Review: on joanne burns

Rampant verbal flowering: brush by joanne burns

A poet often seeks to distill the air to a comprehensible clarity. In her latest collection, joanne burns willfully does the opposite, forsaking clarity for the head spin, the exploding lobe. In her previous collection amphora (2011), she issued a call to the poem: ‘may / the polysemic flower’. In brush, she summons an even more rampant verbal flowering, as she brushes up against the wild, mundane and dizzying aspects of everyday life.

I read brush three times before I felt adequately prepared to write this review. On the third reading, an alternative clarity emerged, one that artfully purified a contemporary experience – media saturation, information overload, advertising bombardment, excess consumption, political vertigo and decay – offering a humorous, perhaps nonchalant attitude as a pathway through the heady jumble that constitutes our existence.

Cover images can frame a collection of poetry so well, and this one is perfect. ‘Fun Fair’ by Joy Hester (c.1946) depicts a ‘fun fair’ by the ocean (Luna Park?) that is a monstrous, black square with window eyes and a jagged-toothed mouth. It is devouring a wispy female character, who has collapsed in what seems to be resignation. She has given in to the absurd machine, which may have promised fun in the brochure, but kept the menace at bay until she was deep within its jaws. Yet the image is also amusing, delightful in the unexpected bite of contradiction.

Reading brush, we are perhaps (along with burns) this girl, at the mercy of a text that could be mistaken for restless wordplay by a less enthusiastic reader, but which reveals much more that is menacing – and beyond that, redemptive – when we get a little closer. The poems may be particularly resonant for those who live in the city, where one cannot escape the noise and the frenzy, a busyness captured in three lines of the poem ‘choir’:

i turn my head it rattles like a world
that’s lost its spin in allergies, a choir
of off-tune scribbled chores

These lines resound with the contemporary moment, poetic lines entangled with things that are bad for the body and soul, upsetting to the ear’s equilibrium, pummeled in the rush of things-that-must-be-done. I am burns’ wispy allergic girl, a-panic in the city – who among us is not? So, what, I ask, can burns offer me in the way of an antidote?


brush is split into six sections. The collection opens with a section titled ‘bluff’ (are we being tricked? thrown off the cliff?), in which each poem forges a surprising union between financial investment jargon and the poetic line. To quote the opening poem, ‘factoidal,’ in its entirety:

does your share portfolio ache
unlock your teeth in the adrenal winds,
the facilitationality of a sea of nomadic desks
doesn’t need to be seen to be believed –
flotsam and jetsam are serious navigators
in this expedition of trust, new world
values never as new as invention;
you were born with collateralised genes
zenned up couch pod tycoon
invest in your personal equator
it’s neptune or never

burns is a wit: the poet’s occupation is, as we all know, a financial planner’s worst nightmare. To throw portfolios, trust, collateral, investment and corporate tycoons into the poem’s territory is a bold statement on ‘new world values’, which are ‘never as new as invention’ – i.e. the artist’s craft. This poem fuses financial and mythic metaphors to create a hybrid landscape: an economic chart of peaks and troughs, like waves, controlled by a powerful figurehead. It sets out on a hysterical modern odyssey, where calculators replace the compass and it’s risk all or bust.

The poem is darkly humorous, and recognises the turn (not a new one, but certainly one that has been emphasised post-GFC) from god worship to capital worship. burns’ tone, here and throughout brush, suggests that she is both restricted by the tight ‘personal equator’ of her finance-world (‘i’m a bit nervous doing my / sums’) and delighted by its absurdity, providing ironic fodder for her art: ‘the bulls are roaring’, she writes. Are these religious objects or wall street bulls?

As the section continues, the poet bombards us with wave upon wave of lunatic capitalism, bulls running everywhere in a corporate corrida. Nothing escapes the lure of wise investments:

leave the old pacific chunder
of tin coins and the crested carpet    that pokie
spew is for the mugs    shares can be your shoreline.

We should prepare for

complementary seasons    bulls
and bears    glitches and corrections
peaks and troughs     but she’ll be safe

until ‘niche profits on a global / dive’ may ‘ride you into / bank-ruptcy’.

