David Brooks: Urban Elegies

Woodford: Island Press, 2007, 75pp.

On the surface (always a dangerous place to stand when facing poetry) the shape of David Brooks’s poetic career thus far looks reasonably clear. His first book, The Cold Front, was published in 1983 and felt deeply North-American. It seemed, at the time, to be a fairly straightforward example of the influence of poets like Merwin, Bly and Kinnell. There was cold everywhere as though snow was necessary to produce the near-stasis in the physical world that made meaning possible. After more that twenty years of apparent poetic silence (occupied with prose fiction with a generally Borgesian cast as well as non-fictional work) he produced, in 2005, Walking to Point Clear. The subtitle, “Poems 1983-2002″, staked a claim that the output of poetry had been continuous. Walking to Point Clear was a surprise in terms of its achievement: it is light years beyond his first book in both technique and sophistication. The settings were Australian – often the southern coasts of NSW – but it was still a book in love with cold, preferring night settings which highlight solitariness and silence.

The first of the two sections of this new book, Urban Elegies, “Living in the World”, is not so far from the poems of Walking to Point Clear though its title suggests more engagement with ordinary living and the poems have a deliberately rougher edge. The second section of Urban Elegies is, however, something else again. This is living in the world with a vengeance and replaces the poetry of stillness with white hot energy deriving from an immersion in the daytime world of work and life in the suburbs of Sydney. Here the influence is an Australian one: Bruce Beaver. The first of these elegies, “A Curse”, gets its drive from hatred and transmutes itself into a curse, drawing on one of language’s most ancient capacities:

The incomprehensible bastards next door
have sprayed poison
from one end of our garden to the other.
Apparently half a gallon of some
as-yet-to-be-identified pesticide
has been found preferable to a phone call or a five-minute visit
to ask if we might trim a vine.

It is not “God knows what was done to you” but it is still pretty impressive. The poem goes on to list the lost before mounting its curse.

The dwarf conifer, the box-bush,
the laurel, the basil and parsley,
the thyme and tarragon and oregano,
the chili plants, the galangal, the lemongrass, the six
proud native irises are all
withering before our eyes
and we can only guess as yet
about the earthworms, caterpillars, skinks,
crickets, praying mantises, slugs, slaters, snails,
or the fate of any birds that might have eaten
from this treacherous buffet.

It’s a fine passage: the list suggests naming is a way we grope for the dead using all the powers of pre-literate language. The idea of cursing, or making a spell, also taps in to this. And lists inside angry prose or poetry also have the subtle rhetorical effect of implying that the writer is so angry that he can’t produce anything structurally more sophisticated. The poem concludes by protecting itself from the charge that, compared with lost lovers, dead children, Milton’s blindness, Swift’s madness, the Fall of Troy and Hell, Heaven and Purgatory, the loss of some plants in a small suburban garden is, poetically, pretty small beer. It does this by reminding us of the symbolic significance of the garden:

Let this then be a curse upon them:
Let them continue to be
self-exiled from the earthly heaven.
Let them never find
such a garden within themselves.
Let there at least be poetic justice.
Let them never understand such
fury, such sadness as this.

The sheer sophisticated animation of this poem is what makes it magical. It seems so far from the careful lyricism of the earlier books as to almost be written by a different poet. We finish Urban Elegies hungry for more of the same in this new, open, engaged and, above all, passionate, mode.

And yet, and yet. Since the new is always related to the old, one wants to look again at the earlier two books to see how accurate one’s first responses were. And when this is done, The Cold Front turns out to be a more individual work than it seemed at first blush. Yes it is built on a style deriving from Kinnell, Bly, Merwin et al and yes it does prefer the elemental symbolism of night, cold and darkness – as though meaning in poetry occurs as the material of the poem approaches stasis – but it is a book full of poems that can now be seen as very much in line with the later work: that is, as what we will have to call “Brooksian”. Many of the poems share a sense of trauma enacted against a backdrop of a forbidding world of darkness. The trauma though seems to be not so much psychic as domestic: the title poem, for example, speaks of “the long conversations / with pain in the final sentences”.

The most Kinnell-like of them, “One of the Last Nights”, begins in the darkness

On one of the last nights
I rise
from the bed where I have waited,
from the pillow where I have fled
. . . . .

but concludes with affirmation:

I come to the river
down the precipitous bank
and I kneel
and drink deeply, lifting
the dark water from its foil of stars.
It is all there: moments
rear in an emptiness,
light is wrung from the dying.

It is all there: the river
tearing itself to whiteness
over the snags.

