Ron Pretty launched Kevin Brophy’s Walking: New and Selected Poems (John Leonard Press 2013) at the University of Melbourne on the 26th September. Here are the words Ron used to send Walking on its way……
It’s good to be here – every time I return to Melbourne I feel that I’m living most of my life in exile from my real home. Partly that’s because the writing scene here is so full of energy and variety, and partly it’s because so many of my favourite people live here. And I’m feeling very privileged tonight to be launching a book by one of my favourite poets and friends, Kevin Brophy.
There’s so much to say that it’s hard to know where to start. I guess one starting point would be that Kevin Brophy is a wonder-worker (Not a miracle worker, for miracles, we are told, are phenomena that give faith and among the many things that Brophy does in this book is to interrogate the notion of faith. More of this later).
So, a wonder-worker, as evidenced by his omnivorous reading, his prolific writing, his research (he has a major project under way as we speak), his teaching, his publishing, his reviewing etc etc. How does he do it all and still have time, as he always does have, for friends and family? Does Kevin Brophy ever sleep?
My first contact with Kevin was over twenty years ago, when he sent me the manuscript of Replies to the Questionnaire on Love. It was a book I accepted without hesitation, and it was followed by another three: Seeing Things, Portrait in Skin and Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion before I retired from all that and returned to my long-suffering family. At that point Kevin took over responsibility for Five Islands Press and it has prospered ever since.
In the meantime, Kevin had been one of the outstanding teachers at the annual Wollongong Workshops while they ran, and had also been instrumental in enabling me to move the Poetry Australia Foundation to Melbourne, where it eventually metamorphosed into the present Australian Poetry Inc.
So we go back a long way, twenty years or more, and through it all, Kevin has been writing these six books of poems as well as novels, reviews, and three fine books of creative writing theory. Six books of poetry, culminating, but not, I’m sure, concluding, with Walking,(Look, by the way, at the evocative power of that comma, the movement and incompleteness it suggests: look at the movement in what follows, it says, and, There is still more to come, it says, and I hope and believe that is so.)
I’ve been trying to find an analogy for the process of reading a Brophy poem, and the nearest I can come to it is this. I went to a bird sanctuary in Sri Lanka once, and on the way in we caught a glimpse of a jaguar as it crossed the path in front of us. And then our driver/guide saw a flock of white birds – herons, I think they were – which indicated to him the nearby presence of elephants. So we drove over to them, and spent quite a while in close proximity to them, never quite sure whether or not we were safe there. And then the gearbox in the jeep jammed, and we were stuck in second gear, which led to much nervous laughter as the elephants galumphed and swayed around us.
Like the driver that day, a Brophy poem can take us in altogether unexpected often slightly surreal, directions. When I read the poems in this collection, in many of them I get that same combination of surprise and awe, humour and concern that I experienced that day – though, I hasten to add, without that threat of imminent pachyderm destruction… As I read the poems, I do get the sense that they are leading me wildly and originally into new territory; it does suggest for me the way the poems shift gear, shift directions, take us down tracks where sudden vistas open before us, inviting us to consider aspects of the worlds, and of ourselves, we have not really considered before.
In an interview for TEXT in 2007, Brophy said, “But then, the other thing about poems is that they aren’t going to be any good if the poet already knows the answers to the questions the poem is asking. The poems I write are asking questions, as I think most poems are. Most of the time I don’t know the answers to the questions that I’m posing, even the very simple questions such as, what is it going to be like to get old? Which is what that poem about the men’s bodies in the change room is about. I don’t know. I can only imagine, guess, propose. It is the limit of my own already limited understanding I press against”.
And in his book, Patterns of Creativity, discussing Elizabeth Bishop’s poem Man-Moth, he wrote: “A poem that interests me is one that takes me to a thought or a place of feeling, sometimes a dream location that I recognize but do not know – I am drawn to it too because it is an accidental poem.” (“Man-Moth” was a misprint for Mammoth, which Bishop used as the starting point for her poem) …Brophy continues, “The poem reads as both a whimsy and an opportunity taken for a deeply serious exploration or construction of self. This doubleness is yet another instance of an oscillation between extreme that makes literature possible and reading a pleasure (P 100).
