by David Brooks
University of Queensland Press
Published January, 2015
Open House is part of the continued resurgence of David Brooks as a poet. Although he has now published four collections of poetry since 2005, the first of these, Walking to Point Clear, was his first in 22 years. He is also the author of novels, short fiction, essays and non-fiction: Open House is part of a much larger field of language-making. Many of the poems in this collection embrace very public and contemporary discussions; their purposeful, conversational and even prosaic diction positions them not only as aesthetic forms, but also as miniature socio-political arguments or assertions. They can, in other words, be read as active, provocative instances of language, which form part of the author’s broader set of concerns.
Open House could also be understood within the context of its publishing house, University of Queensland Press. Thinking of the book’s title, what strikes me, rather than any intriguing word-play, is the image it describes: a contained, propertied space that is nevertheless ‘open’ or permeable. In much of this book, as in much of UQP’s poetry list, the texture of the utterance fades before the importance of the image it signifies. Indeed, when compared with the experiments in linguistic design and grammatical framing in the poetry lists of publishers like Giramondo, Puncher & Wattmann and Vagabond, UQP’s appears to be – with the exception of John Tranter’s titles – the most formally homogenous in the country. (I should emphasise that this is a point about form, not quality; some of my favourite poets are in UQP’s stable.)
Open House is predominantly a collection of descriptive poems, and our response to such work is largely determined by the success of often challenging and evocative imagery. Still, it would be a simplification of the book to ignore the sophisticated ways that Brooks uses these images to attempt to catalyse the reader’s engagement with aspects of contemporary politics and culture. In their simplified language, coupled with a consistent political engagement spurned by a deep concern for injustice – particularly when perpetrated against the non-human world – the poems recall various moments of the Romantic tradition, from the first English Romantics to Australians such as Judith Wright and contemporaries like Gary Snyder.
But where so many Romantics – Wordsworth and Snyder among them – have also been interested in expansive formal and thematic exploration, Brooks’s Romanticism involves a reaction not only against industrialist modes of production but against superfluous complexity in aesthetics. ‘Swallows’ could be the poet’s ars poetica:
to write the simplest things,
these sabre-sharp wings
severing words from their stems.
There is something of a rhythm in the alternation of the sections of Open House. The first, ‘A Place on Earth’, echoes the book’s title in its canny alternation of scales: where the enclosed space of the house was opened, the local is inserted in the midst of the global in ‘A Place on Earth’. The second section contracts to a series of more intimate postcards, or collections of notes and photographic images. Most of these are located in Slovenia, where Brooks spends several months of each year. Things broaden again in the third section, ‘Open House’, where powerful themes are brought into direct contact with the tranquillity of a domestic sphere, before the fourth section of the book, ‘Report from Blue Mountains’, which takes us back somewhat to the intimacy of the second section. There are lots of white cockatoos and crowing cocks in the fourth section, the former of which spill into the first poem of the fifth and final section, which remains more or less in the Blue Mountains but is infused with darker, more sombre tones, evocative of days passed or a time that is coming to a close. The contractions and expansions occur at the level of the poems, too. We see this in the title poem (more on that below), and also in ‘Winter Longing Poem’. Here, although ‘all the doors / and windows’ are open, the speaker’s longing remains confined inside. As if silenced by the irresolvable contradiction, the poem, after four lines, ends.
Brooks’ long-term involvement with animal rights is reflected in the way that some of the poems in Open House involve significant interventions from animals other that the human kind – as if critters had literally strolled through the open doors of the poet’s study during the process of composition. In the first two poems of the book, for example, other animals change or determine the very course of the poetry. In ‘A Place on Earth’, the rustling of something in a ti-tree bush – ‘a / wallaby perhaps, night bird or / wild dog drawn by the fire’ – takes a young boy ‘from his dreaming’ and reveals to him ‘the huge / darkness of the night’. So important is this revelation that ‘it will never leave him’ for the rest of his life:
his father sleeping, that something
rustling in the undergrowth,
and about him the galaxies turning, the still
point of his being,
a place on earth,
gift beyond measure.