Yes it is portentous and rather stagey but it embodies the essential stance of these poems: light from darkness. Sometimes the process is inverted. In “Wheatfield”, which begins “After the argument, the blood’s / blind clutch”, a bird of the night crosses the golden field:

Behind me a night-hawk
breaks
from a jack-pine, circles
and flaps westward
jagged under Orion

leaving how much
here
amidst the ripening,

how much
leaning
on this dry
stump, cracked to its roots, the rings
of all its years
burst open?

Again, it is a slightly creaky, staged symbolic scene but there is a lot to be said for these last lines which, instead of describing how the shadow of the Angel of Death touches odds and ends as it passes, asks ambiguously how much it leaves: that is – as I read it – how much death it leaves and how much it passes untouched.

These poems want to move towards affirmation. Affirmation only works when we feel, as readers, that it is hard won. The rest is just fakery. The Cold Front manages to convince me, at least, of its integrity though I am not sure that I can remember its having done so on first reading and I am not sure that many of the poems will appear in a Brooks Selected Poems. Affirmation here does not extend beyond the minimal opportunities offered a number of things: by poetry,

. . . . .
steer
now by shardlight,
by rags of the song,
by spray
still clinging to the lifted thigh

by family, by recognizing mortality and by being connected. As one of the later poems says:

. . . . .
I go out
into the middle of a field
and the stars
like the old philosophers
are silent

I plunge my shovel
into the soil I stand upon
and the house of my life continues.

The final poem of the book, “The Swineflower”, offers us an interestingly grotesque image of the poet, as a pig-like devourer of experience producing out of his own mortality sufficiently fertilized ground to generate “the carnivore orchid”, the swineflower of poetry.

The best of the poems, “On Durras Beach”, contains all these features: a state of psychic disturbance, a glance at the domestic situation (which might or might not be related – the light of the lover’s eyes is, at any rate, not accessible to the speaker) and a powerful sense of mortality. Only the existence of a poem and the infinitesimally small light of the fire act as counterbalances:

Another night,
again the moon, self-hugged, self-eaten,
rolling imperceptibly deathward.

I stoke a small fire on the beach
with driftwood and the gnarled
roots of my sleeplessness

and watch the wind
weave through the flames
the dark tongues of the cosmos.

Night-long the waves
gnaw Durras sand, reaching
for the clump-grass, the lip of our yard, the house

where you lie sleeping, arms
furled in the emptiness, eyes clutching
their invisible parcels of light, and I

in vain here watching,
asking what light there is
from driftwood, knowing only

this poem, only this sound
of beachfire
as it burns on into the darkness

and that self-hugged, self-eaten,
binding what shore we can
we roll deathward, while the faint stars shine.

It is important to register that in this generally inward-turned book, there is a section – the fourth – devoted to what might be called poems of engagement. It is as though, this early, Brooks also desires an outward looking poetry. The tone of this section is established by the first poem, a translation of Milosz’s “Campo di Fiori” in which the writer thinks of the burning of Giordano Bruno in Rome (and the way the citizenry returned to the normal processes of pleasuring the flesh) on a beautiful day in Warsaw in 1943 when the sounds of the carnival drown out the shots from the ghetto.

This section contains “The Magi” a kind of inversion of, or answer to, Eliot’s poem. Here the magi return but find themselves out of sorts in a world where great changes are slowly happening. Again it is stagey, but that doesn’t reduce the sudden shock of the section where they come across a village completely frozen in mid-action (almost like Sleeping Beauty’s palace). The quality of this image, and its symbolic significance, could almost act as an introduction to Brooks’s prose fictions. Above all, what makes “The Magi” worth rereading is the certainty that, at the conclusion, the speaker is the poet himself, lamenting that, in a world which has undergone vast changes, he speaks only of himself:

It seems the air
lamenting in the empty traps.

It seems
the light
like manna on the fields.

Slowly, slowly
it is happening
the resistance
the rising
the cohesion of husks.

If only a firm, clear line
could enter from the nearest thing

or we could be
less like the cuckoo
in leafless vines
singing its own song regardless.

The final poem of this section, “The Horsemen” opens suitably apocalyptically:

From the far end of the bible
four men ride out
through the burdock
in the vacant lot off Phoebe Street.

and goes on to affirm the need for poetry to face up to its responsibilities:

we should have said
without action
there can be no true adoration

we should have explored
the full possibilities of language
which include responsibility

risking harshness
risking poetry
risking ultimate simplicity

but we had been sitting
too long by ourselves in the sunset
and a great distance was leaning from everything

as if
while we slept
the hooves could go without answer
. . . . .

Well this is harsh and simple but I resuscitate it to make the point that Brooks has these issues on his agenda as early as the poems of his first book.

