A Combination of Accident, Pleasure & Deep Thought: Ron Pretty Launches Kevin Brophy’s ‘Walking: New & Selected Poems’

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……

BrophyIt’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.

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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 wroteBrophy’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

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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/

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An expression of awe & wonder: Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper reviews ‘Interferon Psalms’ by Luke Davies.

Interferon Psalms by Luke Davies. Allen & Unwin 2011

daviesThe title of this suite of poems refers to the treatment its author received for hepatitis C:

Interferons (IFNs) are proteins made and released by host cells in response to the presence of pathogens such as viruses,.bacteria, parasites or tumor cells. They allow for.communication between cells to trigger the protectivedefenses of the immune system that eradicate pathogens or tumors (Wikepedia).

He describes his treatment as follows:

I was on that stuff for 16 extremely debilitating months…It was actually a combination therapy (with an antiviral drug called ribavirin), the cumulative side effects of which are extensive, you could almost say comprehensive. Among the MANY side effects…the treatment, for separate reasons, reduces both the red cell count and the white cell count. This in turn leads to various unpleasant side-effects. (Comment on ABC website, 12 October, 2011)

His own perspective on the work:

I wrote a book of poetry in which illness was harnessed as a kind of metaphor for how one should engage with one’s life. (ibid)

The comparison that comes to mind for this long poem, with its sweeping changes of theme, mood and form yet complex architecture is the oratorio: ‘a large-scale, usually narrative musical work for orchestra and voices, typically on a sacred theme’, in spite of its avowedly secular nature. The mathematics involved in the 33 psalms on the 99 names of God also remind one of the mathematical relationships in Bach’s music, with its interweaving of point and counterpoint, theme and reply, prelude and fugue.

What it seems to be reaching for is an expression of awe and wonder not specifically linked to religion, though couched in the language and framework of a religious text. This seems very much a modern quest, where even atheists such as Alain De Botton (Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to Religion: Hamish Hamilton, 2012) and A.C. Grayling are acknowledging the human need for ritual and ceremony, Grayling even having produced a secular bible for such occasions (The Good Book: A Secular Bible: Bloomsbury, 2011).

Davies has said he is not in fact a religious man; however, he admits that his Catholic upbringing remains an abiding influence (Review, ABC National ‘The Book Show’, 12 October, 2011). The incantatory style felt good, he says, the music of the service is natural in his ear. He refers to Joseph Campbell, who talks of ‘the rapture of being alive’ (The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, Anchor Doubleday 2011). He himself uses the phrase ‘the transcendent to be found in the every day’. Still, his relationship to the supernatural seems deeply ambivalent, is he an agnostic, or is he creating for himself a personal notion of the divine (if that’s not an oxymoron)? His struggle to reconcile the divine with the modern harks back to Apollinaire, a century and a half earlier, a poet whom Davies quotes in the ‘Psalms’ and whose tortured relationship with ‘Lou’ has much in common with the poet’s own love relationship (as represented in the ‘Psalms’).

Paul Auster (Introduction to The Random House Book of French Poetry; Vintage Books, 1984, p. xxiv) has described Apollinaire’s poetry as follows:

(it) ranges from graceful love lyrics to bold experiments, from rhyme to free verse to ‘shape’ poems, he manifests a new sensibility at once indebted to the forms of the past and enthusiastically at home in the world of automobiles, airplanes and movies.

This description could possibly be applied, with appropriate updating, to the ‘Psalms’, though I’m not suggesting that Davies is the equal of Apollinaire.

Bronwyn Lea, in her review of the ‘Psalms’ (The Conversation, 26 July, 2012), has also commented on the links between Davies and the French poet:

Nearly a century on and a world away, fragments of Apollinaire’s great longing – ‘I think of you my Lou your heart is my barracks’ – have surfaced with small distortions in a tour de force by Australian poet, Luke Davies…

I am reminded in particular of Apollinaire’s poem ‘Zone’ (Auster, op. cit. p.2), which is said to have been the jumping off point for modernism; even the style and tone have much in common with ‘Psalms’. In particular, Apollinaire manifests the same agony and ambivalence in regard to religion. On the one hand he declares that in this modern world:

La religion est restée toute neuve la religion
(Religion alone has stayed young religion)

but on the other hand

Vous avez honte quand vous vous surprenez à dire une prière (You are ashamed when you catch yourself at a paternoster)

translation Samuel Beckett.

Perhaps the divine, for Davies, ultimately equates to the aesthetic. (E. Dissanayake – Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, University of Washington Press, 1995 – has said that the concept of ‘meaning’ is of its very nature aesthetic.) It is in poetry that he finds the transcendent.

