how tropes work – or can work – circa now. They demonstrate poems as thinking – and thinking about thinking. The poems, like those of previous books, may be strings of short moments, but like long jumpy jewellers, or long island iced teas, the strings are getting longer. A ‘click’ might be (conceptually) sounding to tell you to pay attention now, rather than wait for an accumulated pay-off.
In ‘Susceptibility Song’, the third of the four long poems that make up the book, Brown neatly updates a Les Murray image by way of J.L. Austin’s How to do Things with Words:
Big Les’s poem has ‘spoor botch’ I’ll remove the ‘ch’ spoor bot
The poem both enacts what it’s saying it is doing (i.e. removal), as well as gestures towards something further – the new concept, of the ‘spoor bot’. The poem updates Murray’s grim Anglo-Saxon by putting it into the language lite of internetese. Both suggest something of the mark of writing, albeit with the feet, and make a nice trinity with AD Hope’s ‘spoor of Yahweh’. In the next segment of the poem, on the page facing, Brown explicitly ‘credit[s]/the internet’s ingress’. Commenting on the conceptual, post-Oulipoian penchant for noun substitution, Brown cites Australian marsupial names (quokka, quoll, koala) which then slide into the ‘quaqua’ of Samuel Beckett. A lifetime of reading makes internets of all of us – but only if we think of the internet as a relatively benign archive. The morphing of the plural marsupial recalls the punningly titled ‘Rooibos’, from Brown’s previous book of poetry, Missing Up:
show me a marsplu a marsuple a marsupial no one likes
There’s life (and hilarity) in Latin yet. The snaking, foot-stepping short lines, as well as the gaps and reliefs, that constitute these poems, have become their own form: they voice themselves. Or, to make a Biblical allusion (one which participates in a larger narrative of folk tales of human-snake dialogue and bewitching), the poem speaks Brown’s knowledge in the moment of truth, poet and poem eyeing each other in Eden.
We live in a state of furphy. Whether it’s the movement of asylum seekers, or shonky politician behaviour, government promotes and enforces the rule of furphy. Furphy, settler Australian for rumour (its root related to fart), is the most we are allowed to know. Such is life, but Brown, for one, and the poem, for another, aren’t going to take it. Perhaps it’s vulgar to say so, but a poem is not a pure body. While speech is one metaphor for poetry that comes out the mouth, the body has other sounding, airing, orifices, which put new, colonial, life into the conceit of the line as breath.
But then, the line is just one level of form. Poets think, too, about how lines occupy the space of the page, and what the forms of page and poem represent. Olson’s theory of the poem as a field is an obvious example. In his visual mode, Apollinaire may have thought of the page as sky at one time, and as scene at another. Could it be an olfactory space? The creature-poem moving through the white gas of a fart fog? Furphy is a tricky term to extend beyond the vernacular moment, as it is a fond expression, as fond as the putatively negative, personified, concepts of bastard and dag. Do we speak furphy to power, or sniff out the furphies of power?
Because, hang on – isn’t a poem a kind of furphy? One often made up of smaller furphies (tropes), ingeniously tilting towards and away from thought, thoughts: other people’s furphies. As a rumour, a furphy performs as a language affect. This is the terrain that Brown’s poems trace, encounter, brood upon. Is the operability of capitalism a furphy? Can we get an update?
Updating, the capitalist imperative, and given the book’s title, a quasi-theme, gets pastiched from page one of the first poem, ‘Combination Soup’:
flat screen hd tv in a red wheelbarrow hard rubbish going home
It’s not just an ironic joke at Williams’s – and the dead future-past’s – expense, but also a lament. There’ll be no nostalgia around the corner, either. The following stanza, next page gives us:
the nazi train full of gold in a railway tunnel in poland we don’t know where
This is a slap in the face of imagery altogether, erasing any foolish innocence we may have attached to the previous stanza. When pollution mimics clouds (‘cirriform recedes/in a chemtrail wake’), and furphyists compete for the best-paid truth, then mongering is a natural place for poetry to be.
