Brook Emery: Uncommon Light

Carlton: Five Islands Press, 2007, 72pp.

This is Brook Emery’s third book. The first two – and dug my fingers in the sand (2000) and Misplaced Heart (2003) – share what are, essentially, philosophico -poetic concerns. Emery is especially good, in these, at registering the sense of an observing self, simultaneously part of the normal processes of the world and apart from them. As the first poem of his first book – significantly about the sea – says:

I'm in the sea but not of it, neither fish
nor fisherman nor sailor with their understanding
of its distance and its depths . . . . .

He is also good at epistemological issues, such as the fact that, when part of the world momentarily makes some sense (“coheres” is the word he is inclined to use) we are uncertain as to whether that is a pattern we impose or whether we have uncovered an underlying law. Does knowing less make patterns easier to discern? That is, is there a tension between empirical data and generalisation? He is continuously intrigued by the status of thought and the fact that thoughts arise naturally in us and play over experiences. He is also highly sensitive to the way in which the future passes through the present and on into the past and the fact that these three time-states are decidedly different. The present is the world of immersion while the past – full of traces of the present – is a remembered and analysed construct.

This all might make Emery seem like a second-rate philosopher but the fact is that he is a first-rate poet. He manages to convince us that these are not only intellectual issues but intensely internalised ones, part of his visceral experience of the world. This is done by the deployment of a small but potent cast of symbols. Of these water – as the sea and as rain – is the most common. Yes, the sea seems to represent the incomprehensible world of the data of experience – swimming is never a simple act in Emery – but it is also part of a personal environment. Emery, like Slessor , is profoundly a Sydney poet. Many poems are set inside a car (often during a rainstorm) and the situation is exploited as a way of coming to terms with the artist’s sense of being simultaneously inside and outside the world. After the rain, so to speak, come the birds, often exploited as symbols of thought.

Uncommon Light builds on and extends these first books – a critical commonplace – but it also makes radical changes. It begins with a poem, “Very Like a Whale” which is, as its title suggests about imposed perception. This seems contiguous with the earlier books, but there are two elements here that I think are rarer than in the first two books and which are very important in this new one. One is an emphasis on the self:

. . . . .
        I am not what I imagined,
                       here I am the illusionist
                       and dupe of my illusions,
        making the angels disappear, wishing them back again.
. . . . .

And the second, only suggested here in the word “angels”, an interest in the possibility of transcendence of some kind. Later in the poem, the self is redescribed in an entirely materialist, evolutionary way as:

               one more clay figurine with beseeching hollows
                                           where the eyes should be,
                                           as different from the others
 as I am the same, no more evolved
                                           than a roach,
                                           no better than a rat,
                                           happy as a labrador in the sun.
                  This is grace, the rest is commentary
                  and I would let it go: in millennia

 I'll chatter metaphysics with a chimpanzee, now
                            my thoughts are the antlers of the Irish elk,
                                                     the wings of flightless birds . . . . .

Of course a word like “grace” leaps out at the reader in a passage such as this. To complicate matters, it is not easy to be entirely sure about its significance here. It could be saying that grace is the state of living entirely physically, at one with the natural and animal world. It could also be saying, of course, that “grace” is a theological nonsense, a sense of bodily rightness that has become encrusted with commentary.

So Uncommon Light extends the generally epistemological concerns of the first two books into questions of our material identity and the validity of the idea of transcendence. It is also obsessed (I don’t think it too strong a word) with the idea of evil. This is a theme sounded in a number of poems towards the end of Misplaced Heart . Poems like “Self-portrait with Exploding Device”, “Aubade and Evensong: New Year, 2003” and “Commentary: Two Days”, though corralled in a single section of the book, all address the idea of suffering in the contemporary world. This note is continued almost immediately in Uncommon Light . The second poem, “Spring”, recalls the book’s epigraph from Orwell:

. . . spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the  factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are  streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going around the  sun and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they  disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