There are three interwoven motifs, three parallel tracks Davies takes us on, but to untangle them would be like trying to listen to one voice in a multi-voiced contrapuntal musical work. These are: illness; love and loss; travel and alienation. The way in which he has woven these together, the startling shifts between them, sudden turns and dissonances, create unexpected and fresh connections:

My blood was crawling with messianic impropriety. I was a plasma-electric hybrid; it gave me more staying power through the galaxy of my auto-disdain. Or love, I forget which. Or loves. (18)

He is almost forcing us to take the journey with him and sometimes it feels uncomfortable, like looking at the inside of someone’s head, but we know that this is carefully crafted and it is not necessarily his head, but one that he has created. Each of the major themes contains its own narrative: a process, a development. But it is not a straightforward progression, more one step forward, two steps back.

At least I got to bed a minute earlier at night, a minute at a time. (12)
Nature came back to reclaim pretty much everything…The feral geraniums didn’t give up either. (13)
‘That I would narrow down the tasks: one thing, then one. (57)
Mine is to be content with you and not to adopt any one line of action other than that which I’m in… (84)
to overcome certainty was to accept it (85)
… Abide in the mind of the unknown.(85)
The salmon of wisdom was upon me. (85)

Eventually the treatment stops, at first that is difficult, but gradually he begins to thrive. At the same time, he learns to deal with the loss of his lover, and, in terms of his travel and alienation he ‘landed like a bird inside myself’ (97). Part of the ‘answer’ he finds is in the development of the work itself, in the artistic process. I am reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’, where the poet admonishes herself to ‘Write it!’

The lessons the poet learns are hardly earth shattering, but they are tempered by his humour and his humility, and the fact that this wisdom is discovered, rather than merely learnt.

The poet links his experience of treatment to themes of love, of travel, of identity, and even with the fate of the world and the universe. His appreciation of literature, of nature, are so embedded, that they are integrated into his language, even altered in a spirit of humorous punning, as he distorts them to his purpose. In particular, he plays with notions of time and space:

The ice came back. If you sped up the centuries you could hear the moraines screeching.

Retreated, too. The forests grew again. We would have gone insane with the dripping of the leaves had we been around to hear it. But millions of years passed first. (11)

Of the three motifs, the one I most engaged with was Davies’ representation of his treatment, possibly because I have myself experienced chemotherapy, but also because it is the driving force. He evokes within the reader the sensations of the treatment ravaging the body, making the language breathe with them:

The cells bubbled silently in my liver … (20)
Everything that could sting would sting. (21)…
Then all the injections thinned my blood, and with it my hair, and thus my Great Goat Self.(24)…
Day by day the hours evaporated; hour by hour my hair fell out. Then everyone and everything was gone, except for whatever was most inappropriate. I could not be trusted to drive, there were no bad drivers, only me. Rage peppered the weeks. (32)

We can feel the breathlessness in these short phrases, the fatigue in the repetitions.

In the midst of this breathless, hurtling prose, we come upon a gem of stillness, of repose, of rhyme and structure:

I missed a girl I could not help but miss.
Such missing was colossal in the face
Of all the tender hours that came to pass… (53)

Love and poetry provide a reprieve from ‘the pitch and drag of days’.

What ultimately distinguishes this epic poem is its emotional and formal range; the seamless transition between moods, themes and forms of language, its capaciousness, where in one breath, the deeply personal and the macrocosmic are linked in a universe in which absurdity and meaning are equally present.

Most reviewers have been enthusiastic about the ‘Psalms’. Peter Craven, in The Australian (August 27 2011) has praised it in the following terms:

a tremendous attempt to wrestle meaning from suffering.

It is one of the most ambitious performances in modern Australian poetry and it will command the world’s attention.

Philip Salom, in in the So Long Bulletin, begs to differ. What I have termed ‘emotional and formal range’ is, in his eyes, a ‘sadly uneven’ work. Salom admits to the seductiveness of the poetry, of the ‘wildness that a reader is supposed to swept up in (sic) and might well enjoy, for the wild ride…a seductive otherness.’ He acknowledges that the self-mocking humour is its ‘saving grace’ but his ultimate judgement is that the work is ‘sadly uneven’. Above all he bemoans the trend to ‘overblown personal…over inflated romantic voicing’; a trend he finds disturbing in contemporary poetry.

I have been somewhat shaken out of my trance by this cool assessment, and perhaps rightly so: the reader should be able to depend on the reviewer to stand back and not be swept along. On the other hand, at the heart of even the coolest critique is a gut reaction. I agree the work is ‘uneven’ but not that this is inevitably ‘sad’. Might it not be worthwhile at times to attempt something wildly ambitious and not quite succeed? Perhaps Beethoven is a better metaphor for the ‘Psalms’ than Bach. I prefer Bach, but at his best, Beethoven sweeps you away.

– Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper

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The Interferon Psalms are available from http://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=94&book=9781742370347

Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper was born in Amsterdam and survived the Holocaust in hiding. She arrived in Australia at the age of 11 with her family. She taught foreign languages and English as a Second Language and lectured in Teacher Education at several universities. She has been published in Australian and overseas journals and anthologies, has won several poetry prizes. Her Dutch-English poetry book and CD Island of wakefulness appeared with Hybrid in 2006. She is a former president of Melbourne Poets Union.