In Brown’s hands, poetry approaches a science of discourse. Apply as necessary (i.e. always). Such poetry requires a strong narrating hand. The narration may move constantly, but it has to be under control. According to Bakhtin, novelists battle with their characters for control of the narration. While Brown’s poetry doesn’t feature characters as such, there are plural voices; and there is also the poet’s battle – and in this her poetry is comparable to peers Gig Ryan and Jennifer Maiden – with the language of public discourse. But the poems are not just that either, there are also ‘overheard’ moments, and the restless citing of banalisation (a favourite complaint of Brown’s) of phrasemaking (of course related to public discourse also, but not solely). The poems question what can be said, what can be said about what is said, as well as how can what can be said be presented. Aka ‘Combination Soup’: where soup can blur the distinction between, say, interiority and exteriority. Form says forget that, form says it’s all poem. The poem on the page goes into our brain. But unlike soup it’s still on the page. Poetry’s magic pudding like that.
Brown has an ongoing battle with form. This could be said of all poets, yet every poet’s battle is different; those who write a longer line, for example, have a different rhythmic task to Brown, whose poetry emphasises enjambment and indent: to keep words saying and not going flat – a major risk of the short line. Because of their length they are not the kinds of poems that can be installed – or cornered – in a newspaper: a situation mocked by Brown:
there a little poem tucked at the end of the lifestyle supplement just a bit bigger than a horoscope chunk to give it its due
In these long poems made up of fragments, there is a particular problem of scale: how much can be held in the mind? Do the juxtapositions have to work over the length of the poem, or just for a reading moment? Beginning with ‘soup’ as a metaphorical form is a good way to initiate it. Each section is kind of an image in itself, and, while often suggesting a scene, no scene is itself the poem, the moment, the resolution. We can call this montage, and it probably owes something to that: the filmic (or televisual), as a metaphor, has the advantage of suggesting the mobile, and the temporal. Brown as TV chef puts a stock cube in the boiling water and follows it with a carrot.
Yet it’s perhaps facile to think of Brown in this way, as the cook: perhaps she is in the soup, with us, and the poems are her perspective on – or from – it; or maybe she’s just describing eating it. A section beginning ‘noodle bowls’ and ending with ‘mint’ conjures up a scene of eating pho, but the preceding section concludes: ‘rain taxi [U.S.-based online review journal]/book thug [Canadian poetry publisher]/ I ate all your bees’ [Black Books TV show quote/meme (available as a customisable t-shirt from Zazzle)]. Images of ‘independent’ consumption: in more explicit, if metaphorical, terms: ‘“losing my religion”/cost $2.19’.
The sections vary not just in terms of subject matter or tone, but also in terms of level, or position, of commentary. A journal or publisher can have its figuration repurposed as an image in a poem; or, the speaking subject can be ironised:
I’d like to say something now but outside the planes heading off are so noisy I’ll wait
While the humour and worrying at statement can be read as post-Stein, another battle informing the poetics is Gertrude Stein’s statement, or remark: ‘Remarks aren’t literature’. Stein’s world was not our world but Stein’s remarks are still worth thinking about, especially with relation to her own poetry, which was radically, plurally, formally, different to her modernist peers (inexhaustively, Sitwell, Cummings, Eliot, Hughes, Loy, Moore, Pound, and Williams). The just-named all incorporate different modes and kinds of diction and address into their poetry; all distance their readers in the way performative discourse distances. While she was alive, many readers of Stein found her difficult, and difficulty is also distancing, yet much of her poetry reads to me now as a consistently intimate narration. In her poetic texts (as opposed to her novels or memoirs) Stein rarely uses any kind of dialogue, quotation or allusion; one exception is a line from ‘Sing a song of Sixpence’: ‘The queen was in the parlor eating bread and honey the king was in his counting house counting out his money.’ Stein does not use quotation marks and the line barely interrupts the intimate tone of her bedtime, philosophy-of-science style, narration. As Leonard Diepeveen notes in his book on the quoting poem, ‘All quoting exploits an alien texture’, which is just what the other modernists, excluding Stein, wanted to do. Which brings us back to the remarks and mixed diction of Brown, who in her quoting of various discourses, and levels of discourse, is more like most modernist poets, yet in making them her own, she is perhaps more like Stein. How alien is an alien? Brown’s poetry – like Stein’s – may be seen, as Jane Palatini Bowers argues, as a ‘closed system’ – though Brown’s appears more formally, and affectively, open. While this might sound like an issue relating to the domesticating, or colonising, of the others’ language, it is also be a question of how welcome, or otherwise, a space is to language, and the how, why and what of its being there.
