Home by Dark, poems by Pam Brown, reviewed by John Tranter, first published in Southerly Magazine Vol 73, No 3, 2013.
Pam Brown, Home By Dark (poems), Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2013. Paperback, 132pp. ISBN 9781848612884.
Reviewed by John Tranter
Like many in her large and heterogeneous generation of Australian poets, Pam Brown was born in the 1940s and began writing poetry in the early 1970s. Unlike some, she has gone on writing, carefully stepping around the traps of fame and renown, and becoming less strident and more complex and thoughtful as she has developed. She has also travelled widely in Europe and North America. This is her fourteenth book, though that ignores her ten chapbooks and other productions.
She says that she has earned a living ‘as a librarian, nurse, publishers assistant, postal worker, artworker and teacher of writing, multi-media studies and film-making’. In a recent interview she says that ‘by 1975 / 76 I worked as a mail sorter and was playing music in the women’s band, Clitoris Band, and by 1977 I was involved in the anarcho-feminist theatre group, the Lean Sisters.’ Such is her dislike of anything orthodox that all her published books have been published by independent publishers; and with this one, as with many in the past, she has gone off-shore.
She has also been closely involved in developing a wider audience for Australian poetry, especially during the last decade, when she was poetry editor for Meanjin magazine, and associate editor for Jacket magazine starting in 2004 and after 2010 with Jacket2 in Philadelphia. In 2012 she collected and published a selection of fifty-one contemporary Australian poets online in Jacket2, bringing these poets’ work to a mainly US audience.
All this travel and publishing activity would make up a rich background for an academic career in Aust. Lit., though Pam has abjured the academic life. Indeed, no academic scholar has done as much, and sometimes it seems as though the best and most productive lifelong scholars of literature, like Pam in Sydney and Kris Hemensley in Melbourne, have chosen to have no connection with any university.
The title of this volume is Home By Dark. It’s not ‘Home Before Dark’, which is what one imagines a Norman Rockwell-type parent saying to a child: ‘Yes, you can go to Tommy’s birthday party, but you must be home before dark!’ Home By Dark suggests a close tie, with two presences arriving at the door almost at the same time: the poet, and, lowering over her shoulder, the shadow of the vast and overpopulated land of death. Pam Brown is now sixty-six, born the same year as fellow-poets Alan Wearne and the late Michael Dransfield. The official retiring age in Australia is sixty-five. As she writes ‘I’ll do / something different / to celebrate / getting as old as this’.
At least she has a home to go to, and perhaps that’s the point of the title. Nearly thirty years ago — a generation ago — US poet Andrei Codrescu edited the anthology Up Late, whose title contradicts the title of this book. The Poets.org site says ‘Picking up where the groundbreaking and anti-academic Grove Press anthology of New American Poetry left off in 1960, American Poetry Since 1970: Up Late is a gathering of wildly provocative and experimental work from over one hundred American poets.’
As poet David Kirby explains, ‘This is a big, crazy, tasty book…the middle-class poet-professor who edits his school’s literary magazine is deliberately excluded; instead…[this] anthology emphasizes work that is erotic, feminist, Zen, surreal, and urban/gritty.’ Beatnik poetry, perhaps. During her early years, that’s the kind of poetry Pam Brown stood for.
Sometimes it might seem that these poems are ‘sadly notating dim trivia’, as she almost admits, but then the fragments of trivia embedded in these poems are often quirky and valuable: ‘the first Koreans of the season… peering over fences at plants / imported from Korea’, ‘it’s a carbon toe-print / in there’, ‘reciting a poem… / to half a dozen / variously demented elders / at the day care centre.’ A lesser poet would work up a full poem from each of these aperçus, but Pam Brown has learned the virtues of a light and generous touch, and scatters them like petals.
Occasionally an image can seem like a snapshot of the floating world taken as an aide-memoire, and recalls the poetry of her friend Laurie Duggan, for example ‘hot and stonkered / cattle lying on the road / to carnavon gorge’. Duggan’s work is often an amalgam of funny things he’s seen blended with the quasi-historical and quasi-quotidian assemblage methods of (the deceased) US poets Paul Metcalfe and Philip Whalen. Duggan appears glancingly in one of these poems where the author is caught in the viewfinder writing one of the poems that you, the reader, are reading: ‘mitts on the keyboard / pushing thoughts and jingles / out / / to Dublin to Seattle, / Adelaide, Kane’ohe, / Faversham, Glebe.’ (So are these poems mere ‘thoughts and jingles’? They’re certainly not great works of landscape art: ‘I successfully disregarded / the landscape’, she writes.)
