B. J. Muirhead Considers the laughter in Lachlan Brown’s ‘Limited Cities’

Limited Cities by Lachlan Brown Giramondo 2012.

brown-cover-front-214x300Limited Cities is Lachlan Brown’s first collection, and it was highly commended for the Dame Mary Gilmore Award. Brown is a lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing at Charles Sturt University, and his work has been short listed for other awards, including the Blake Poetry Prize. His is a new and up and coming voice in Australian poetry, and I was keen to read his work: the title intrigued and the blurb promised a great deal.

Brown was a child in the south-western suburb of Macquarie Fields in Sydney and his heart remains there to the extent that many of the poems are centred on the south-western suburbs or, as the blurb tells us, on the European counterparts of these suburbs, especially those of Paris.

On first reading, his poems seemed to me to give no sense of place, nothing apart from names that distinguished the urban areas he was talking about from any other suburban areas. But there is a sense in which I think this is his point. It isn’t that the western suburbs of Sydney are limited in some way—everywhere is limited in much the same way. Lent2, for example, is a Paris poem:

clouds are dark to the west

of Invalides as buses push

away from the kerb and the

sovereignty of traffic lights

stops a Mercedes causing

someone to glance up from

his GPS momentarily amazed

This is anywhere in any town, the place names mean little. Another example, Today:

a bus snatches the air

from in front of you

and a woman gasps

as someone jags across

traffic like a grinning

spark leaping the gap

between plug and socket.

Brown clearly is a writer who has thought about his subject deeply, and I am reminded of Philip Sydney’s comment in A Defence of Poetry (1595) that “the skill of an artificer standeth in that idea or fore-conceit of the work, and not in the work itself.” It is the skill with which the poet manifests the idea into a poem which is at issue, and in Brown’s case this idea seems to be his childhood in suburbs which are so often reviled in news broadcasts about the problems and difficulties of the western suburbs. Brown has left Macquarie Fields, but like all of us, he carries his childhood home within himself wherever he goes, so that he always is going, and always is returning, ”and train doors open onto / solid platforms repeatedly / and from somewhere the clouds / appear and smear themselves / across the afternoon sky.” (from ‘Afternoon’.)

Sometimes, however, there are images over which I stumble, as in ‘Urban Sprawl’, the opening poem of the collection:

Give me corrugated iron & grinning billboards

& a day as brilliant as a fire escape. it’s been raining

for a week, but now the clear sky curves overhead

like a fruiterer’s expansive arm.

The book contains many images and turns of phrase which need a moment to be understood. Fortunately there are more than enough sparkles and moments of humour that this becomes a minor irritation. For example, the first lines of ‘Petrol Stations’, or ‘Nine Vouchers Without the Optimism’:

No one knows

the entrance

or exit. So cars

end up

nose to nose

like awkward


double take


in gear, out

of gear.

The idea of not knowing the way in or out of a petrol station reminded me of occasions when I found myself unsure of the direction to take in large, previously unvisited petrol stations, and the images of cars as awkward lovers brought a surge of adolescent memories to mind, when lovers and I ended up nose to nose awkwardly. Not, perhaps, what Brown intended, but it continues to make me smile at myself, and with the poem.

This is, I think, a good first collection and well worth the read for the chuckles, along with Brown’s more serious thoughts.

– B. J. Muirhead


 BJ Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) andFlesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com.

Limited Cities is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/poetry/limited-cities/

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