David Brooks: The Other Side of Daylight: New and Selected Poems

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press: 2024, 206pp.

I usually think that David Brooks’s third book, Urban Elegies, provides readers with the first sight of what he is – a great contemporary poet. It replaced a tendency towards a kind of gestural lyricism in his earlier work with an aggressive, free-wheeling personal style that has formed the basis of subsequent developments. This selected poems provides a good opportunity for an overview of the shape of his career. Like most modern selecteds, it begins with a new, book-length work and then selects from earlier volumes beginning with the most recent and concluding with the first. It probably suits readers who are interested in new work and it certainly suits the poets for whom, understandably, what they have done most recently is what occupies their minds. Early work gets relegated to the back of the book. But for critics – who want, among other things, to map changes in theme, mood and mode – it’s a frustrating arrangement: we have to read books like this in reverse order. Doing so, reveals that many of the characteristics of Urban Elegies and the later poems can be found in a single poem in Brooks’s second book, “Depot Elegy”.

What “Depot Elegy” and the third book share is the word “elegy” and elegy refers here not to its later embodiment as a lament for the dead, a solemn piece set perhaps in a country churchyard, but the classical sense of an intensely emotional rehearsal of passion, despair and fury mixed with wit and, as I’ll discuss later, a degree of surprising off-handedness about the poetic side of matters. We associate the classical elegy with “love poets” such as Tibullus and Propertius but Catullus is probably the best point of entry into the features of this mode, not least because Brooks has three poems in The Balcony which are imagined to be later productions of Catullus. At the risk of momentarily moving too far away from the subject of Brooks’s poetry which is, after all, what this review is about, I’ll quote one of my favourite Catullus poems as an example of what we might expect from a classical elegy. It’s Catullus VI in Guy Lee’s translation:

Were she not unsmart and unwitty,
Flavius, you’d want to tell Catullus
About your pet and couldn’t keep quiet.
In fact you love some fever-ridden
Tart and you’re ashamed to own it.
That you’re not spending deprived nights
Silent in vain the bedroom shouts
Perfumed with flowers and Syrian oils,
The pillow equally this side and that
Dented, and the rickety bed’s
Yackety perambulation.
It's no good keeping quiet about it.
You’d not present such fucked-out flanks
If you weren’t up to something foolish.
So tell us what you’ve got, for good
Or ill. I wish to emparadise
You and your love in witty verse.

The reader can feel in this translation the stress caused by Catullus’s intricate Latin syntax which has to be wrestled into English – “That you’re not spending deprived nights / Silent in vain the bedroom shouts / Perfumed with flowers . . .”- but the sense and tone of the poem is preserved. It’s obviously a long way from the statelier poetry aiming at high art: think of something like Yeats’s “Among School Children”. In fact this kind of poem is a sort of assault on that kind of poetry, perhaps a counter-current that runs alongside the pretensions of major works. The language is far cruder than poetry is used to and, as such, it perhaps puts poetry closer to an area where linguistic development and its associated excitements can occur. Brooks’s “Depot Elegy”, though in many ways it is quite unlike Catullus VI, is in the same mode. It begins with a deliberate vulgarity:

The retired sawmiller, great arsehole,
has ploughed a road through the cycads
and that is the beginning of an end to it.
His three-storey 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 . . .

It’s a long way from the language and tone of the poems of The Cold Front – “I come to the river / down the precipitous bank / and I kneel / and drink deeply, lifting / the dark water from its foil of stars . . .” – and may well be built around the idea that fury best expresses itself by demonstrating how it breaks the bonds of polite speech. But the vulgarity is part of the elegiac style.

Another feature of the classical elegy which gives it an important role in poetic history is its casualness. There is a throwaway quality that contrasts with the intensity of the driving emotion in interesting ways. Catullus’ poem looks like a quickly scribbled note that may well have been left on Flavius’s refrigerator door – if he had had one – in the same way as Williams’ note about the plums. This impression is, of course, an illusion: Catullus may have spent just as long getting this one exactly right as he did on a formal “high-art” piece like LXI – it’s something we will never know. But the sense is always that intensity of passion is likely to overwhelm existing formal modes with their inbuilt stateliness: this kind of poetry is, in English at least, marked by lists tumbling through enjambments as in the end of “Depot Elegy”:

. . . . . 
the lyre-birds on Mount Agony,
the great monitor,
wallabies, kangaroos, quolls,
all of us
wrapped in this lasting, this
absolute night,
and everyone of them expecting morning.

