Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow: Radar

North Hobart: Walleah Press, 2012, 115pp.

Most double-authored books of poetry have a contingent feel about them: two manuscripts, when edited down, are not long enough for a single volume and get yoked together, not necessarily by violence but not necessarily profitably either. Radar is distinguished by the fact that, no matter what the processes were which have produced this final result, there are interesting connections and oppositions between the two poets’ work and each makes a rather interesting background to the other. Kevin Brophy has a substantial publishing record – about which I have made comments in an earlier review – whereas Radar is Nathan Curnow’s third book if we include the thirty-two page No Other Life But This in Five Islands Press’s New Poets Series.

Curnow, whose fifty page collection appears first despite the order of the names on cover and title page, is probably best known for his The Ghost Poetry Project. In that book he writes seven or eight poems about the experience of staying overnight in each of ten of Australia’s most haunted locations: these include predictable places like Norfolk Island and Port Arthur but also a Cadillac hearse brought to retirement in Sydney from Pennsylvania and, perhaps more surprisingly, the Fremantle Arts Centre (which turns out to be a convict-built ex-lunatic asylum). On the surface Curnow’s first two books seem at odds. The title of the first, alone, suggests a perspective commitedly materialist with precious little tolerance of either religious views or the more downmarket otherworldly which appears in UFO sightings and experiences of the supernatural. And yet the obsession that seems to drive his verse revolves exactly around this issue of the status of the otherworlds that many people sense impinge on our more mundane experience of life. And this is approached with a pleasant openness that carefully avoids being naive or gullible on the one hand and closed-minded on the other: a sort of poetic equivalent of Louis Theroux.

The title of the first book, No Other Life But This, is so pointed that one goes to the title poem expecting a celebration of family life, perhaps – something that Curnow does well – or a polemic against various beliefs. The actual poem is rather a surprise:

The bird comes to ground at twilight,
thirsty for a drink. She hops across the grass,
staccato fashion, hops, stops, watches:
movement as a flash of fear. Caution
has a rhythm, she plays it precisely,
every two-legged jump potential take-off.
Eyes sharp, head tilting, her tiny, peanut brain
drawing angles into comprehension.

The children's containers are water collectors
that have littered the back lawn for days.
She springs to a lip, quizzes the threat,
surprises come with a puff of feathers.
Bowing to drink she considers again,
every twitch revealing her secret,
the hunch that fits inside her head:
there is no other life but this.

This takes a while to assimilate. On the one hand it could be an assertion that life is driven by instincts (especially fear-driven ones) rather than beliefs. It could be a celebration of the extraordinary grace of the natural world: a later poem, observing a baby daughter’s sliding off into sleep says, “Grace is found in such simple mechanics; / the way wings work a bird without it knowing”. But it might also be saying that there is “no other life” apart from the kind of open-minded attention to detail out of which the poem is constructed. However we read it, though, there is no lack of engagement with the problems of beliefs in the poems of this first book. The very first poem situates the author in conversation with a woman who has a child with a serious heart defect. The discussion revolves around “portals” – presumably a way in which more lurid notions of the supernatural are making their way into traditional Christian beliefs – and this, to any poet or reader of poetry, chimes with her son’s problem. In the second poem, a little daughter, wrapping herself in a bathtowel so that she seems to have angel’s wings, talks to her father about death:

. . . . . 
I tell her that I love her but she's heard it before.
She wants to know where we go after this.
She believes in Santa. I can't let her trust Jesus.
Yes, your heart stops working and your lungs.
I want to tell her that life gets busier
which means there is less time to worry. . . . . .

These two poems demonstrate that Curnow has discovered, early on, that the domestic is one of the best settings for the sorts of issues he wants to deal with, and he does write brilliantly about family life.

But the material of the visits to haunted sites in The Ghost Poetry Project is made from the uncanny. For this to work at all the poet has to have some degree of receptivity to the idea of haunting even though the the sum total of unnatural experiences attributed (by the eyes and ears of faith) amount to not much more than strange tappings and reported ghostly figures. (The cynic in me can’t help but feel that if the world of the “beyond” wants to make an impact that would be taken seriously it needs to do something radical at these sites – scare some people to death as in Ring, for example – just as those claiming to talk to God or to be incarnations of past lives need to tell us something about the cosmos or the past that we don’t already know.) The true impulse behind the book probably lies in the biographical note which says: “As a child Nathan Curnow suffered ‘night paralysis’ He could barely breathe due to an overwhelming sense of terror”. The “project”, lurid but trivial at first sight, is really an attempt to induce and thus cure (as an adult) the terrors of childhood. This is made clear in a group of poems, distributed among the visits, which deal with the mythical bunyip. Here his own childhood fears and those of one of his daughters are allayed by the mantra that “bunyips only eat avocadoes”. The final section of the introductory poem makes the aim of the project clear:

Because the night is an eight-ball eye of a cow,
dark as the sludge inside your bones, fear locking
your delicate limbs deep beneath a tent of blankets.
I am returning as if I conquered the Butcher, as if
he lost his grip at last, descending with language,
my only defence, the one shot to defuse myself.

Because the nights are long, I will find new words
to pluck the eyeball out, testing them like avocadoes,
light or a picture card of Jesus. Let us reach together,
touch the monster's face, decipher the walls of the cave.
I will be calling your name. Call back to me.
There is always space for courage.

Parenthood has many responsibilities but re-inducing and facing one’s own childhood terrors so that you can help a child overcome hers is an unusual and unusually difficult one. In the night-time experiences of the “haunted” places little important occurs beyond the experience of actually doing it and the poems make clear that in Curnow’s view hauntings begin inside our own brains and are then – in a phrase that makes one think again about the book’s apparently innocent title – projected into the outer world. The visit to Tasmania’s convict-built Richmond Bridge (where the ghosts of a vicious overseer, his dog, and an old man with a walking stick and straw boater, occasionally pushing a wheelbarrow, occasionally headless, have been seen) produces a moment of generalised scepticism in the poem “Introduced Species”:

Always these ghost stories of introduced species
a phantom dog, black cat, a spooky goat

Instead there should be tales of evil brush-turkeys
of posties swooped by ghoulish magpies

Sightings reflect the culture of the witness -
ghosts are no longer wearing chains

Mary only appears in Catholic countries . . . . .

At any rate, all this makes a kind of necessary introduction to Curnow’s poems in Radar. Here the aim, at least of the first poems, is to revisit not night-time childhood terrors but the experience of childhood itself. It takes place in Pinnaroo, a small town in South Australia near the Victorian border, and many of the poems focus on the parents – the father a minister in what seems like a pentecostal sect. The very first poem, “The Curtain”, has, as an epigraph, the address of the church in Pinnaroo on which the poem is based as an inviting Google Earth reference: I recommend following it. The poem itself justifies its pre-eminent position by being a complex meditation about the way in which we emerge from childhood into public life and the way in which the history of places can induce responses in us. In other words, I read this poem as a transition between the world of The Ghost Poetry Project – the internal horrors which make us receptive to suspicions of new, external horrors – and the world of being a public, performing writer who both exploits and exorcises these demons. At the conclusion of the poem, the curtain that the child is wrapped in (“I looked like a crimson bell, or a strange reminder / of my own breech birth . . .”) opens out:

I belonged to the boards, to the fabric that slipped
away from me once again, turning until it spread itself wide,
introducing me to the world. Who would be there?
What to say? A yearning I understood - the magic burn
of anticipation bound in faith, belief and trust - to convert
an audience, to be converted by the strength of a fallible dream,
hoping that what will be revealed is worthy
of the curtain opening.

Perhaps the perspective in these poems is that of revisiting the experience of one’s parents – something that is always prompted by the arrival of our own children. In “The Curtain”, Curnow discovers connections with his father the minister in his own need to perform and convert an audience. There is a fine poem, “Those Adamant Shapes”, that recognises the passed-on genetic material between the generations calling it, memorably, “the deep cargo that refuses to come unstuck”. And it seems fitting that the structure of Curnow’s contribution to Radar should be a movement from his parents to his children. There is an especially wonderful description of the moment when one of his daughters has an injection: “you turn away from your arm, the needle / coming, your shoulder bared for // the pinch, the plunge, a foreign wave tightens / the little face you held so bravely . . .” All parents will remember things like that and be glad they are so accurately and beautifully expressed.