the past is stifling I was susceptible to it until now (‘Susceptibility Song’)
Poetry operates in relation to other forms of discourse and art and media practices. However varied or conscious of this, or however influenced by these practices, the poetry is, depends on the poet. Some poetries try to maintain a reserved stance (we might call this ‘conservative poetry’: a poetry which acts as if poetics is already decided – by Aristotle? TS Eliot? – as if there is only more criticism to produce), while others are interested in exchange, thinking about what new forms of art, speech, sociality, can bring to poetics. When I think of remarks I think of social media, its forms all having their impact on poetry. Status updates and tweets, have in a sense, given remarks further formal definition, while not necessarily making them more literary.
Poetry that has too many ideas threatens to sink the comfortable ship of the literary. When the continuance – even popularity – of poetry is continually undermined and resisted by the literary (are writers festivals literary?) – and larger – forces that are attracted to the main bourgeois idea, that is, lifestyle, that is, money, as well as the competition social media offers, with its affective language forms, a conservative stance is understandable, and perhaps no more doomed than any other.
Brown refers to ‘not “being conceptual”’, in the context of ‘watch[ing] the weather’ on TV. Presumably this is an allusion to Kenneth Goldsmith’s book of weather-reports-as-poetry, The Weather. Yet the ‘we’ of the poem love how boring the weather is: ‘so boring as to be so bent’. Embracing boredom being typical of the (queer) North American avant-garde (Warhol, Cage), and Goldsmith, too. ‘Not “being conceptual”’ would indicate – if this is a momentary articulation of Brown’s poetics, rather than numerous other possibilities – that Brown is inclined to veer away from the possibility of a book of status updates-as-poetry also. Yet, given the lyrical fragmentation of social media, resemblances inevitably occur. Goldsmith’s book is both literal and conceptual; its generic sounding title suggests something of the way titles act as frameworks for concepts rather than mere descriptors. Pre-Goldsmith, we might expect a poetry book called The Weather to be an ironic narrative about the ups-and-downs of a relationship, that is, the title would be metaphorical. Brown’s titles aren’t purely conceptual, but neither are they purely metaphorical. Click Here For What We Do is proximate to both. How, and what do we click (with)? Where exactly is the ‘here’ that we click? How encompassing is the ‘we’? Can ‘do’ be metaphorical? The poem titles, ‘Combination Soup’, ‘Susceptibility Song’, ‘Left Wondering’, and ‘A Mockery’ veer between conceptual, metaphoric, punning and tropic framings. The possibility and practice of conceptual poetry, requires the development of not just a conceptual poetics, but a conceptual criticism that is prepared to take such possibilities into account in any contemporary poetry, and not just that which presents itself as a conceptual project.
What makes poetry socially, or community-minded? What makes it worldly? One way of reading poetry in these terms is, rather than, say, its themes, or its mode of representation, is the way the poems’ voices operate: the shifts between voices; their vocal plurality. A poem can itself be a conceptual community. If we read poems, especially lyric poems, as solely approximating the voice of the poet, we can miss a lot. As critics, we can also learn a lot from studies of narration. Another Bakhtinian, Victoria Somoff, claims that the realist novel makes its historical ‘advance’ when novelists became able to manipulate narration dexterously enough that ‘the very distinction between the external and internal ceases to be operative and is thereby “forgotten”’. Such arguments may seem to be more of an issue for fiction, than for poetry, which uses characters less often (outside verse novels), although there are poems featuring characters by Maiden, Murray, Judith Beveridge, John Tranter and Ouyang Yu, to name major exceptions; and it’s not so unusual for poets to try their hand at portraiture, or anecdotes which feature figures distinct from the narrator.