Walking to Point Clear contains poems from nearly a twenty year period so it is hard to know exactly where a poem like “Depot Elegy” fits into Brooks’s development but it certainly provides a springboard for the poems of Urban Elegies and after.

Before I leave this subject of the classical elegy something needs to be said about its shape. One of its features of this sort of poem, as Brooks himself notes in a poem from Open House, is that it’s “a place where you can bring things together” and part of the power in bringing things together is the way it threatens a more trivial kind of unity in a poem, the unity that derives from a consistency of tone and subject – prose virtues, some might say. “Depot Elegy”, for example, shifts abruptly from excoriating the retired sawmiller to memories of fishing “from the wharf at Huskisson”. The structural tensions here are part of the sense of headlong excitement that the elegy mode creates. And, one feels, each poem must seek out a defensible shape. Catullus’s poem, for example, resolves itself by switching from a tone of intimate mock-castigation to one of gracious acceptance and offering – “I wish to emparadise / you and your love in witty verse” – neatly referring to the poem we have just read. Each poem requires a different solution to the problem of shape and this is one of the reasons why Brooks’s poems, with their comparatively restricted themes, never seem repetitive or predictable.

I need to point out that the lyric mode isn’t abandoned altogether. Poems like “Winter Longing Poem”, “Night Rain” and “Swallows” from Open House, are brief, gestural lyrics using recognised lyric techniques: the first feels like a tanka and the second has a repeated final line, for example. But Brooks’s elegiac style is a considerable achievement, not least because there aren’t (or weren’t) really models in Australian poetry for this kind of thing. One could point to the poems of Bruce Beaver but the differences between his poetry of celebration and lament and Brooks’s are great.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Brooks’s poems abound with references to poems, especially the act of making poems. It’s their nature as visitations which is focussed on in a poem like “Postmodernism and the Prime Minister” from The Balcony:

After making love
we sit on the balcony in the dark,
start talking and pretty soon
an idea for a poem has come, and then another.
It’s embarrassing.
It's not often like this and I’m loathe
to pass a poem by, but that’s
six in the last two days, the flow
seems too good to trust, too
facile . . .

It would be interesting to know what form this “idea” took. It seems unlikely to be a theme as we sense that the themes of Brooks’s poetry – love and a despairing rage at the sheer casual brutality of the way in which we live our lives – are everpresent. So it is more likely that the idea is a shape in the form of a bringing of different things together or of providing a conclusion to a meditation which will make it poetically satisfactory.

Another poem on the subject of poetry and Brooks’s decisions about where his poems are going to go, is “Barnyard Revelation Poem” from Urban Elegies:

An academic poetician friend
while discussing my
barbarous adventures
tells me that he hopes I won’t fall victim
to the endemic poematosis of the region, by which, he explains,
he means the writing
of “barnyard revelation poems”.
I haven’t laughed so much in years. . .

What follows is an imagined description of the sort of poetry produced by someone up to date with the kind of theories then doing the rounds of contemporary literature departments:

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 postmodern supermarket were anything much other
than sawn-up, mashed, sliced, bottled or deep-
frozen barnyard
or the forms and paraforms, 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.

The choice is made for life in all its messiness as the true subject of poetry and, again, it is in the elegiac mode inclining to an anger which expresses itself in lists. In the hands of Catullus it would be in the form of a direct address to the “poetician friend” who would also be named, but the spirit is essentially the same. Given how major the theme of our treatment of farm animals is in Brooks’s poetry, the setting of “Barnyard Revelation Poem” is a little more than it might appear on the surface: it isn’t a poem simply about the relative merits of living on a smallholding over living an academic life but rather about what kind of poetry is needed in the contemporary world. Passionate celebrations and denunciations win out over postmodern assemblages and mimickings.