In the following poem, an encounter first with a cockroach and then with ‘a / slug, leading its / small family somewhere’, lifts the speaker from the dark depths of a reverie about Baudelaire and the Christian soul. Everything stops, the stanza interrupted, before a small voice returns:
How can we
be so arrogant, to think that our
souls are worth so much?
These are some of the most striking and unsettling poems in the book. The careful but crucial use of enjambment echoes the descriptions of non-human ‘enjambments’ in human experience. In each case, too, a line break indicates not just a temporal pause, but a powerful ontological disjunction in which what we might have assumed to be the exceptional consciousness of the creative human is brought into relation with the intentions of other creatures.
Early in the book, however, a conflict seems to appear between the sentiment of a poem like ‘The Thick of It’, with its movement from introverted to extroverted perception, and some that closely follow it. Just two pages later, in ‘Rats, Lice and History’, the poet shifts back to a very introverted, cathartic mode, as if the epiphany from page five is all but forgotten. A Kerouac-esque trip down memory lane, ‘Rats, Lice and History’ is a fast-paced assortment of erotic and not-so-erotic encounters that took place while the speaker’s younger self was travelling through North America. Again, as in the earlier poems, another creature seems to prompt the poetic act: here, it is the ‘raucous song’ of ‘an old crow’ that leads us into the daydream. But unlike the earlier poems, the poet never seems able to return from his dreaming, overwhelmed as he is by the worlds of his memory. He certainly tries ‘like that / old crow to sing it out’, but by this point the poem is almost over. Indeed, many of the following poems might be seen as repeated attempts to achieve the kind of catharsis he yearns for here.
This kind of extreme alternation, from a near-complete disregard for humanity and humanist expression to a near-complete obsession with trying to articulate exactly what it is that is so important about how he feels, is at the very core of the book’s structure. Again, perhaps, it is reminiscent of that title: an object that is so open as to almost disappear in the openness versus the fact and importance of the object itself. Later on, we find poems like ‘Spiders about the House’, which begins with a sustained meditation about funnel-web spiders, and leads on to thoughts about other spiders, whose different webs all to end up contributing to a metaphor for the speaker’s own ‘damaged / and torn’ life. In this poem, as in many others in the Western tradition, spiders become servants to the poet’s consciousness, akin to living projections that portray the inner maladies of the human.
Or perhaps the situation in Open House is a lot more interesting. Perhaps it is more the case that the poet composes his poems only in careful dialogue with such creatures. These poems are, in other words, authored by a community of species, rather than the lone human poet. This could be the case in ‘A Call from Mandelstam’, where ‘a snow white moth’ literally inspires the ‘sudden urge for poetry’ while the poet is in the midst of doing the washing up. He drops everything, but before he goes into the living room to choose the right book of poems he looks back for the moth, who ‘might just have a clue’ as to what he should read. And, even more profoundly, ‘Tinnitus’ is a fascinating instance of becoming-cicada, where the cicada’s ‘shrill silver ristling’ all but subsumes the speaker’s being within a broader ecological net:
it is as if I were perpetually two,
as if anything you’d say you must say
also to the trees, the heat, the metal sky
The poem utilises an irregular series of end-rhymes, too, which only seems to cement the asymmetrical enclosure of this insect-human-world consciousness.
But overall I am not convinced that non-human participants are particularly important to Brooks’s poetics, and I don’t think Brooks is, either. Open House is simply too devoted to the Romantic lyric archetype, where the lone Poet reaches deep into his consciousness or soul and, in solitary splendour, reveals immortal Truths about the world (which, by implication, the rest of us are too silly to discover). If Truths can’t be discovered, the speaker despairs at his inability to channel the world’s song.
The poet of ‘Rats, Lice and History’ is overwhelmed by the enormity of what cannot be expressed; in ‘Vivaldi’, a different series of memories provokes a similar reaction. We tumble through ‘golden constellations’ with barely enough time to inhabit them until the speaker is silenced, once again, by ‘taut and wild confusions’. These structures recur in later poems, such as ‘Pears’ and ‘Silent Night’, albeit with very different material. ‘Pears’ chops off a long passage of near-journalese to leave us alone with a speaker who, again, is
making no sense of anything,
engulfed in mystery.
‘Silent Night’ avoids this retreat into confused solitude and ends powerfully, but the poem as a whole feels disjointed. In the light of the moving, concluding set of intonations, the earlier, rather diaristic passages seem superfluous.
