Review: Philip Meadon Pam Brown

In a poetry world: Home by Dark by Pam Brown

What a great title: Home by Dark. A mere three syllables that slide from warm to cool, from safe-haven to the unknown. By themselves these three words seem almost nonsensical, only grammatical when we imagine the sentences they might belong to, or have come from. An overheard fragment of conversation? Something proverbial? Perhaps they are lifted from some central European folk tale, or Schubert’s Winterreise (1828) – whence their penumbra of unknown motivations and fateful journeys. They also move in the opposite direction, a palindrome of relief about making it back to the cave and getting the fire lit, ahead of the rising night monsters. It’s fun to ironise such imagined residues of the primal in our first-world lives. They persist in the genetic code of genres, the happenstance of idiom, the trashing of the myth hoard. Hollywood movie tags are probably close cousins: Home by Dark – Director’s Cut, a scary movie that splices, shamelessly and shallowly, the homely and the horrible.

When we finally come across the words, embedded in the poem ‘A day late’ towards the end of this collection, the context is at once plainer and more suggestive that we might have expected:

no gauche forays

into the underglot,

you’re home by dark

with a box of wine

The poem alludes to some kind of awkward scene, perhaps a relationship momentarily in jeopardy from the imperatives and desires of the inner life. Whether the second person is, in reality, the second person, or the persona of the poem looking back at herself in time, remains unclear. In other words, how self-regarding the poem is remains a question. The pathos of a mundane but welcome arrival home – ‘you’re safe now’ – is perturbed by the strange neologism ‘underglot’, the sub-tongue, that which cannot or should not be pronounced. And still heard as modifiers, from slightly further back, are the the slow, sardonic tones of ‘no gauche forays’. On the other side of a phrase that has been raised to the power of a book title, there is the slightly deprecating description of a wine cask as a ‘box of wine’. The poem as a whole creates other, larger phrases of more or less privatised meanings. At the level of the line, the reader is aware of the intentionality and contingency of words at every moment.

This kind of code-switching and the poem’s glimpses of the self’s interiors are characteristic of Pam Brown’s writing. They are also emblematic of her distinctive poetics: a material girl’s emphasis on everyday lives inflected via a hyperalert formal and linguistic imagination. But there are no unities here, no ease of voice, nothing like confession. All her work emerges out of a disruption, a dislocation, sometimes poignant, sometimes delinquent, between the experience of the world and the frankly dubious effort of representing that experience in language. It is always about language: that’s the reality.

The logic of this poetics also shapes the presence of ‘emotion’ in these poems, not at the level of the noun or the sentence, but according to Gertrude Stein’s insight, at the accumulative level of the paragraph or the whole poem. Thus in ‘Windows wound down’, ‘Spirulina to go’ and ‘Dry ice’,  where serious illness is addressed, the glancing, allusive, noise-ridden intersections of language and the life-world create the space of the poem – that is, when it isn’t joked aside, camouflaged in random lines from the Eagles and Bob Dylan. Whether poetry can even ‘follow’ the eruptions of the Foxtel-presented world, or the sad fact of illness and the decomposition of the body, is in question.

For Pam Brown, poetry is not the music of mimesis. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis rightly discerns, Brown ‘delights in the curiosities of the everyday, in notational sprezzatura’. But those efforts are just as much underwritten by a serious doubt about what any language can do. Perhaps that is at the heart of the experimental impulse: attempting alternative worlds in poetic language and form, rather than buying in to the illusion of a real or transcendent one. Each poem is a fresh opportunity to deal with the impossible, to report on the multiple, entirely fugitive worlds we inhabit. Each is concerned with experience rather than knowledge, reticence rather than consolation.

‘In my phone’ is another meditation on these puzzles, typically framed within an everyday experience of technology, this time telephonics – always a suggestive topic for poetry, given the vexed debates about ‘voice’ and presence. It is also a theme with deep roots in the modernist aesthetic, in moments such as Proust’s experience of talking to the disembodied voice of his grandmother on the telephone to Combray. I mention this because Pam Brown’s affinity for French and modern French literature is an important element in her writing. It is no coincidence, for example, that this poem also includes a kind of Max Ernst-like collage dream sequence. This is appropriate for other reasons, including the way the poem shifts in and out of the surreal screenings of a dreaming consciousness.

The poem starts with a little oral history of pre-digital telecommunications, the title having already implied a mobile device. The expression ‘In my phone’ refers to the whole world of information and communication ‘in’ a mobile device. Pre-digital telephones had no such virtual interiors, they were merely instruments. There were lines and exchanges, rather than providers.

… but we did

have telephones

in late seventies’ share houses,

bulky Bakelite telephones

ringing as often

as Frank O’Hara’s

and Brigid Berlin’s did …

It makes perfect sense that these memories of clunky old Telecom handsets from Brown’s bohemian youth in Sydney are associated with two heroes of the avant-garde and the underground: the late-Beat New York school poet Frank O’Hara and one of Andy Warhol’s iconic Chelsea girls, Brigid Berlin. Both O’Hara and Berlin were obsessed with capturing the unpredictable, everyday experience of life in the city and calling it art – ‘lunch poems’, the moment of ‘Personism’, cassette tapes of ‘Max’s Kansas City’, polaroids. The poem asks the further question: how is consciousness – not experience necessarily – ‘redacted’ into the poetry world? Recording what one sees and experiences, ignoring the mainstream historical genres of expression, worked in the 1970s. But what of the interior world of the brooding poet of 40 years later?

half asleep, half dreaming,

a phone is ringing,

I hold the earpiece close –

friends pollute the swoony hours

with caring

In a poetry world

everything is providential,

or not,

and, sometimes,

just life on hold, call waiting,

like Tennyson’s poetic

reading now, quiet

a newer title –

That last reference is to the wax cylinder recording of Tennyson’s bardic reading of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, a strange canonical ghost from the nineteenth century, a performative voice not a speaking one. The persona of the poem could call (or ring?) its dedicatee, Gig Ryan, to ask about the fine point of poetics here, about the nature of speech in the poetry world:

I always skip

redacted poems,

the crossings-out seem obvious

and attention seeking –

you would agree?

your number’s in my phone,

I could call to ask.