To move now from mode to material it could be said that poetry itself is one of Brooks’s major themes. Interestingly it turns up in poems far earlier than “Depot Elegy” and Urban Elegies where the crucial decisions about the nature of his poetry seem to be taken. The last poem of the first book, Cold Front, is “The Swineflower” which I read, not entirely confidently, as being about poetry’s remorseless absorption of all experience, often to the harm of nearest and dearest – “I am eating life, / my life and the life of others, / births and marriages, separations, / the ecstasies of copulation, death”. Interestingly in this selected, the order of the poems is changed so that a poem from the middle of Cold Front, “The Darkness”, now occupies the final position. It’s a rather melodramatic piece but is built around the metaphor of a poet, in distress, roaming the “backcountry” of his own mind, haunted by experiences that “will not alchemise to song”. The loved one acts as an “unaware interpreter” of this journey among images of the self and reminds us, that at this early stage, love and passion are intimately connected to poetry. A long poem from Open House, “Spiders About the House”, after an extensive survey of the various varieties of spider, dangerous and not, which share the poet’s house, moves finally to the image of poet as spider, and poems as analogous to the spider’s wrapped up prey:

. . . . .
this last one, stranger still,
whose web’s his life itself: damaged
and torn, repaired a hundred times, ob-
ssessive beyond imagining, he’ll
lumber out at almost any trouble or
excitement in his neighbourhood,
wrap it clumsily in a
cocoon of words, as if he thought it could
be kept or understood.

Love and passion might seem, to anyone coming across a book like The Balcony for the first time, the obviously dominant themes of Brooks’s work although the selection in The Other Side of Daylight mutes this impression slightly. The love is passionate and intense. At one extreme, as in “The Ibex”, the poet is a willing victim:

My panther is active tonight,
hungry, intent,
nobody’s business but her own

not content
to leave me
gutted by moonlight,
I must be
her lair-thing,
her skin-to-lie-on,
her gnawed bone.

The Balcony describes itself in its dedication as “for Teja / 77 love poems / (and then some)” and the “Catullus 123” poem imagines a colleague ridiculing the book’s initial plan:

“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. . .

Matched with erotic love is the theme of the cruelty and insensitivity of the human race, especially towards the animals it shares the planet with. Again, this is a theme that can be found in Brooks’s earlier work. “Depot Elegy”, for example, starting with the insensitive retired sawmiller and memories of fishing as a child, is really about the extinctions of plants and animals by the thoughtless dominant species:

. . . . . 
All night I have lain here
listening to the owls
and the plash of wallabies in the undergrowth
watching the stars through the window-screens,
feeling a different cold
rising from the pole,
the whole Earth
rolling towards a new extinction
devoured by such sudden parasites
(and I am one),
another, deeper night beginning
even here
and going out over the forest . . .

That parenthesis is a crucial one, shifting the focus from condemnation to guilt, something perhaps more amenable to poetry. It’s an issue that has always puzzled me and I don’t want to pursue it here since it will deflect from the book at hand, but I have always wondered whether my irritation with poets condemning some social issue is a result of an Australian sensibility that won’t tolerate the incipiently superior stance of the one doing the blaming, or whether it’s not just a personal touchiness. At any rate, worrying as the implications are, I feel much more comfortable with Brooks’s poetry, knowing that he includes himself among the guilty. And it isn’t only done once. “Pater Noster” which takes it’s title and opening from Jaques Prévert’s celebration of the wonders of life “down below” on earth, has an intense passage of condemnation and guilt:

. . . . . 
here where twenty-two humans killed in an ambush is
international news but the slaughter of one hundred
million animals each day to feed their slaughterers goes unmentioned
like the guilty secret it is that the whole
civilisation rides upon
(you a slaughterer, I a slaughterer, she, he, all of us, yet the very mention is blasphemy) . . .

It’s the position behind “Silent Night” which, like “Pater Noster”, mocks conventional pieties. Here, the sentimental images of mangers and watching animals at Christmas ends with a reminder of the fate of those animals:

. . . . 
“Unto us
a child is born,
unto us a Son is given”,
and from the squalor of the feedlots,
the horror of the holding yards,
the abject terror of the abattoirs,
under mute, indifferent stars,
unthought, unvoiced, ungiven,
the cows, the sheep, the geese look on.