If Nathan Curnow’s poems are committed to understanding the world we all know and inhabit – and thus have a sturdy, almost conventional poetic quality, deploying metaphors for their illuminative value, for example – Kevin Brophy’s contribution is a set of seventy prose poems. The prose poem is a much loved form in which the oppressive quality of the “real” can be left behind in favour of imaginative possibilities. It is the home of otherworlds. In Brophy’s poems we meet a family in which the busy father hires a replacement for himself and the replacement energises the wife and constructively puzzles the son; a man, newly dead, who remains suspicious that the odd place in which he finds himself is not really paradise; an Australian suburb in which the street-planting of scrubby natives eventually takes over, and re-australianises, houses and inhabitants; a man who decides to live a “less personal” more antlike life; a hole in the ground near the Fawkner Cemetery which grows by absorbing objects of guilt and so on. We also meet Robert O’Hara Burke whose attitude to life – as well as the events of that life – is so surreal that it only needs to be described objectively to seem like one of these otherworlds.

Why do this and run the risk of confirming ordinary innocent Australians in their suspicion that serious literature doesn’t engage with the pressing questions (about love-affairs, football teams or cars) that oppress them? The answer is usually that these sorts of meditations reveal the shape of the writer’s psyche rather as dreams might to those skilled enough to read them. It is as if, to borrow from Eliot’s Prufrock, “a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen”. Some of Brophy’s narrative prose poems, “The Secret Theatre of Home”, for example, do seem to have their origins in dreams but more derive from exploring metaphors. Take “On Reading Virginia Woolf’s Sentence, ”˜Undoubtedly there is a dullness in great books’”, for example:

If it is true that dullness is what distinguishes lasting literature from the “bleak shorthand” of contemporary writing, then dullness is the freight we readers also bring to books, mental half-realms where every stone has been turned, and every stone has been beaten into agreement that it is a stone, and every stone has vowed silence, every stone has agreed roundness or sharpness will be its predictable gift. Handle this stone, then, every day, and offer its dullness to the sky, sense its vigilance. This is the only way.

Here the poem deals with a fossilised metaphor – “no stone unturned” – which introduces the idea that the creativity of metaphor is very close to the dullness of cliché. The poem which follows begins with a cliché, “taking a pig to market”, and goes on to use the lively and observant pig on its unknowing way to slaughter as a metaphor for our own voyage through life. “Anxiety” plays with the mysterious metaphor of “falling” asleep whereby in dreams the sleeper “actually” falls into water and “Against Falling” (were these originally conceived as an alphabetically organised group?) has the writer scaling an almost impossible mountain called syntax. A really satisfying poem follows a woman returning home with a plastic canister containing her mother’s ashes. Her mother was a master (or mistress – it depends on how alive the metaphor is) of the cliché:

. . . . . Her mother’s birthmark on her left shoulder, the small tattoo of a lily on her ankle, and those retorts of hers, those reminders that education did not come her way, that money never drops from the sky, that men are to be managed not trusted, that women can never be friends, that televisions, like all other inventions, will one day be quaint forgotten things, these are all there in the canister, locked in, burned into ash so that not one word will ever escape again. She is sure her tired mother would be pleased to be silenced. Words, she used to say, are never enough.

Once we accept that this eloquent style of meditation and narrative, surreal in the sense of not being limited by the ordinary, everyday, “real” is a projection of the poet’s psyche we are left with the issue of how this psyche is structured. Here it’s a matter of choosing your ideology. We could emphasise dreams, language, metaphor, creativity or culture and then relate the others to the dominant one. I’m not an expert on this issue, but I recognise that in last century’s great students of the structure of the mind – Freud, Jung, Lacan et al – there is an overwhelming preoccupation with this. I’m not sure what Brophy feels are more essential elements than others but if I had to guess I would expect them to be the language features.

Which brings me to the book’s structure. As I said in the introduction, what makes Radar so interesting is its conjunction of the two kinds of poetry. True, they are not two kinds of poem by a single poet: but then that is not uncommon and always seems rather stagey. At the same time if they were “unconnected” poets they would just be representatives of two different approaches to dealing with the world in poetry. There is something finely tuned and right about the fact that the two poets have a mentor/student relationship as well as a friendship one. Radar’s unusually valuable blurb expresses the book’s structure and achievement perfectly: Curnow says to Brophy. “My poems are (seemingly) conscious, direct confessions and yours are unconscious waking dreams” and Brophy replies, “This world always senses another world. Maybe your poems rescue mine while mine throw a life line to yours”. “Unconscious waking dreams” is a fine description of the seventy prose poems though it opts for seeing the dream as the dominant feature in the structure of the poet’s creativity. I would have felt it truer to say that Brophy’s poems were inclined to live in the otherworld of language and its strange, expressive offshoot, metaphor.