“Spring” uses, as its central metaphor, the idea that we absorb time as sunlight and eventually let it show as cancers – “Our darker selves in and out of seasons”. And this bleak note is taken up in “Finches Perhaps” which deals first with the response of our thoughts when faced with a site of horror such as the Khmer Rouge torture centre of Tuol Sleng and then with the “tyrants” themselves:

Birds strip the hanging air, cut through it
between bars, through chinks, always at this

flit-flitting peak, this in and away as we say,
monstrous; as we say, how could anyone

have endured; thinking they, thinking if I were,
as birds dart in micro-moments through

our scant attention to how time corrodes
between denials then and now. It happened

and happened, normal really how helpless
rectify appears. Mind that thinks manacle

and bird and time cants to be a shrug. Tomorrow
the new tyrant's found in a spider hole, he has

a thick white web of beard, he has a gun
he doesn't fire. A torch shines in his open mouth,

the talk again of supervised elections. Distinctions
are this stark: Tuol Sleng – the poisoned mound -

used to be a school; its commandant
taught mathematics; its guards were adolescent.

Coherence only in the birds, what they have reclaimed.

It is a potent poem and, as far as I can see, gets double value out of the birds flitting in and out of the prison windows. They symbolise our thoughts – and thus connect the poem up to its author’s epistemological concerns – but they also symbolise a natural world that is, by definition, coherent.

The issue of the nature of evil gets a thorough working over in a four part poem called “Monster” whose parts are spread throughout the book. This poem impresses in the way it operates by statement and denial. Emery often puts both sides of a situation and lets the statements lie alongside each other – working by balancing possibilities rather than a potentially reductive assertion. The first “Monster” poem asserts unequivocally that the monster is present with us in the womb. Monstrosity is not a perversion or a freak sport of nature but an inherently human condition – we are all capable of running Auschwitz or Tuol Sleng . The second poem worries about the essentialism of this position: no monster, after all, produced the Lisbon earthquake – that is a product of some random and completely natural processes. It experiments with the idea of lived experience being made up of encounters between the good and the bad, the monsters and the saints:

. . . . .
I know saintliness exists. It's all around me.
My next door neighbours in their simple modesty,
the lady down the street who is always

helping someone older than herself. Even the slow
judicial process conceives it natural to be better
than we are. I'm trying to shoo the gloomy birds away

but crows repeat about me on the lawn; and the vulture
and the kite, the cuckoo and the owl: should I have given up the ghost 
when I was drawn from the womb? 

The third and fourth “Monster” poems censor the first two by overlaying an epistemological rigorousness:

. . . . .
                                            I'm embarrassed

by the flimsiness of my resolve, the silliness of saints and monsters,
conversations with a being who can't plausibly exist,
this mockery of flagellation . . . . .

and a return to issues of coherence: are observations of order “true but trivial” or a window into profound underlying laws? At any rate, the final result is bleak:

Against the livid orange sunset, consolation
(Is it a wing? A fuselage?) dips behind the hill,
out of the debris: fragments, disconnected things,
suffering that makes nothing holy.

Others have noted that Emery is a master of extended – usually multi-part – poetic meditations. At the core of Uncommon Light are a number of these. They make a very impressive achievement. The first of them is “That Beat Against the Cage” another poem to work over the bird/thought connection. The essential question that it asks is: where is life primary and where is it secondary? Its eight poems come down against the idea (shared by Buddhists and twentieth century metaphysicians) that life is an observed process and that what matters is not essences but field and flow:

. . . . .
Life lopes away as we dally in sub-plot, or worse
in a stream of consciousness; these thoughts,
sometimes like chirping birds, more often
like the incidental murmur of the sea, or wind
that gusts down evening streets. They never stop.

And yet, despite this confident rejection, there is still an intellectual openness: “I think it is. I think it isn’t”:

Yet there is confinement when all is in its place ,
the mind becomes eye's slave, scribe of boundaries,
reporter of coherence.
. . . . .