Walking to Point Clear is, as I said, light years beyond The Cold Front in terms of poetic sophistication. It, too, has five sections though I suspect the poems are generally arranged chronologically. It begins in strict lyrical mode, relying on luminous yet open conclusions. But, since the poems are written with a gorgeous responsiveness to syntax we meet the effect – familiar in good lyrics – of the shape of the sentence closing down at the very instant that the meaning opens out. “Waking, Lumeah Street” is a good example:

4am

the sound
of traffic
on the far margins
a high, thin wind
herding the night clouds

as I move about the house
I can hear a tap dripping,
water
passing through a neighbour’s pipes

and if I stand
stock still
the soft sound
of my daughter’s breathing

even
with my eyes closed
the sound of the blood
flowing down its ancient corridors

currents,
oceans without end.

One sentence (or conceivably two: there is a syntactic break at the end of “clouds” in the second stanza), a single comma to prevent an ambiguity, and a lovely shape that descends through the pattern of its own meaning. And that meaning moves from the carefully noted particulars (in Brooks’s poetry the senses become more acute as the scene moves towards stasis) out in a double direction so that the individual’s blood is both part of the huge salt water world of all the oceans past and present and, at the same time, all the genetic history contained in any individual.

This kind of accomplished lyricism is at the heart of Walking to Point Clear (whose title nicely suggests that each poem moves in its syntax towards a point of clarity) and one could cite any number of examples. In “Possum” the creature introduced in the title is never mentioned but is a solution to a kind of riddle:

. . . . .
                              someone

beating a huge
                              cyclone fence
coming closer

no such fence for miles

It’s a homely and unambitious sort of poem but then so is its subject. So, for that matter, is the subject of “Bush-Mouse”:

Night-stirrer,
raider of cupboards and open drawers,
skater across polished floorboards, relentless
worrier of barricades, gnawing itself bloody
for the skerricks of humans, the bush-mouse
likes Easter eggs, pistachio nuts, tubes
of Deadant, the cardboard and plastic
of tack-packets, parcels of screws,
but, most of all - true
bastard of Irish
convict stock - potatoes, new
potatoes, small
and round
and hard enough
to hold in its determined paws
and crunch as, intently, passionately, ears
cocked wide for a movement from the bedroom,
it stares out of the window at the giant moon.

The opening at the end here is visual. One could allegorize it out as affirming that this small creature engaged in a continuous assault on the human world belongs to the class of natural phenomena – as does the moon. One could even, stretching things a bit, see the animal as the poet’s comic totemic beast (an inversion of the book’s first poem which establishes the owl as the poet’s totem), engaged in ordinary consumption but staring at the moon. But I think, without any evidence, that this is an attempt at an oriental lyric. The poem’s true tension is that between the conclusion and the finicky particularities of the mouse’s activities. These are expressed as a list (and a very homely list at that). There is also the tension of tones: something like “true / bastard of Irish / convict stock” is unlikely to turn up in a poem by Li Bei or Basho.

Walking to Point Clear is full of satisfying poems of this type. The tensions that make the poems live are rarely repeated and can be quite complex – “Mangoes” and “People Sleeping Beside Each Other in Their Beds” are good examples. And yet, running throughout the book is a note of worry about poetry itself and about what kinds of poetry should be written. In “The Sawmill” the idea is floated that poetry relates to living by being a daily activity much like cutting and stacking firewood:

. . . . .
I’ve done the same
in Vermont
twenty years ago
and here before with Bob, and Frank,
or by myself
in Westgarth or Lumeah Street
more times than I can remember
and will not say
that writing isn’t something like it
sawing each day
into different lengths
carrying them from one place to another
stacking them up
when people’s backs are turned

This might be called the Snyder-solution to the act of writing though it is significant that the poem still wants to exploit the possibilities of a surprise (and, in terms of meaning, fairly open) ending. Related to this are those poems which see words as objects – things to be handled in the normal processes of living. In “Back after Eight Months Away” two stanzas of living (moving back to a damp holiday house on the NSW southern coast) are followed by two stanzas which affirm that speaking is one of the acts of living and that the words used are objects and, like objects, have their own (albeit slightly solipsistic) sense of existence:

no point
in saying this - only
to say,
feel
the cold syllables
as they pause at the mind’s tip

rain, silt
turning solid
as beach-pebbles, polished
and flawless,
dreaming only of themselves.