Not all thoughts about the issue of the human race and its relationships to those other species it shares the planet with, result in poems of rage, frustration and guilt. “The Thick of It”, the second poem of Open House, begins with thinking about Baudelaire and “how one might / give one’s soul / to be able to write so well” before a radical change of perspective:

. . . . .
and on some obscure
impulse I went out
into the night air, for the
thick of it, the
hum of life everywhere – looked
at the stars, the
swarming about the back-door lamp, and
coming in, stepped over first a
cockroach then a
slug, leading its
small family somewhere.

How can we
be so arrogant, to think that our
souls are worth so much?

And so, briefly, to the collection of new poems, “The Peanut Vendor”, at the opening of this book. Dated 2016 – 2023 these are poems written in a bleak period of fire and plague and reflect that fact. The themes I have discussed re-emerge, the second section especially being full of poems of rage and grief about the fate of animals. “One Too Many Mornings” gets down to dealing with the commensurability between animal suffering and human suffering:

. . . . . 
but in exasperation, writing to a friend

I’d mentioned the Auschwitz of the Animals
only to receive a leaden reprimand.
“How can you compare,” she asked, “the suffering
of animals with the suffering of humans?”

I’ve considered this carefully and, ironically,
have come to think she may be right: there’s
the Auschwitz of humans, one
of the lowest episodes in the long

and foetid history of our race,
and there are these other, ordinary things
with no particular name or place,
these “natural”, daily things we do, the wrenching

of children from their mothers, the stealing
of milk to feed the children of others,
the maceration of infants or severing
of body-parts alive, the trucking

of countless creatures to their deaths – over
no stock-race, no paddock gate, no sty
that indefensible lie,
Arbeit Macht Frei.

“The Peanut Vendor” has the same mix of lyric and elegiac modes I have written of when dealing with the earlier books. “Requiem” is a complex piece that begins and ends with the call of an unknown bird and in the body of the poem moves from the death of a pet dog to the fires and Covid epidemic which follow hard upon. “The Magpie” is an equally brilliant compendium piece combining news of the death of an ex-partner with the disturbing appearance of an unknown young man at the bottom of a paddock. At the poem’s end the titular magpie – another strange visitor – walks through the house like a priest waving a censer. There are also more examples of lyrics. A poem like “Wrens at Nightfall” is based on a brilliant and surprising observation about the way the birds move in flight:

I don’t know where they come from
those fluttering wrens at nightfall
visiting the dying peach tree; half
bird, half
leaf or butterfly, rising high against the white
sky then falling back as if
there’s something, after all, they can’t
ever quite let go of.

Shared by these poems, and many others, is the sense of a visitant, usually an animal but sometimes a human. They can be visitants whose arrivals are described – a number of the poems record sheep entering the poet’s study, for example – but they can also be poetic visitants, arrivals in a poem where one hadn’t expected them, examples of poetry’s ability to yoke surprisingly different things together. In a sense, “The Peanut Vendor” begins and ends with a poem of visitation. The first, “Wild Duck Sutra” describes feeding eight wild ducks while going about farm chores and concludes positively with the idea that “we might share refuge, rescue / each other”. The final poem, “Black Cockatoos”, describes the arrival in the trees of birds who seem to have a reason for turning up:

. . . . . 
I feel
they follow me – how could that be? – from
year to year, as if they’ve got
some message for me
though they seem
in no great hurry to deliver it . . .

I read this as a fairly bleak poem. Its last line – “and suddenly it was evening” – taken from Quasimodo, is a reminder of the fact that some of us are in reasonably advanced old age. If animal visitors can be moments of calm and revelation, barnyard or open country, as night falls their ministrations become less frequent and more cryptic.

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 outre, 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.

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
from a jack-pine, circles
and flaps westward
jagged under Orion

leaving how much
amidst the ripening,

how much
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,

. . . . .
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:


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,
passing through a neighbour’s pipes

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

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

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:

. . . . .

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”:

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,
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

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,

“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:

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

out of the blue
it happens again

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
. . . . .

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

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

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 “Andre 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.