Brook Emery: Sea Scale: New and Selected Poems

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2022, 291pp.

Since I’ve written about Brook Emery’s last three books – Uncommon Light, Collusion and Have Been and Are – individually (the first two reviews can be found on this site) I don’t want to be guilty of too much repetition and so here I’ll focus on the new poems that accompany this selected and also, at the same time, I’ll try to explore some general issues that apply to all of Emery’s output. The new poems are begun with an extended set called “Self Portrait: Provisional Sketch” and concluded with another set “Self Portrait: Sea Scale”. This piece of structural organisation in miniature encapsulates something that can be seen as a crucial dynamic within all of Emery’s work: the tension between the reasonably aleatory processes of the mind that his work has always acknowledged and the desire to impose some kind of structure or order on the poetic expression of it. This could be rephrased as a tension between process and the creation of an aesthetically satisfying object. Process poetry – “I do this, I do that” – responds to the fluid nature of our lives, both mental and physical, in the world, but must, by definition, avoid those aesthetically pleasing structures that poetry, like all the arts, inclines to exploit: balanced juxtapositions, for example, or conclusions where the rhetorical level of the language is heightened.

You can see a lot of organisation going on at the macro, book-structuring level throughout his work. In the most recent book, Have Been and Are, all the poems apart from the last have poetic (or semi-poetic) epigraphs and the poems respond to these and employ them in varying ways. (It reminds me of the sequence, “Improvising with Flaubert”, from Emery’s first book and raises the general issue of the way in which quotation and literary allusion – sometimes at a very faint, gestural, level – are part of Emery’s poetic personality: the dailiness of life for anyone in the literary world involves the continuous entry of other literary texts if it is going to be honest about what goes on in the mind when the subject is going for a walk or washing dishes.) Collusion, the book preceding Have Been and Are, is imagined as a dialogue with a figure, K, and intersperses long meditations with short poems about what is happening at that moment in the local environment, a structure that recalls Bruce Beaver’s Odes and Days except that long and short are kept in separate compartments in that book. Uncommon Light was built around the tension between the human move to transcendence (to a divine light) and the horrors of human viciousness. Misplaced Heart, Emery’s second book, is structured in six sections, each with an introductory sonnet that begins with a metaphor for what the mind is: “The mind is a misplaced heart” is the last of these. Finally, even And Dug My Fingers in the Sand which might, as a first book, have been nothing more than a collection of successful pieces, has a strong six-part structure in which the opening poem of each part is also the title of that part. On top of this the first and last poems are seven-part sequences and thus have a similar balance to the two self-portraits which bookend these new poems.

All this argues for a strong impulse towards formalism in Emery’s work and a heightened sense of how units can be deployed to create an effect – an effect of aesthetic satisfyingness or conceptual unity – on the material at hand. And very often the material at hand is the opposite of satisfyingly shapely because it wants to follow the processes of the mind as it responds to particular stimuli. The two “Self Portrait” poems are a case in point. The first of them seems to imitate the random connections the mind makes when dealing with a theoretical issue:

How then shall we proceed? Word by word, fearlessly,
cautiously, line by line, one foot after another, again
and then again, seduced by the pull of a sentence
(as Marianne Moore would have it) into near and far,
where an umbrella and a sewing machine
circle uneasily on a dissecting table: implausible,
but interesting none-the-less. I write now
what I couldn’t write before or after, the inner
out of oneself, out in the world, write myself
as other in the “I”, doubling, tripling,
twisting in and out of shape. Reason is all we have,
reason lets go, is not near enough. Consider the body
and its out-of-body, the between where unknown waits.
I make my memories now, the gut a second brain,
skin a free-trade zone where words are coins.

In a way the centre of this poem is the reference to the umbrella, the sewing machine and the operating table. It derives from Lautreamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror and was taken up by Breton as a surrealist position: a total lack of conventional aesthetic shape in an idea can still produce an exciting juxtaposition. In Emery’s poem it stands for one kind of shapelessness – the result of free-associating and letting the words generate the meanings – and his embrace of it is accepting but cool: “implausible / but interesting none-the-less”. The rest of the poem focusses on the nature of the writing “I” and its relationship to the “written I” before finishing by making a gesture towards the mind/body dichotomy of Western philosophy and thus introducing one of Emery’s persistent themes: What is the mind and how does it work?