Corporate terminology collides with poetic chutzpah, and burns blends this abstraction-combination with plenty of humour and movement. In ‘mannafacturing’, we see

the market
on a roll, more swiss
than sausage and
sweeter than an audit
banks danced with renewed

While in ‘bluff’,

bankers dance the zumba junta
in the constitutional ballroom


pecuniary interests were
introduced to love investments, just by chance.

burns proposes an almost-antidote to the bulls, banks and market frenzy, but the whiff of capital lingers:

AAA rated air it could
revive those pores
like a yacht in a sunset


The second section, ‘in the mood’, contains prose poems and flash fiction that continue this focus on the strangeness of the everyday. There is less frenzy in this section, as burns relaxes into short-short-storytelling mode.

burns is known for her quirky flash fiction – indeed, there is a national award for the form that carries her name. The pieces in this series exhibit her flair, pointing out peculiarities of language and its relation to the self-in-space. The subject of the first poem, ‘foyeuristic’, is trying to locate ‘meaning’ and she is told that it is ‘in the second room’. She then finds a sign that says ‘meeting this way’. It suggests that one can easily entertain encounters, but meaning cannot always be found via someone else’s direction. The poem is a parable about personal satisfaction in life as much as it is a lesson in reading poetry.

Other pieces in this section are focused on aspects of the ageing body, including meditations on hair loss (‘literate’) and on falling down (‘easy’). The multi-part poem ‘wink’ is about eye ailments and clarity of vision. Pondering the floaters that cloud our eyesight, burns writes:

i wondered whether all those heritage listed visionaries and mystics simply were victims of retinal mistranslation – something a visit to an eye hospital or an optometrist might have fixed.

We sense the burns eye a-flutter, winking cynically as she unravels the mysteries of a romantic outlook.

My favourite piece in this section is the titular poem ‘in the mood,’ and especially the following passage:

today i praise disposability, diablo of the ecological lexicon. that liberator from poetryscapeology limited. where a simple cup [china clay porcelain] becomes a repository of meaning, enduring the weight of so much memory, so much association, that you cannot lift it to your lips and drink. a one object museum of redolence. you can only admire it from a distance. when you’re in the mood, a dozen breaths away, without thirst. people write poems about cups like this. swoon poems. poems that confuse the sentimental with the sacred. here i have a stack of disposable white cups. one drink cups. and then they go into the bin on their journey to lethe’s landfill. you squeeze them as you dispense with them. they crackle with light relief. glad to be departing for deep caves of earth. where sleeping cups are let lie. and the tea leaves little stain.

This is a provocative statement of worship in this ecological climate (as burns herself notes): the poet is perhaps gesturing not so much towards environmental recklessness as she is promoting new metaphors, lighter metaphors, ‘one drink cups’ without a weighty history of significance embedded in the rim. It could also be a signal to the reader / reviewer – do we expend too much energy decoding poems, rather than appreciating them as ‘light relief’ from a world of heavy thoughts? This is an interesting challenge for poets, writers and critics, whose precious egos burns later goads with blunt vigour:

they were indignant with the
gossip that they all wrote
the same way not a pdf dissident
among them        are you a photocopy
or a plagiarist       a clone or a row of
paper dolls


And later, in what seems to be a poetry launch setting, she notes how ‘the generic wine flood[ed] the loss of words / like a late transfusion’. One senses that the poetry world is not always a good source of reinvigoration for the poet. Indeed, burns writes: ‘i have thought about poetry as hypertension’. And in a more extreme mood: ‘like a bicycle a poem is a / dead thing’.

Of course, this simile can be wisely interpreted: on the one hand, it suggests that poems are dead things – of the past, perhaps. There is nothing new about them. On the other hand, like a bicycle, a poem can be an effective mode of transport, providing it has a rider who can navigate the pathways competently. Riders can be poets and readers – or perhaps burns is urging poets to make riders of their readers, to encourage healthy hearts and active minds. No ‘couch pod’ poetics here.


burns’s restlessness in the face of tired poetic substance is partly evident in her formal variations, which challenge the genre of the poetry collection itself. brush combines prose poetry, flash fiction and line-based poems, as she has done throughout her oeuvre. She does not want her paragraphs and lines to become ‘doormats’ for the obliging reader.