The poem most connected with these thoughts about the status of words and poetry is “The Cormorant / Elegy for R.F. Brissenden”. Elegies for poets always have an especial piquancy for writers since one of your own has gone before you into the darkness and been silenced. Brooks’s poem begins with a sly joke and an affirmation that words are objects and do not produce resurrections:

Words fail
or drown in darkness,
so much
goes without saying

here is grass
with the black showing through
here is mutton bird
with a cold wind
ruffling its wings
out of the mind’s reaches.

And it ends, five sections later, with the idea that the use of words is not so much a part of the dailiness of living with objects, but rather a defensive song in the dark as we hug ourselves to ourselves:

. . . . .
As if there were anything other
than being what we are

anything
other than uttering
over and over
the sounds we make out of love for our being

saying bird, grass, night
as if they could actually be those things

saying here, saying now, saying this
in its thousand forms,
its hundred thousand forms,
this

“The Cormorant” is not an easy poem to get to grips with but, at least in my tentative reading, it connects the twentieth century’s old obsession of the gap between signifier and signified with death and with a depressed sense of the self as alone, as “singing the one-sided song”. But if words are not conduits to transcendence, this throws a lot of doubt over the status of those luminous endings of the conventional lyric model. Walking to Point Clear, in other words, worries about its own methods and the question of whether poetry points us down to our irreducible, inner selves or up towards the stars.

One solution is that of this new book, Urban Elegies. And that is to embrace the public sphere of poetry and leave the sensitive inner world (and its tendency towards a static solipsism) to shift for itself. It is worth noting that the first elegy occurs not in Urban Elegies but in Walking to Point Clear. “Depot Elegy” has all the features of the poems of the second half of Urban Elegies, including an opening line that infringes notions of linguistic decorum:

The retired sawmiller, great arsehole,
has ploughed a road through the cycads
and that is the beginning of an end to it.
His three-story brick-and-tile monstrosity
cranes out of the hillside
and the whine of his chainsaw or grind
of his four-wheel-drive as he hauls
his fourteen-footer from the boat ramp
can be heard any day of the year.

The poem goes on to become a meditation on extinction “devoured by such sudden parasites / (and I am one”). As with “A Curse” the energizing force is fury and just as in that poem fury produced a spat-out list, so in this poem it fractures style. In the first sentence the final word, “it” can only refer to a non-existent word “forest” – it should have been replaced by “them”. Deliberate or otherwise, it’s a good technique because it signals the anger of someone whose poetry is always shapely and whose prose is “lucid and elaborate”.

The first section of Urban Elegies is very much about visitations. Visitations play their part in the poems of Walking to Point Clear but they are often subsumed there into the canny structure of the lyric. Here the visitations are framed in rougher poems and there is no doubt that Brooks is experimenting with the idea of opening the poems to the force of the world rather than reducing the world to the point where it can provide a shapely conclusion for a poem. Does this strategy work? Generally yes. Although, in a sense, all of these poems (all poems) are about poetry, there are three here which are quite overt about it. One of them, “Golden Tongues”, deals with visitation in the form of poetry:

Poems
come and go like a once-
or twice-a-year season

four or five
in a rush
and then nothing

you think
they’re easy
and get careless

but then
you turn around
and the words aren’t there

as if you’ve had your chance at Pentecost
and blown it
and the golden tongues are gone

then
out of the blue
it happens again

life
rising out of nowhere
needing you for something - an errand - urgently

The second of these poems, “Ars Poetica”, opens the book and is a much more slippery affair. The visitants are birds, initially exuberantly misidentified by the poet:

When I woke first I imagined it was starlings
mid-demonstration on the galvanised roof,
a thick forest of chirpings,
claws like the scratching
of a thousand sharp pencils

then, waking again, thought
swallows
. . . . .

eventually they are fixed as rainbow lorikeets, significantly from Beaver’s suburb of Manly “covering the gum with raucous blossom / like a sudden daylight phosphorous, / turning the morning to a drunken boat”. The poem concludes with a student asking “What is poetry?” and the poet’s response is “I think of all the old things”. There are many ways of reading this conclusion: the old things might be anything from old theories rehashed for students to old poems by the same poet. Conceivably they are the old techniques of intense metaphor – something the poem is full of. I like to think, admittedly because it suits my argument, that the poem wants to distinguish between a scholar’s mechanical discussing of the nature of poetry with the violent, raucous visitation that represents poetry itself. In other words this is a poem that wants to experience visitation without thinking too much about it.