Further, of course, the range of personae in an oeuvre is also up for examination: personae may be explicit, or arguable. Narrative verse, aside, perhaps character is not quite the point. A poem can, theoretically, feature several characters and still maintain one narrative voice; it can also lack discernible, or ‘fully-fledged’, characters and have a complex mix of narrative voice. This range and mix often seems to go unnoticed, yet it is, largely, I would argue – in some poets, anyway – where most of the ‘work’ of the work is found. By voice mix, or what we might call vocal form, I mean things like changes in person, register, tone, diction, speaker, address, allusion, quotation. These shifts are not necessarily determinable, either, but are, rather, up for critical discussion. To be general about the poetics of poetry is to refer to a vast field: we might better concern ourselves with a poetics of voice (or a poetics of image, or of trope). In Brown’s Click, the ‘we’ who like watching the weather is a shift from the ‘I’ of two sections preceding; the following section:
you are welcome to stop reading this poem now whoever you are thanks
might be spoken by the ‘we’, the ‘I’, a new ‘I’ – or, it might be something more like a public service announcement. The ‘thanks’ might be generic or sincere, the same speaker or different. Then we have
becoming light early in the morning becoming patchy in the middle of the day
Who says this? A narrator parodying the weather, and therefore, perhaps the bent people who love it? Or the bent people, or one of them, parodying the weather, parodying themselves in comparison with the weather, or, is this what the weather person actually says, they themselves in parody, or straight-faced? Other lines point to (a poet’s) speaking contexts: ‘I dread the agora too/ like, panel talking/performing poems’, but then later: ‘I’m living in a silent film’. The shifts in Brown’s – or Henry Lawson’s for that matter – poems require perhaps a kind of graph, or table, rather than description. Brown’s book’s title, then, might refer to voices: click here for what we do. In ‘Combination Soup’ the voices are held together by bowl of the reader’s ear-mind – and I, for instance, forget – like I’m reading a novel – that not all the speaking, or language, is coming from the one speaking subject, authorised by the poet. (We must conceptualise, metaphorise, differently, for the other three poems, with their other-than-soup frameworks.) There is enough consistency, of tone, or attitude, to sustain this. The poem ends with the constructed poet-narrator speaking to the soup:
nothing hereafter? I ask my lonely bowl of soup
The soup doesn’t apparently reply – but I read ‘bowl’ as ‘howl’ with my challenged sight. The mix continues in the following poem, ‘Left Wondering’: featuring remembered quotes from the speaker’s mother, for example; allusions to hashtags; further tonal ironies; and underlined emphases.
While we might conceptualise a meaningful relation to Brown’s form, including vocal form, through comparison with the stepping, scratching and mimicking of Australian birdsong culture, and practice (as a way of opening up discussions of poetics beyond the human), there are also interesting comparisons to be made beyond that of Western, European-American, and modernist. (I have already referred to Bakhtin, a key theorist for historical poetics; in this context, Bakhtin’s ideas – and those of others, such as Olga Friedenberg – supplement those of foundational nineteenth-century Russian critic, Alexander Veselovsky.) We can find discussion of vocal form, specifically with regard to the muwashshah, in Islamic poetics, for instance. The muwashshah is a sung, musically accompanied, form from Spain, which dates back to around 900. ‘Although consistently displaying a stanza-refrain arrangement’ as musicologist Lois Ibsen al Faruqi notes, the muwashshah is a various form. While refrains are not a typical aspect of contemporary poetry in English, there are many single lines (or remarks) in Click that might serve for refrains, if adapted to musical performance. Again, while muwashshah is a rhyming form, there are other aspects which are pertinent, in comparative terms, at the very least. The muwashshah does not, as al Faruqi describes it, merely vary from poem to poem: its form varies within itself. Changes include the number of divisions of line, or strophe, changes to rhyme pattern, and changes in ‘word usage’: that is, the types of words, and sources, used. The musical accompaniment of the muwashshah also adopts this processual change, analogously.