Perhaps the situation is best summed up by the book’s title poem:
there are no birds to be heard,
only the deep thrumming of the body
like some huge vessel
moving slowly towards open water
and windows of the house
so open now
almost anything might enter.
Again, the body of the speaker fills the vast bulk of the frame, with his visual and other senses, all but obliterating the birds and whatever else might be there. It is crucial, then, if the doors and windows of the house are open to ‘almost anything’, that this poem of a closed, bodily space cannot continue: the second stanza quoted above is the last of the poem.
As a general rule, when other people are addressed in these poems, unless they are the object(s) of the poet’s love, the tone is invariably blunt and veers towards the condescending; when the mode becomes more confessional, the ‘I’ is often aching or broken. Such confessional poems sometimes have self-effacing or even sacrificial features as well, almost as if the ‘I’ is a form on which the poet’s body is to be hung:
There is nothing particularly unusual about this. Many confessional poets do similar things. But what is striking about such poems in Open House is how they fit with the simmering, nearly self-righteous poems about human beings in general: it is as if the confessions are apologia for the orations.
Ultimately, it is hard to say which mode gains ascendancy, for the will to disappear (or be crucified) is sustained with ‘If Anyone Asks for Me’ – ‘let someone say / “He is lost among clouds”’ – and ‘Report from Blue Mountains’:
I found myself longing for a country
where no one understands me.
In ‘White Cockatoos’, the poet might be the lone ‘coal-black / currawong’ amidst a horde of white cockies. It is not coincidental, either, that in ‘Mandelstam’ he identifies almost subconsciously with the
Russian poet [who] died
in exile …
In stark contrast to all of this, ‘Money Like Water’ is one of my favourite poems in the book, due in large part to the way in which the poet finally includes himself in the system he wishes to critique. Consequently, the poem’s bold, anaphoric rhythms build into a stirringly communal, even tribal, reading experience that is utterly at odds with the will to isolation:
Venice is drowning in money.
Vanuatu is drowning in money.
They say that the human body
is ninety-three percent money.
They say that we will choke on our own money.
They say there is no other way.
The narrative of a lone consciousness desperately trying to wade through the enormity of the surrounding chaos has deep cultural and historical resonance. And so it should. In drawing us into empathetic relations – whether with himself or with others – Brooks is drawing us into the world. We might, however, be concerned by what happens when Romantic politics assume the status of some kind of impregnable modus operandi. Straight after ‘Tinnitus’ we come to ‘At the University’, a poem that directs that typically Romantic scepticism of rational knowledge to probably one of the last places where Romantic theory is treated very seriously. ‘At the University’ is like the mutant offspring of a raunchy night shared between Les Murray and Gary Snyder: the poem is a universal interrogation of human culture – not just Western capitalist culture, apparently, but all races, classes and cultures that have ‘the ability to talk, remember, flush our scat’. We have all grown ‘taller … / fatter’ and ‘live / forty years longer’ because we have spent hundreds of thousands of years
eating our way
mindless through all
the creatures of the earth.
I am not sure whether I am more disturbed by the totalitarian politics of this poem, or by the way in which it casually associates itself with anti-intellectual symbolism in order to make a somewhat dubious point.
At any rate, the poem is an important sign of Brooks’s ongoing commitment to exposing our ‘inherent cruelties and prejudeces [sic] against animals’ (from the press release). Many poems in Open House raise questions about the roles and values of other animals in our lives, not least as sources of meat. ‘Carmen 193’ is perhaps the most memorable example, which I quote in its entirety here:
All day the poet writes
about the wondrous creatures of the world,
the beasts, the fishes and the birds,
their gracefulness, their speed, their flight,
then, wonder typed and safely filed,
wonders which to eat tonight.