Between them I think those two quotes give a very good idea of his practice, and of his achievement, for in these poems we do get the sense of a restless mind seeking answers to questions about the nature of humanity and our fallibility and follies, the nature of belief, the inevitability or otherwise of entropy, the relationships between people and their environment. Part of his achievement is that he can pose these deeper questions in poems that are, on the surface, often whimsical or humorous or surreal, and that the poems often seem accidental in the sense that they spring from a random observation, an overheard comment, sometimes by one of his children. That combination of accident, pleasure, and deep thought is the hallmark of a Brophy poem.
* * * *
The new poems in the Walking, section confirm directions in the development of Brophy’s poetic thought that have become clearer as we move from one collections to the next. I can remember my delight at The Replies to the Questionnaire on Love for its gritty urban placedness, mixed with both whimsy and tenderness. Here was a poet who knew the city and its people and could portray them with love, unflinchingly. Those qualities are confirmed in the book that followed, Seeing Things (1997), of which Tom Shapcott wrote “Brophy’s poems … outstare the icy blasts of inner suburban Melbourne’s cold, or evidence of the world’s madness … they have wit and memorability.”
In his interview in TEXT in 2007 Kevin said of himself, “You write about your neighbourhood, you write about your family, you write about your street. You write about Brunswick… I am someone who wants to belong in a locality… I like to write poetry that gets its inspiration from the place where I live. It just happens to have been Brunswick … When I think about those things, I have to admit I’m an urban poet. Nature doesn’t have much to do with it …”
That has remained largely true. As time went on, though, his poetic concerns have both deepened and broadened. One noticeable feature of these later poems is how many of them take us out of Melbourne. While that city is still there in many of the poems, the poet’s horizons now are wider, as they have been in the last two or three books. In these latest poems, we’re with the poet as he wakes up and views the events of the street outside in the first two poems in the book, but then we’re in the country, feeding horses, or at Marriner’s Lookout or in London or Barcelona or Turin or India or in a ruined forest or with refugees on their leaking boat. It is noticeable, though, that the last of the new poems ends with us firmly at home in Brunswick:
We turn into a side street, smell roasted coffee,
find shade that grips blank doors and factory walls,
out of the sun’s last shot at its circus of the fiery.
Just behind Brunswick, as it always does, the old sun rolls
into that dark slot in the far horizon.
At the same time the poems have become deeper, more searching in their implications, less likely to yield up easy answers – in either sense of that word. These later poems, certainly from Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion onwards, display to its fullest degree that quality that I admire most in Kevin Brophy’s work: the ability to move seamlessly from the particular to a consideration of its deeper epistemological or metaphysical implications, what Martin Duwell refered to as ‘the balance between the particulars of a finite, localised existence and the larger patterns of the universe.’
There are, however, certain continuities that help demark the Brophy territory. These continuities, though, are not discrete entities; rather, they inter-weave through the poems, often creating kaleidoscopic patterns. Family has always been important to him; there are some delightful poems about young people, his children especially, and there’s also the wonderful poem, “The Sublime” (Page 15) about his parents. There are also some very evocative love poems. See, for example, the fine poem, ‘This, Once’ in the Walking, section.
At the opposite extreme is a concern with entropy, which runs right through this collection. On page 6, in one of the latest poems, he writes “It’s you, my human world, that/twists my inside into a rag of worry.” And it’s there in the very first poem in his first book:
When my nephew visits from Doncaster he asks me why there is so much broken glass on my footpaths. ‘This is Brunswick,’ I tell him, / ‘where life is as fine as railroad dust.’
So we can find aspects of entropy throughout. It does seem to be, though, that in the later poems this concern has become more pressing. Aging and death are, of course, particular instances of entropy. In ‘The Change Room’ he writes ‘The old men take off their clothes/and show me what I will become.’ (80) ‘A Cup of Tea’ is, among other things, a whimsical look at this question of ‘what I will become.’ Or this, from ‘Of All Possible Universes’
Each city building closes round its rooms of flighty
guests: these are the old ones coming home,
touching benches, walls, as if newly blind,
squeezing their remote controls in ancient claws,
flocks of images flown in with them cricling down
inside the last blue skies inside their heads,
the dependable miracle delivering them every day,
each day, into this, of all possible universes.
His continuing questioning of the nature of religious experience and of religious symbolism is another recurring topic, and has been from the beginning. There are many memorable poems dealing with aspects of this. Among my favourites are ‘Life Size’ (P 88), the richly evocative ‘The Church of Madonna dei Boschi Piemonte’ (23) where the painted priest’s knife, raised for circumcision, can never be used, because the locals have scratched out all the genitals on the paintings. All the priest can do at the end, as he puts out his missal, is sigh. And there’s the wonderfully ambiguous villanelle, “Knowing” on page 8.