And where are these thoughts and jingles being sent? From her list above, Dublin is twelve miles north of Bray, the town where her Irish publisher friend and fellow-poet Randolph Healey lives, Seattle is where her friend and fellow-poet the Egyptian poet Maged Zaher lives, Adelaide is where her friend and fellow-poet Ken Bolton lives, Kane’ohe is the suburb of Honolulu where her friend and fellow-poet Susan Schultz lives, Faversham is the town in Kent, England, where her friend and fellow-poet Laurie Duggan lives, and the Sydney suburb of Glebe, handy to the University of Sydney, is where Pam and many of her friends and fellow-poets, including most of those named here and elsewhere in this book, lived way back when.
Though no reader could guess any of that. So is the purpose of this writing obsessively private? No, it can’t be: here it is, in a mass-produced paperback book, distributed around the world for all to see.
Though not all of her work is available as ‘books’. On the page that lists the works ‘Also by Pam Brown’ we see that she has divided her work into ‘Books’ (16), ‘Chapbooks’ (10), an ‘e-book’, three ‘Pamphlets’ and a ‘Theatre’ piece.
And such is her reticence that one of the Chapbooks is titled Little Droppings, as though her smaller works were not only little, but as useless as droppings, though of course even bodily waste has its use as fertilizer. ‘It’s a rabbit life’, as she comments in the poem ‘Rehab for Everyone’.
Of course this reticence is the obverse of the coin of ‘serious poetry’ as set on a pedestal by Matthew Arnold and F.R. Leavis. Rather than claim the laurel wreath of ‘serious poetry’ in the manner of Petrarch, Pam Brown shrugs off her verse as so much waste paper, to borrow the terms of the Manchester Guardian’s early assault on T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’. This laconic perspective aligns her with John Forbes and Ken Bolton and with many other Australians. If she dismisses her own poetry, the theory goes, then she can’t be cut down as a tall poppy.
Yet she writes ‘a minor chronicler / of moments // hey, stop’, anticipating and rejecting such criticism.
There’s quite a bit of French in this book, and I would hazard the guess that it has become more frequent with each of the author’s many books. Again, the reader is not to know this, but Pam has lived in France on and off for decades, and her partner is a teacher of French and the author of a textbook widely used in teaching the language. You could say the French is natural, and not an affectation.
Does she quote Proust? Well, no, though she mentions him twice, saying ‘thanks Marcel’ both times. And in the poem ‘More than a feuilleton’ she admits that one ‘can’t call the sentimental / ‘sentimental’ / when it’s very moving’, and goes on to say that ‘the way you can / ‘lose your self’ / to a tear, / to a tremble even / whenever that song / begins, / when that scent / wafts — / a prelude / to loss, to getting lost’
Of course the word ‘lost’ is a translation of ‘perdu’ (as in À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust’s great novel), which hinges on a remembered taste and is so full of remembered songs and scents that it is a hymn to recovered memory.
The poems in this book are very varied, though they all seem to deal with the day-to-day life of the poet, at least as it is reflected in the poet’s very self-aware consciousness. They present fragmentary pictures of the world around us, from landscapes (or non-landscapes) to books to movies to television programs to personal friendships. Always there, in the dry tone of voice and in the careful selection of the telling detail, is the wry reflecting mind of the poet. Pam Brown has lived thoroughly and read widely — voraciously, one might say — and she is present in every angle and perspective she brings to her daily life.
These poems are infinitely rewarding, and I have grown to like her work more than that of almost any other poet. While many writers have settled into a comfortable accommodation with their prejudices, Pam Brown seems to have shed all her illusions and has kept on growing and developing. Rather than the big gesture, she has learned to focus on and notice the little things, the telling detail, and the casual gesture that matters. Each image is brought to us thoughtfully from the everyday world, and each poem is a surprise.