It is significant, in terms of poetry’s vocal plurality, that al Faruqi says of the muwashshah that: ‘it may be briefly defined as a vocal composition performed by a chorus or by a chorus alternating with solo’. Is this not a possible clue to Brown’s poetics, in its most basic conceptual Aristotleanism, of keeping the plot moving? Voices/voice/voices. Discourse/remark. Al Faruqi refers to the musical style of muwashshah as ‘monochrome’ in terms of its ‘durational qualities’, noting that it rarely uses a long note: ‘and even these are more often accompanied by vocal or instrumental ornamentations or repetitions which keep the sound moving and diminish the effect of length’. Al Faruqi emphasises the abstract nature of the sound patterning, comparing the variety of beat use in muwashshah, to assert there is no ‘mood or topic’ associated with any one sound or pattern. (Abstraction is in accord with Islam, as al Faruqi notes: it does not signify a secular, avant-garde, context, as it may in some Western cultures).
Not that Brown’s poems are moodless or topicless, yet I think there is an evening out of both: as phrase, or concern, is replaced with a new one; further, I think it is interesting to imagine the separation between the voices in Brown’s poetry, and what they are saying. How separable are they? How individual are the voices – and how communal is this poetic practice? There is a tendency to abstraction, in that sections are not usually ‘placed’; they are at times universal, an anywhere; even an exception, like the precise mention of ‘Eddie’s café’, refers to a past event: it is the thought of the café that is current. Only occasionally do names appear, as in ‘Helen’s kitchen ceiling’ (apart from reference to the famous or dead), but then, too, the ceiling has been abstracted from Helen. Who are the ‘we’ that watch TV?
Al Faruqi’s discussion of the varieties of muwashshah is necessarily complex, and I am not making or suggesting any close comparison with muwashshah and Brown’s poetry, but rather conceptualising new possibilities for thinking about word patterning and vocal form.
Vocal form isn’t everything; yet neither is it separable from the poem on the page as structured arrangement. I’ve already noted Brown’s short, stepped line; the quotes from the book illustrate the particularity of the line spacing. They recall the lines of Williams, which you could say of any short line, but the comparison with Brown’s line can be taken interesting further, I think: as a conceptual version of Williams’s variable foot. It is not metrical (or quasi-metrical) concept; it has the added advantage of being re-literalised, as we think of the poet walking around. Consciously walking, not treading too heavily, or taking too much from any one location: only what’s needed. As Tim Wright notes in his review of Click, the four poems which constitute the book are longer than any previous poems published by Brown. Nevertheless, the short lines, and sections, of the poems emphasise smallness. We might read this as an acknowledgement of the smallness of human concerns, of any one human’s, or of the smallness of poetry itself. Writing as an anti-aggrandisement. How important is importance? we might ask. The poet may reply, ask the jumbuck, or ask Matilda. Enough rendering of mosquito fat: click here, and read on.
Al Faruqi, Lois Ibsen. ‘Muwashshaḥ: A Vocal Form in Islamic Culture.’ Ethnomusicology, vol. 19, no. 1, 1975. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/849744.
Jane Palatini Bowers. Gertrude Stein. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1993.
Pam Brown. Missing Up, Vagabond, 2015.
Leonard Diepeveen. Changing Voices: The Modern Quoting Poem. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993.
Kenneth Goldsmith. The Weather. Los Angeles: Make Now, 2005.
Ilya Kliger. ‘On “Genre Memory” in Bakhtin’ in Persistent Forms: Explorations in Historical Poetics. Eds. Ilya Kliger and Boris Maslov. New York: Fordham UP, 2016.
Victoria Somoff. ‘Alexander Veselovsky’s Historical Poetics vs. Cultural Poetics’ in Kliger and Maslov.
Gertrude Stein. ‘More About Money’. Look at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures 1909-45. London: Penguin, 1990.
Timothy Wright. ‘Cancel the Lot.’ Australian Book Review. August 2018.