The final of this group of poems is the comic “Barnyard Revelation Poem”. The poet meets another poet (significantly described as “an academic poetician”) who objects to poems of revelation with a rural setting – “barnyard revelation poems”. The poem then launches into a pretty accomplished parody of the post-modern before asserting the essential basis of human experience:

I suppose, instead, I should be producing
postmodern supermarket odes, or linguo-spatiological
poematographs of the
secret life of words - the kinds of things
a close analysis of “intimate” might intimate, or the way
“impact” can become “impacted” - as if
the post-modern supermarket were anything much other than
sawn-up, mashed, sliced, bottled or deep-
frozen barnyard
or the forms and paraforms, the traces and
fathomless abysses of words were any more
than the cum- and pain- and joy-cries
of farmers and their
wives and children, buried under
layer upon layer of the tangled Western Mind.

Sometimes the visitations are unwanted or at least unpleasant. In a fine poem, “Head Lice”, the poet searches his school-age daughter’s scalp for lice when, with some very complex syntactic shifts, memories of the past intrude as well as an understanding of the central tragedy of parenthood that lurks as though in ambush:

. . . . .
     I run my fingers
through her fine, soft hair, searching it
strand by strand
to find nothing
but the occasional abandoned egg-case
clinging to the root,
or freckle
on the snow-white scalp
amongst my own sudden memories
of childhood on the Cotter River
or birch-trees in a Cleveland winter,
or, waiting in ambush, the fought-
back, un-
thinkable certainty
that such moments must end
all too soon now
and will never come again.

Sometimes the visitations are ecstatic and in “Continuance” they are recalled as arguments in defence of the world against the charge that the stretch of living ahead of us will be just as dreary and uncomfortable as the traversed plain of already-lived life behind us:

wasn’t it in February
that a great moon filled the garden half the night
with light so strong you could read by it?
wasn’t it September when the honeyeater
built in the vine outside the window
and the strange birds came
singing all day in the fig trees
and all the night also?
wasn’t it only a week ago, for reasons
you could not explain at the time
or even remember,
you turned, and smiled a particular
smile as you entered, and your face
and your hair smelt of rain?

There are plenty of visitations, too, in the “Urban Elegies” section of the book. “No Angel” deals with the doubled nature of visitations. An “I do this I do that” poem, it details the events of 11 September, 2003 – exactly two years after the best-known visitation from the air in modern times and eleven days into a new spring. In the central section the poet returns to his office

to face the usual menagerie
of thoughts and emails, visits
to my door: a few
gnats, some
beasts of burden, one
storm-damaged petrel,
no angel, no
panther yet.

This stresses the absence of Rilkean incursions but the poem concludes at night

A glass of wine, a meal, some
conversation - all in all
a good day, quiet enough: no
accident or injury, no
illness, no
phone-call in the heart of night, no
flood or
fire this time,
no death.

This is a reminder that the angel of inspiration, the angel that carries the message of the world and the angel of death all share the same celestial apartment.

The final elegy of Urban Elegies is also a visitation poem concerning itself with accidentally touching a live powerline. When a poet does it it might feel as though he had

     grasped a tendril of his Al-
mighty God
or at the very least connected, as
a television connects to the evening news,
to the entire seven-suburb grid of
sub-station 40C . . . . .

But when a flying fox does the same thing, the poem asks what kind of transcendent reality it connects with momentarily, what

vast
grids and
networkings of night, what
chittering labyrinths of
tree and
air, what
soundless shrieks of
pain or
joy or
prophecy are
there?

It is not an empty question because it asks whether this sort of transcendental visitation is a uniquely human experience. Flying foxes, as part of the natural world, are usually, in Brooks’s poems, visitors themselves disturbing humans in the case of the possums and bush-mice of earlier poems. In “Rat Theses” and “A Dog at Fifty” from this section of Urban Elegies, rats and dogs create a kind of modus vivendi with humans when we see parallels between them and us. But this poem, in asking about the consciousness of animals, does move away from the slight tendency to see the world as a grand abstraction whose function, from our point of view, is to inspire or crush us with its vast otherness. You get the feeling that this book may lead to a perspective whereby we are seen as animals among other animals.

Urban Elegies is a terrific book but it does need to be seen in the context of Brooks’s other work rather than as a breakthrough volume that renders the earlier poetry irrelevant. The question of the nature of poetry, its relation to our humanness and to speech, whether its correct stance towards the world should be passive or active, are issues that go back to Brooks’s earliest poems. I would rather see these new poems as exciting experiments in a productive mode rather than as a finally achieved style. They certainly experiment within the mode: “America: A Cigarette Ode” is in the style of comic exaltation just as “André Agassi Bows Out of the French open, 4th June, 2003″ is in the tone of comic despair. But, most of all, they manage to harness anger to make poetry while remaining receptive. It is no coincidence that the author’s portraits on the covers of the three books – an intelligent student, a thoughtful and sensitive scholar and a shaven-headed, angry man – while radically different are still recognizably the same person.