Yes, the point is a good one: the instrumental use of animals in art reflects their instrumentalisation as sources of food. But this is more like a bumper sticker than a poem: it is cynical and patronising and, crucially, it only functions if we know the poet is sneering. And I don’t know how much Brooks himself is innocent of the crimes listed by the poem although clearly it is not about him (he doesn’t eat meat). The poem could be about him, in that it might refer to the pre-vegan Brooks (as ‘Jennifer’s Mound’ does, for example), but the association is hardly pointed. As such, ‘Carmen 193’ is a good representative of one of the unfortunate aspects of this book: many of Brook’s readers (myself included) will be supportive of the causes that he advocates, but will also feel that they are not worthy of assuming his privileged ethical position. The hierarchy often established by these poems is one in which the poet knows and can therefore judge, and the audience is often found guilty.
While this is not the place to enter into a sustained discussion about the issue (although, as I said earlier, it is also true that the discursive mode of these poems invites such discussion), it’ is worth pointing out one of the problems associated with making universalist or generalised critiques of meat eating. The argument against eating all meat is based on the premise that the killing of other animals is simply wrong (as opposed to an argument against eating meat produced by the grossly exploitative practices of the meat industry). This not only enacts a kind of hipster-era orientalism regarding traditional hunting and farming practices, it also raises the problem of how and why other animals might hunt and eat meat. ‘Oh,’ comes the response, ‘those other animals know no better.’ The very division between ‘the human’ and ‘the animal’ that the anti-meat eating advocate wants to abolish is immediately reinstated: animals are once again outside of ethics because they are without consciousness; Descartes returns.
The problem continues with ‘How to Ride a Horse’. The poem illustrates how riding a horse necessarily involves the abuse and killing of horses (and cows) in order to make the various accessories such as saddles, reins, straps, and so on. Brooks makes extensive use of italics here, not just to beat you over the head with emphasis, but also to indicate the dark currency of some key agricultural terms:
As for the second, the living horse,
it must be broken, unless of course
it has been bred in captivity, when it may be deemed
to have been broken from the start.
‘How to Ride a Horse’ makes perfectly good points, but once more I object to the arrogance implied in its utterance. The poem is addressed to ‘you’ and the frequent italics, as well as the facile humour, make it distinctly condescending. At the end of the poem, Brooks writes:
in the above, care, where
appropriate, to substitute
‘dead cow’ for ‘dead horse’.
I would also add, with the same smug tone, that we could substitute ‘Write’ and ‘Poem’ for ‘Ride’ and ‘Horse’ in the poem’s title, where writing a poem also implies the deaths of trees, not to mention the associated pollution, ecosystem destruction, and so on. But Brooks seems to be immune to these complications. Attracted primarily to what the biologists call ‘charismatic megafauna’, he is happy to criticise us for riding horses, or for writing about and eating birds, but Open House never seems to consider the poet’s ongoing involvement in such grotesque systems. For example, what are we to make of the fact that he ‘spends a small portion of each year in a village on the coast of Slovenia’ (from the first page of the book), and that part of Open House is based there? Does the extraordinary consumption of resources required for such regular international travel escape the condemnation that he levels at those who ride horses?
In a way, I am being grossly unfair here. Brooks is taking it upon himself to introduce to poetry some of the most pressing problems facing societies all over the world. He has forgone the somewhat easier option of writing consistently aesthetically pleasing and satisfying poetry, and has instead challenged the rarefied domains of classical poetics with powerful opinionated rhetoric. The simple, supple qualities of his language mean that he will be able to read these poems to all kinds of audiences, many of whom might be entirely unfamiliar with contemporary poetry, and generate considerable affect. Perhaps this is more important in this context – the transmission of potent affect, rather than the satisfaction of this particular reviewer’s preferences for contemporary poetics. However, I don’t think it is unreasonable to remain wary of simplified discourses where politics (or ecology) is concerned.
There is yet another sense in which Brooks’s crisp moral poetry acquires a disturbing darker shade. By about mid-way through the book, apart from an early, oblique reference to ‘Moon-men and Sun-men in corroboree’, I was starting to wonder about the ongoing absence of Aboriginal people and culture in the poet’s landscapes. Many of the poems are set in non-urban locations and more typical Romantic strategies of nature-valorisation would at least defer to token collections of Aboriginal people or their artefacts as remnants of a lost, but more desirable, world.
