David Brooks: The Balcony

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2008, 120pp.

In the middle of the three sections of this new book by David Brooks are three poems written in the spirit of Catullus, exploiting that poet’s ability to speak passionately about his contemporaries – friends as well as enemies. The third of them, “Catullus 123”, provides a kind of defence-in-advance of the entire book:

“One hundred love poems? Don’t be ridiculous.
Your colleagues will give you shit,
and all those others, for whom love is
an expression of failure, lack of nerve,
something not really to be talked about
in gritty Sydney or those smug and urbane
capitals to the south of it.
. . . . .”

This and the book’s epigraph (“for Teja / 77 love poems / (and then some)”) gives us a pretty good idea of what to expect from The Balcony and at the same time protects it from the condescending comment that it is a “brave book” in the Yes Minister sense of the word. What we get is really fine, lyrical writing of a certain mode. Whereas the driving force of Brooks’s previous book, Urban Elegies, might be described as openness in the face of anger, this book’s seems to be something like wonder in the face of love, an experience that readers should celebrate as much as writers. It is full, as one might expect, of portraits of the loved-one but the most telling is “Balkan” which, with a title that exploits that word’s connotations of the outré, tells us that this relationship is not a bland, cosily domestic one.

The best of these poems partake of that complex of tones which lyric poetry (although one doesn’t want to generalise too freely about something this complex) throughout the ages and the cultures of the world, has exploited. The emotion is intense and recognisable but, far from being a spontaneous shout, enough complexities have to be going on “under the bonnet” (to borrow a phrase from a poem of John Jenkins) for them not to have to rely on the power of the emotion to sustain them. And the complexities are balanced by a sense that the poem itself is an ephemeral, self-supporting text that momentarily captures an experience but which doesn’t aspire to building something that will resist the entropy of the world. In the case of someone like Catullus, a central figure of this tradition in the West, you feel that in the background is a strong group of aristocratic and similarly inclined friends who make up the audience that enables the poems to be written. I’m not sure that one feels this in Brooks’s case: what you get instead is a solitary’s a sense of bewilderment and bedazzlement in the face of overwhelming experience.

Lyric poems, like these, are also a bit of a test for the reader since any laboured, furrowed-brow-in-the-tutorial kind of response is directly contrary to the poems’ spirit. It’s a transaction where the poet assumes that readers are friends who see these things easily – as easily in fact as the impression the poet gives of their writing. Take a later, short poem, “Vukovar”, for example:

A warm day
over the fields of Vukovar:
in the lanes between the blackberries,
beneath the muddy pools
drying after the morning’s rain,
under the short-mown meadow
and the fields of kale,
under the cruising hawk,
the hapless dead
bearing their chests to the sun.

The title is a word so pregnant with connotations that we read the single sentence of the poem waiting for them to detonate. And detonate they do though, in a daring move, the climax revolves around a single word that will always look, to those reading it for the first time, like a misspelling.

Another example might be the book’s second poem, “The Field”:

I saw you leaving, from the corner
of my eye, and went outside
as soon as I could get away,
but you had turned
into a broad field,
a still evening,
a strange bird’s cry.

The pleasure of this little piece (by no means as important as many of the other poems) revolves around the ambiguity of “turned into”. The other person enters a field and disappears and in doing so has “become” a field, an evening, a bird’s cry, dissolving in a way that matches the poem’s movement from precise (if oblique – “from the corner / of my eye”) syntax to open list. And then there are the implications of the word “field”. Nobody who read poetry in the sixties and seventies will pass a word like this without a quiver of response since it connotes extended ideas in both writing and philosophy. “A field of interactions” was a proposed replacement for individuals in a period when people were desperate to get rid of essentialist notions of the self. And that’s what happens in this poem when the individual disappears, so – unlikely as it may seem (in fact, unlikely as it is) – this can be read as a comment on French and American notions of the “shape” of reality in that distant period.

But “The Field” is also an example of a process that can be felt throughout The Balcony in that it begins to dissolve borders between the various levels of reality. Good lyric poetry can be funny like this. It seems on one level sharp and full of the thisness of things – there is a bird, a room, a tree, love, pain, whatever – and yet at another level very equivocal about the status-in-reality of these things. They can double as allegorical elements or as passing similes, they can be illusions or dreams or totems. The Balcony’s first poem, “Isla Negra” (the first poem of each of the three groups seems very sensitive to place) is perhaps a better example than “The Field”:

The traffic had finished on the avenue.
The full moon was low behind the twin bridges.
The fruit bats had gone, leaving their bitter-sweet
carnage under the fig trees.