There’s also his continuing interest in the prose poem, which is there from the beginning – in the poem ‘Four Years’ in his first collection (reproduced in this) and which reaches perhaps its fullest expression in Radar, where, among many fine examples of the form, we can find ‘Guadi Guadi Guadi,’ which is a list poem wrapped up in a prose poem. Clearly, though, he’s by no means exhausted his interest in the form – see for example ‘Cities’ or ‘Dead Dog Dumped’, fine poems in the Walking section.
As I indicated earlier, there’s a very light touch in many of these poems, despite the deeper issues being explored. Among the animals, cats seem to be among his favourites, for they often preen their whiskers in a Brophy poem, and are often the occasion of humour or whimsy, even when there’s a deep seriousness underneath. In the title poem from Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion, for instance, the narrator is interrogated by the cat – or so it seems – about Wittengeinstein’s epistemology, and the poem ends with the delightful couplet
My cat signals something dismissive with its tail
Which is a tongue in the blue mouth of air.
Finally, there are a number of poems scattered throughout, dealing with the nature of poetry and the poetic experience. See, for instance, the richly evocative ‘Why I am a Poet’ on page 126, where, among many other things, he writes ‘Each line of poetry must be a tightrope crossed.’ In ‘Word Peace’ (22) we are told
He said he fell in love with words,
though, he admits, the words had no say in this.
He went to live in the town called Words
where he worked in an alphabet factory…
He not only fell in love, but also married a word. The marriage was, we are told, a ‘tolerable grammatical arrangement’. It’s another of Kevin’s poems where you are first taken with the whimsy, and then, as you re-read – and you have to re-read – you realize there are serious thought bubbles floating just beneath the surface. Even the title immediately suggests a much wider issue. And in ‘Difficult’ (68) he invites the reader in:
It is difficult to choose the reader for this poem.
I have left the window open
So you might as well climb inside
Where you can be safe now from weather…
It is, I would submit, an invitation to good to refuse…
Publishing a New & Selected, like Walking, it seems to me is a somewhat problematic endeavor, for two reasons. One is that, in making choices for the selected part of the book, you’re necessarily choosing what you see as your best poems from the earlier books, and there’s always the risk that the new poems will suffer in the comparison. Like me, you can probably think of instances of that. There’s no such problem here, however: the forty four pages of new poems here are as good as any of the selected poems.
I’m not quite so confident about the other problem however: the fact that, in making your selections from the earlier books, some poems that others regard as standouts will be omitted. I was fascinated, for example, by the poem “Painters” which I remember Kevin reading, I think it was when we were on tour together in India. I wasn’t surprised to see that this poem was chosen by Carol Rumens to publish in The Guardian, yet it is not in this selection. Similarly, ‘The Moths’ from Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion, or ‘Are You All Right?’ from Seeing Things. Everyone will have their own favourites from the earlier books, and will look for them in this one.
It is, of course, a pleasant problem to have, for I am not suggesting that there are poems here that should be left out. Rather, I’m suggesting that for all this book’s riches, there are still other wonderful Kevin Brophy poems out there. The cornucopia of riches here, however, will keep us all very satisfied for a long time to come – at least until the next book appears. In the meantime, buy this one and enjoy it over the weeks and months to come.
Finally, I’d like to congratulate John Leonard, Jacinta Le Plastrier and all at John Leonard Press for this timely and beautiful book, and most of all I’d like to congratulate Kevin Brophy on his achievement here, and to declare Walking, well and truly launched. I hope you all find it as exciting, as intriguing, as wonderful as I have done.
– Ron Pretty
Ron Pretty has been publishing his poetry for 40 years. His eighth book of poetry, What the Afternoon Knows, was published in 2013. He has taught writing throughout Australia and in US, England and Austria. From 1983 to 1999 he was Head of Writing at the University of Wollongong. He was the director of Five Islands Press, for which he published 230 books by Australian poets in the 20 years 1987 – 2007. He taught creative writing at the University of Melbourne, 2004 – 2007. In 2012 the Australia Council for the Arts awarded him a residency in Rome.
For information on how to obtain a copy of Walking: New and Selected Poems go to http://www.johnleonardpress.com/
Rochford Street Review relies on the support of its readers to continue. If you like what we are doing please consider making a donation.