The miniature level of perception: Jal Nicholl reviews Anyworld by Pam Brown

Anyworld by Pam Brown: ASM/Flying Island Books, 2011

Anyworld is a pocket collection of 10 previously published poems in an attractive format, the cover adorned by Jon Cattapan, the artist whose Giacommetian perspectives mesh so appositely with the poems inside. This little book gives a good taste of what Brown’s been up to over the past 10 or so years.

These poems are set between the poles of extreme mundanity:

hey-

‘early drizzle’
a forecast we’ve rarely heard before
replaces ‘a shower or two’
one we’ve heard a lot

and urbane intellectualism:

 S. asks
…………..‘how was your “holiday”
(not very Barthesian of her is it?)

But how to sum up her aesthetic, i.e., the principle according to which images and phrases are combined to make up a poem?

crazy paving
opus incertum

An odd kind of jigsaw-puzzle, made up as it goes along, instead of being cut from a whole image. The principle of combination is often intriguing: where do such open-ended poems begin and end? Why does Ming Blue, the poem whose opening couplet is quoted above, end like this?

Edwardian? Me?
not a trace

Victorian?
at a pinch

The poem has been moving sideways, crab-fashion, from one rock of fact to the next, resisting progression as well as the unity that might have been opted for in place of such “drifting topoi”.

A fog   this morning
drops over Camperdown
like a sedative.
at work   the office walls
are being painted blue

We frequently witness this kind of “panning in” as at the start of a film; but here the film never begins, or is already underway past the point where we could competently recover the plot.

Contingency vs. necessity. If, as Poe said, “the highest order of the imaginative intellect is always mathematical”, Brown will not come off too favourably. (Poe, however, following the preceding generation of “skull drinking romantics” (“Augury”), doubtless thought imagination and fancy were two different things.) In Brown’s

 shambling
………..contingency,
……………..(writing a poem)

It is as though the principle of combination, of organisation, is ultimately beyond the control or direction of the speaker; and indeed, we do find several references to work (as in, selling one’s time for money) in this volume. The poem quoted above (“The ing thing”) continues:

work’s
for me, a sanctuary
…………from building sites
from something else
from evil duco-scratching
………………….truants
if-not-already, soon-to-be
excluded
…………from its realm –
………………….work’s

So work is a place, not an activity, and what one accomplishes there, if anything, a matter of “shambling contingency”. Of course it is also a sanctuary from “something else” (and it is here that necessity comes in); in other words, a negation of an alternative possibility that work itself makes unthinkable—an insight which puts me in mind of another librarian-poet contemplating a similar alternative:

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines—
They seem to like it.

For something sufficiently toadlike squats here as well:

I should celebrate
this unemployed-at-last thing
but
don’t know how to

“Why waste words?” Brown’s poems (literally) ask (“Drifting Topoi”). But then, where does history come in? For classical thought, it didn’t exist; Hegel and his followers, on the other hand, couldn’t wait for it to be over so they could measure its trajectory. Brown asks:

who can accept
………..a given world ,
who can
………..live in it ?

elsewhere acknowledging,

(the will
cannot will
backwards)

This sense of temporality without narrative is distinctive also of Beckett, who perhaps more than anyone else invented it as a way of “going on”. Brown resembles Beckett, also, in her treatment of the theme of physical debility:

then, possibly,
a pain in the spine
throbbing in the head
unpredictable blood
from the womb

the pesky irruptions
……of time

Meanwhile the “external” world hurries on with its masturbatory simulacrum of

‘growth! growth! growth!’

It sounds philistine to characterise anyone’s oeuvre as “depressing”—but in Brown’s case this could mean something specific and interesting (not that her poems are Compressed: they are long; even when short (take “Zottegem”: “although short, a saga”). Depression, deflation, minimisation as a trope:

(quote Walt Whitman
………….I Sing the Body Electric’   here)

This is modernist collage carried out on the miniature level of a “note to self” written on a post-it—embedded in an opus incertum. Those of us who write, of necessity, while more painful things demand our attention, will appreciate the subtext of such a passage. It is not hard to contrast most poets with Whitman, but this really is the opposite of his technique of enumeration. There is also an intimation that the speaker has forgotten her Whitman (then forgotten, again, to look it up).

Just as they tend to be geographically situated to only a fragile extent, scattered with allusions to back-and-forth travel, in these poems a similar aporia covers anything to do with time. Figures from history appear haphazardly:

I don’t know
who Prince Alfred was.
Albert was the consort.
“What’s a consort?”

While the sense of personal time is similarly hazy:

Forgot the whole dang
DD….MM….YY

To sum up, with Baudrillard: “Retrospection is dependent on a prospection which enables us to refer to something as past and gone, and this as having really taken place”[1].

And it does seem to me that Brown’s sensibility has something in common with that of the theorist of hyperreality—though with the interesting difference that mass-media events, along with scientific and technological imagery, hardly figure in her work. What Brown is concerned with are effects on the most transient and miniature level of perception, and the way these accumulate over quotidian time. In this or Anyworld.


[1] Baudrillard, Jean: The Illusion of the End, trans. Chris Turner. Polity Press: Cambridge, 1994, p.20.

– Jal Nicholl

————————————————————————————————————–

Jal Nicholl’s poetry and reviews have appeared in many venues online and in print. He lives in a house by a park near a creek with a culvert under the railway line, with his wife and their dog.

For information on the availability of a Anyworld contact ASM macaustories@yahoo.com. or Kit Kelen at KitKelen@gmail.com.

One thought on “The miniature level of perception: Jal Nicholl reviews Anyworld by Pam Brown

  1. It’s good to see a review of Pam Brown’s poetry, but I think her work makes more sense if the whole poem is cited, if possible, and if there’s enough space for the reviewer to do this. I feel that the reviewing technique of employing lots of small discrete citations misses out on the arguments and deliberately meaning making sequences in Brown’s work. I think that Brown’s work is hard to represent via small quotes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s