This is not, though, a world in which real phone calls are made; it is a poetry world, overlapping with a medial ecology, in which such questions can be entertained, shared: how to make poems out of language, including conversations – via digital technology, or imagined – that, as Frank O’Hara said in the Personism manifesto, could just as easily be replaced by phone calls? How to make poems that have the immediacy of polaroids in the visual field? That Pam Brown’s blog is titled The Deletions comes into the frame here, its title suggesting the aesthetic practices of omission and selectivity.

All the same, this poetics is not about the ‘purification’ of language. As much as O’Hara and Berlin did, Brown revels in the indiscriminate and the aleatory. The impurity in Brown’s poetics also draws strength from earlier examplars, such as the modernist Hope Mirrlees and her typo-kaleidoscopic dérive ‘Paris: A Poem’ (1919). ‘American Memories, Melbourne’ is Brown’s jazzed-up equivalent of this kind of graffiti poem, contrapuntally switching between notational impressions of Melbourne and memories of American cities and art communities. And as far as impurity is concerned, there have always been such moments in Brown’s poetry, and there are some in this collection, where the language modulates into a kind of scat. Not surprising for someone who once played in a rock band. As she writes in ‘More than a feuilleton’ – another title subtly invoking poetry as a colourful supplement to the official, the public, the news – poems are the unofficial, living ‘talk of the town’. Accuracy and alertness to the daily workings of language are the key:

my task –

reinvigorate ossified poetries

by adulteration

who says ‘penned;

instead of

‘wrote’ or ‘written’?

always say

I data entered

that poem!

As I hope these few windows onto this latest collection show, Pam Brown’s writing remains loyal to traditions of contemporary international innovation and experiment. Since the early 1970s, her work has been a major contribution to the experimental traditions in Australian poetry, although she is allergic to such nationalist formulations. In the introduction to her curated ‘Fifty-one contemporary Australian poets’ for Jacket2 magazine, for example – another contribution to the circulation of avant-innovative poetry from Australia – she both points to distinctive features of Australian contemporary poetry and acknowledges that ‘no-one knows how to answer’ the question ‘do you think of yourself as an Australian poet?’

Brown’s body of work is now substantial and complex in its range: it includes poetry (including collaborative projects), literary production, editing, performance, theatre and visual media. It draws on and connects with a wide range of international counter-traditions, historical and contemporary. Yet at its core there has always been an insistent localism. And that remains a feature of all the poems in Home by Dark. This is probably the most irrepressible of the energies in Brown’s work: the resistance to deterritorialisation of perspective and language, given the allure of avant-garde traditions that are grounded elsewhere. In one of her ‘statements on poetics’, for example, she provides what could be a precise epigraph to many of her poems:

My topic is local. The poems rarely leave whatever street I’m on. They are as mobile and as mutable as my daily life.

This is a response to the globalistic, media saturated world in which the daily streams of content are always blaring about what Georges Perec called the ‘big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary … the scandal, the fissure, the cataclysm, the fast-breaking event, the global emergency’. Brown’s poetry certainly registers these intrusions, but its characteristic gesture, perhaps fundamentally a feminist one, is also to try to side-step them, or at least not to be deafened by them. Her poetry is a kind of search for the background noise of meaning, where, as she wrote in ‘The Long Years’ from Dear Deleria (2002),

we may eventually locate the places

beyond memory in imagined countries

where English is the last language

It is also worth stressing that from within this broadly experimental position, with its activist edges, its self-reflexivity and its micro-politics of form, the instinct for communicability in her work remains strong:

A benign compulsion nudges my writing practice. The process is to track lines of thought, to collect and record glimpses, to use snatches of language and try to place them at a slant to a linear norm. I write poetry in the shadows of the twentieth-century post-Modernist idea that after the A-bomb, linearity is anachronistic. Generally though, my continuing aim is intelligibility.

We could say that Pam Brown’s driving interest is in what Perec called the infra-ordinary: the ‘truly ordinary in our daily lives … that which literally, goes without saying’, the things seemingly without value. Her poetry is skilful at reminding us of where our lives actually are, and how the renewable resource of poetry is always ordinary language. There is also a wit that plays through her poetry (‘carbon toe-print’ in ‘Wet flannelette’) as a kind of proxy for hope, whatever the occasional sharpness of its activist voice: a kind of bemused wonder at the weird and unpredictably significant ways in which poetry can weave in and out of people’s inner lives, including her own. The poems in Home by Dark are to be read alongside, as they were for me, Patti Smith’s reminiscence of her conversations with Lou Reed about Delmore Schwartz, and the articles about Daniel Radcliffe’s movie role as the young Allen Ginsberg. That’s the poetry world.


Pam Brown, The Deletions
Pam Brown, ‘Fifty-one contemporary poets from Australia,’ Jacket2 (2011-2012)
Georges Perec, L’infra-ordinaire (Seuil, 1989).