Yet, perhaps in another light-hearted dig at ‘poetryscapeology limited’, the next three sections, ‘brush: a series of day poems’, ‘road’ and ‘delivery’ showcase burns as a collector: jargon, political speak, Australianisms, postcards, commemorative tea towels, chewing gum, chip packets, brand names, television, cultural and gastronomic fads, souvenirs, memorial services, travel magazines, health brochures and insurance guides, ‘receipts piling up like karmic / deliriums’ – all those things that sweep around the self and get caught in life’s brush. (This haphazard mix of items gets me thinking: I’m on to you, ms. burns: despite your ‘disposability’ worship, this reader detects a closet recycler, perhaps not in practice, but in poetry?)

The three middle sections of brush take us across the

map of significant
fickle and frivolous moments; here and here
here and there


‘sip’ offers us the weird cinema of a day in Godard-like memory frames, beginning with a café breakfast, an emblem of modern middle-class indulgence:

we sip
on coffee’s prophecies as the morning
rises, the detour into gossip by the bay
welcomes the side order of spinach.

Before ‘the glare of mortgaged / skies grown fat with high rise craving’, we take a trip to the supermarket to satisfy the advertisement’s siren call:

to impulse pp-pamper my head
i pick up an ‘elegance’ hair
accessory kit     exclusive!     at the ground floor
aldi store


– and then, to the domestic setting, where burns’s characteristic recasting of mythical gods and goddesses is framed with mundane hilarity:

so what was yesterday      a journey through
the land of carpet with a sulky vacuum cleaner
nothing new in the swirls of lost hair crumbs and
missing peas no divining in the beige down there,
i skim across the illustrated pages of ‘the gods
of freud’ that full wing of eros is worth searching
for; i have settled for my own framed postcard of
tyche, a daughter of zeus, the goddess of chance &
guardian of place, the walls of the small city she wears
on her head let in plenty of light through their curved
apertures i hail her with my deodorant torch called exotic
spice and my crimson towel unfurled from my head,
i’m an untidy town      oh save me –


This poem turns us from the auguries of ancient times, predicting certain satisfactions or the thwarting of desires, and toward the turbulent fun of chance and living-in-the-moment. Does this turn excite the poet? Perhaps not, for she has ‘settled’ for the postcard simulacrum of the goddess tyche, whom she hails with a ‘deodorant torch’ labelled ‘exotic’ (though undoubtedly mass-produced) and an unfurled towel. But burns’ poetry does not seem to urge us in the direction of ‘eros’, as much poetry tends to do. Rather, one senses that the poet’s life is ‘framed’ more by the ‘untidiness’ of the unpredictable and the ‘curved’; and that salvation is less important than revelling in the unexpected.

burns’s love of chance is demonstrated through her poetic design – or lack of a predictable design. She flouts consistency: punctuation is erratic; line breaks fall unexpectedly; a clause will end mid-line. Lack of punctuation blurs imagery. burns also eradicates the authority of the capital letter: zeus is reduced to the ordinary, brought into our ‘land of carpet’. Far from gods wielding mighty bolts of lightning, we are safe in the domestic space, wielding vacuum cleaners powered by invisible electricity harnessed by science. No aspirations of magical greatness here:

if you blow
your nose your registration
number will let you know,
the body such an appliance.


After a busy cycle through this ‘forest of rogue documents’ and a ‘sadistic bureaucracy of images and words’, we reach the land of dreams and sleeping in the sixth and final section, ‘wooing the owl (or the great sleep forward)’. One senses here an attempt to still the mind of

oneiric reproductions
tired old dreams you have tried to dump …
in the refuse bins.

The final poem, ‘frill’, pushes off from nostalgia’s fetid bank and into the fluidly ever-present:

at last the stitches in time’s
pesky little roster break it’s
a chronologically free for
all you’re everywhere at once
though your feet are motionless.

In amphora, burns writes:

the poems are running
running away running from
the dread of having to explain themselves …
at least they can live in privacy if
they scatter.

brush seems to conclude at a more advanced point, where the lines are able to be ‘everywhere at once’ but the ‘feet are motionless.’ As I discovered, one can be rewarded with repeated readings of this collection; each one brings about not a petrification of meaning (‘a dead thing’), but rather a settling of the dizziness – these busy lines – against the threat of scattering, or perhaps abandonment. It is a fascinating achievement that burns is able to confront the surface din and wreckage of society and bring us through the other side as readers with a healthier pulse. ‘what else is there to do when you only have two hands and eyes that have mislaid the world?’ asks the poet. Get your tickets to the fun fair.

Published April 10, 2015