What complicates – or adds a third perspective – is a sense of a kind of non-transcendent transcendence which can be found in many places in this book, not least in its title – a quotation, we are told, from Augustine speaking of God’s view from an omniscient perspective. Some of the best poetry in Uncommon Light is that describing this sense that “The world holds back / a secret for itself, puts up a lattice work / of truth and lies.” Ideas are difficult to do in poetry but an almost queasy sensation is something even more challenging. One of the poems from “That Beat Against the Cage” makes an impressive attempt to speak of a transcendence that can be sensed but not really argued for:

I would see the outline of the world sufficient
had there not been an unconcealment ,
as though the wind were taking off its clothes,
a folding and unfolding of bird and tree and light
all the time back to swirling fire, emergent seas.

It's as if I'm deep inside the world, gripped
and almost capable of understanding
the mystery that is no mystery, that yields
but in yielding withdraws behind the clouds.

This seems an alias of beautiful, an inkling
that is in the moment but escapes the present.
Nothing here's sublime, nothing fixed and final ,
nothing artful: this records confusion and the mind's existence.

I know that many will find this kind of meditative beating out of ideas and positions unattractive, but I am greatly taken by this poem and the way it tries in words to get towards the edges of a profound but non-religious experience – a profound philosophical sensation. “That Beats Against the Cage” finishes with an unequivocal rejection of that version of the-world-as-process which leads to an idea of art as the solipsistic recording of the transient:

It's untenable, this drifting that sees the world as drift.
The fantasy should ebb, become the half-recalled
calling of the sea, or else lifetimes will be spent meandering
self-consciously through the matter of the day,
shuttling back and forth as if transience
could be a domicile . . . . .

Other poems record this sensation of approaching a transcendent which is not located above or even, really, within: it is more that it is underlying. “Nevertheless Also There” is an example. Beginning “The ordinary, it seems, is something more”, it goes on to describe the bodily sensation of seeming removed:

                       a kind of separation where my body
was an empty overcoat given form by air
and the something that was absent, too physical
to be a thought, too stark and inessential
to be a soul, was also there without a shade
or outline though it looked to float above me
and to occupy an equal space. This division
outlasts the waking moment so a day or life
or lives are spent in mist and expectation
or the purblind clarity left by rain when the everyday
is edged and charged and hardly changed at all.

And “Making a Presence” takes up the same theme, speaking of the unseen which makes

                 a presence here, a passing that takes us
even as we hold together harder. Hours blow by
and the stranger remains, making fans of trees ,
sharpening the sand, whispering and hissing till we
hear the vacancy it sings, this way, this way, it lies.
Wind whistles beyond us and my voice is the sea
torn to snow, cattle beneath a hill, an empty room ,
something promised and just beyond my reach.

Finally there is the title poem itself. Thirty-eight one line statements, questions and imperatives. Like another poem, “Tourism: What the I Sees”, “Uncommon Light” is an attempt to move into a poetic mode quite different to the usual meditations of Emery’s work. It is about the eye and its responses to what it sees. One line “An edge we share: it makes conspirators of us all” is about the involvement of subject with object while another “Starlight becomes us: no, really; divinity adapts as it descends” while looking neoplatonic is probably a statement of human- centredness so that all things become human size when we process them. That would make it the inverse of Blake’s “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite”. Finally there is the mysterious question “Common and uncommon light: who patrols the border?” which could be interpreted in many ways including as a rhetorical question. The significance of “Uncommon Light” though, is not so much what its gnomic sentences add to the complicated concerns of the book but rather in its move to a different mode. Of course this Delphic mode is not necessarily more intensely “poetic”. Philosophers from Heracleitus to Nietzsche and Wittgenstein have enjoyed the way cryptic propositions engage with discursive thought.

Looking at Emery’s work so far we can see a clear pattern of movement from a poetry almost entirely concerned with issues of reality, essence and knowledge to a poetry that almost is forced to face some of the mass horrors of the world. In Uncommon Light it tries to find ways of doing this that do not sacrifice the epistemological rigour of the earlier work. At the same time it quietly, and often in the interstices, asks painful questions about the value of poetry. The prospects – for the world, for knowledge and for poetry – might said to be bleak but bracing.