But the situation is quite different in Open House. The poem ‘We pass a town empty of people’, for example, images a utopian, post-human Australian landscape where animals thrive and the desert is ‘lush as legend’. The Indigenous people who played such an enormous part in cultivating the fertility of this ‘legend’ are entirely absent from the fantasy. Then we turn the page and find that, in the next poem, the voice of the great Gurrumul Yunupingu profoundly haunted the speaker ‘a year ago’ (my emphasis). Not only is Gurrumul’s presence spectral, therefore, but it is also a memory (a spectre of a spectre?). Between the two pages we witness both the erasure of Aboriginal presence from a prophecy of Australian ecology and the subliminal recognition that this presence might nevertheless continue to haunt such prophecies. But perhaps the most disturbing moment of all is to be found in ‘Plenitude’, where the poet mourns the death of ‘the last / Tasmanian Aboriginal’ – an all too common cliché that wilfully ignores contemporary Palawa culture.
Tasmanian Aboriginal people are not the focus of ‘Plenitude’, however, which is more about the plenitudes and scarcities of different Australian animals. The distance from, or proximity to, the animal that I mentioned earlier is probably the aspect of this book that most intrigued me. In large part, this is a result of the wider network of Brooks’s writing and thought. In an important 2013 essay, for example, Brooks argues passionately for the unsettlement of many of the prevailing orthodoxies in contemporary literary theory and philosophy:
Is it any accident that some of the most dominant ideas concerning literature’s relation to the world are in fact ideas of disconnection, inaccessibility and non-relation? Whose or what purposes does it really serve to believe that we are trapped in a prison-house of language? Whose or what purposes does it serve to believe that there is no inherent connection between word and thing?
The essay argues that twentieth-century literary theory has led us into a linguistic prison, in which the human mind is isolated entirely from everything else. Brooks proposes ‘an alternate route’, one motivated by priorities of care and connection rather than division and exploitation (it is easier to exploit that to which we are not connected). Following such a route might lead us ‘to emphasise that sense in which language itself is stimulated by our need for and relationship with the world, rather than as something which emblematises the world’s absence’. The problem for Brooks, as for many contemporary theorists, is that human cognition and culture have become transcendent realms, outside of which little has meaning or value.
To see the way these ideas are (not always) played out in Open House is fascinating. Some of those poems I have already mentioned, such as ‘A Call from Mandelstam’, certainly seem to cohere quite deliberately with the aesthetic activism proposed in Brooks’ essay. But then in ‘The Plover’, for example, the world of the Spur-winged Plover comes tantalisingly close before, alas, it is held back with those same assumptions of ‘disconnection, inaccessibility and non-relation’ that the poet argues against in his essay:
‘I’ve had enough!’ she seems to be shrieking,
‘and I’m not going to take it anymore!
– but these are only imaginings: no-one could guess
the true secret of the bird’s distress.
Later the bird flies away and, as she does so, the poem’s font also shrinks and tails off vertically into the right-hand margin (a rare but lovely instance of typographical play). The very next poem, however, a stirring account of the last time the poet ate meat, ‘Jennifer’s Mound’, re-enters the domain of the non-human all but entirely. With a candour reminiscent of Philip Hodgins, the poem recounts the killing of a pig, Jennifer, on a mound in front of her six companions, before it deviates radically at the end. We are left with the haunting image of all six pigs lying on the mound
like ghostly sentinels, their grief
as pervasive as the mist itself.
This is a magnificent poem, but the trans-human empathy is short-lived. In ‘Mist’, the ducks have ‘no message for me / or anyone I knew’ and, later, white cockatoos
no matter how closely we watch them
our mind cannot see.
I want to believe in the writer of the essay and the poet of ‘Jennifer’s Mound’, but I am not sure if the poet has entirely mustered the courage of his convictions.
I remain a little perplexed by Brooks. I was deeply affected by Walking to Point Clear when it was released and, in the decade since, I have paid close and appreciative attention to his scholarship. As I read more of his work, however, it became harder for me to align his poetry with the sophisticated nature of his other discourses. I would imagine an open poetics to be messy, multi-lingual, fragmented and endlessly many-sided, to operate at the very extremes of empathetic awareness and to radically challenge purified categories of ‘human’ and ‘animal’. What sort of poetry does such thinking produce? And how does it relate to Open House?
David Brooks, ‘The Fallacies: Theory, Saturation Capitalism and the Animal,’ Southerly 73.3 (2013).