For almost an hour
I’d watched you sleeping, lips
half-open against the black pillow, eyes
closed over your unfathomable dreams.

When I shut my own at last
white horses were grazing the night fields somewhere,
people were speaking quietly
in a language I did not know

clear water
rippled over dark river-stones,
a long, white crescent of sand
beckoned like a path

the eyes 
of a hundred forest creatures
watched us, like familiars,
under a million stars.

The drive of the poem is one that appears often in this book: the gaze moves from the loved one to the cosmos. But this simple and fairly common movement is played against a lot of very complex levels of reality. It begins with the pillow which might be literally black (a word introduced in the placename of the title) but also might be metaphorically so. Are the white horses grazing in the writer’s dream or in reality outside the building where the writer is dreaming? And the language of the people – was it one the writer didn’t speak or couldn’t identify? The climax of the poem is the climax of these ambiguities and, as with the other two poems I’ve spoken of, is embodied in one word. To speak of the forest creatures as “familiars” can imply that the lovers are accepted by the natural world as honorary citizens in a way that the people who form the various targets of poems like the Catullus ones will never be. But familiars are also animal forms that the gods take when they want to assist, or keep an eye on, their devotees. And these are usually the darker gods, the demons, though it would be in the spirit of the poem to imagine them here as benevolent. At any rate, there is an enormous difference between an image of lovers being united with the natural world and lovers being protected by visitants from the otherworld. And the single world holds both possibilities perfectly making a mode that looks to be one of unequivocal expression, actually one of shifting borders and ambiguous footings.

There are a host of the otherworlds in this book and it is one of its achievements that they are never invoked sloppily. Heart, head, soul, dream, past, memory all make appearances as do a set of metaphors: the lover’s body as city, the lover or the self as totemic beast, and so on – as one of the poems says: “Such / realms there are in all of us”. Usually, the most immediate sense that poets have of these otherworlds is their own poetic renewal and the sense that this must be originating outside themselves in some way. There are many celebrations of this in The Balcony. Whether it is straightforwardly caused by the love the book celebrates is a different issue: a poem which reworks the Orpheus myth certainly suggests that it is. Many of the poems are attentive to the fallow periods with their inevitable frustrations and frightening sense that nothing may come ever again. “Australia”, for example, seems to be a minimalist take on Hope’s poem and also McAuley’s “Envoi”, both poems about creativity and renewal and, in the case of the McAuley, a poem that cleverly brings metaphor next to reality so that each seem to have an equal validity. “White Tulips”, in a four line spell, speaks of three of the traditional conceptions of how our sensibilities divide: “White tulips . . . /astonish / even the exhausted heart. // Don’t / tell the soul then / or whisper to the brain” and this is followed by a fascinating poem, “Wait” which shows how wonderful simple assertion sometimes is – though it begins with a symbolic scenario of a spider continuously repairing its damaged web:

. . . . .
Sometimes the heart grows so large
it floods the body.
Sometimes it is no bigger than a nut.
Sometimes the dark creeps in
and it seems that it will never go away.
A great deal that is lost is findable.
Much that seems dead
is not dead at all.
Much that is obvious
needs to be said
again and again.

The issue of why this should work here, and not be part of the pompous lecturing that one finds in bad poems written out of an ideological certainty, is a tricky issue and I’m not sure I can answer it beyond saying that surrounding poems set it in a perspective of passionate experience and often act as concrete images for it. I know this commits the fallacy of assuming that genuinely felt experience makes successful poetry, but it’s the best I can do. Another little poem, “A Call”, situates poetic renewal as beginning outside the self and, like the earlier poems I spoke of, depends for its effect on a pun on “lie” (“Hold / back, let / language lie”) and “The Poet’s House” deals with this renewal in completely objective, almost comically distanced, terms:

A poet is living in this house again!
The whole place is a mess!
Students’ essays
pile up unmarked,
letters are left unanswered,
books lie about unread.

before concluding with three lines that have more in them than appears on the surface:

Who will throw the poet out?
Who will ever
bring in the garbage?

When lyric poetry’s sense of inviting in material from strange places and dissolving the conventional boundaries between reality and the worlds of dream, allegory and metaphor that surround it is put together with transformative erotic love (where does that come from?) and the equally mysterious arrival of creativity, there is a lot of complexity for good poetry to exploit and roll around in. The Balcony does that. What I like most about it is that far from being a book to get things (Balkan love) out of the way so that the poetry can go back to exploring its previous concerns (working on itself as an oeuvre) it’s a book that inhabits and (often bemusedly) explores the ground of poetry itself.