Having made this distinctive start in pursuit of a self-portrait, the other eight poems in the sequence explore various parts of the problem. The second poem, for example, treats of the dangerously attractive nature of words themselves and its introductory statement,

“Lugubrious”, there’s a word to conjure with,
what a mournful mouthful, which brings to mind
“lucubrate”, “lubricious”, “luscious”, but this 
could go on forever: pellucid, lucid, limpid,
even Lumen Scientiae that long-forgotten motto
of my old school where we studied Latin, French . . .

suggests the way the mind moves from one topic to a related one quite casually. It’s a movement repeated in the passage I have quoted above where out of the sounds of words arises the motto of his old school which then leads to memories of himself as a language-learner and -user before returning to the lubricious attractiveness of words themselves:

             “Bamboozle”, now that’s a word!
What might be its derivation, who might have
coined it? Should I look it up or let it be its own
hypnotic, almost onomatopoeic self? “Hornswoggle”,
boondoggle, befuddle, lollapalooza.

I want to say that the other poems of the sequence spin out from this initial concern with self and language but the metaphor “spin out” begs the question in that it assumes a particular relationship between the elements, as though the poem were structured as a developmental set of variations. Reading “Self Portrait: Provisional Sketch”, one has a stronger impression of a mind hopping almost arbitrarily among its themes, operating, in fact, as a mind rather than as a conventional poem does. Emery’s poems always have a strong forward drive and this is another way in which he seems to be a successor to Bruce Beaver, but whereas the drive behind Beaver’s poems, their skill with enjambments and long syntactic units, seems to come from an aggressive assertiveness, Emery’s poems seem driven by questioning and restlessness. No-one so consistently asks questions and the appearance of a question doesn’t weaken the drive but rather strengthens it, even when the question is just something that the mind produces as part of the way it plays over reality. Take the opening of the sixth section:

Can the mind be simultaneously consistent and complete?
The answer may have passed this way, may be hiding
in the words, erased and re-worked, erased again,
the derivative masquerading as original,
perpetually pitoning up the same sheer mountain face,
perpetually slippery-sliding down again, confounded
by the impulses of the heart, the temptations of the eye,
the doublespeak of distinctions with very little difference.
Is it possible to be a body without a mind,
or a mind without a body? Come, you Greeks,
come Descartes, to my assistance! Is it
matter within mind . . .

And so on, the tone recalling an earlier passage, “Is metaphor inimical to thinking / or essential? Ask Hobbes, ask Vico, don’t ask me!” There is nothing formally philosophical about this. It’s not pompous and it doesn’t aim for the serenely denotative of, say, late Stevens but instead confronts a series of issues stirred up by the mind as it considers ways in which its owner (or partner, or slave) could begin to make a portrait of himself. But to return to the issue of thought and form and the question of what shape the processes of thought have in Emery’s poetry, whether they have an aesthetic quality in themselves or must wait for one to be imposed, one part of “Self Portrait” seems to suggest that Emery thinks that the latter is more likely. A self-portrait is going to involve some kind of recreation of the past when the self was a child. Of course, as all autobiographers know, to describe one’s own past is to recreate a past self from the perspective of the present self, a process of “doubling, tripling” that Emery speaks about in the first section. The past appears in the poem’s fifth section and it is deliberately introduced not as a logical component of a self-portrait but as a random association produced by some hot weather:

Today, we huddle inside, wish for air-conditioning,
wish for fans, complain of February’s heat
as though it wasn’t always so, and suddenly 
it feels like 1959 again: the Bondi tram
is running on time, and the one down the cutting
to Bronte Beach; milkshakes are malted
and come in metal cups; milk is delivered to our door
by horse and cart . . .

And in a later section when the past is considered – “We used to eat Chiko Rolls, Sargents Pies, / Pluto Pups, Polly Waffles, Rainbow Balls . . .” – it’s subsumed in a comparison of the processes of cultural change so that the self of the poem is “out of time”: in not podcasting, blogging, or following people on Twitter, Emery describes himself (as many of our generation might) as “an analogue fish flummoxed in a digital sea”. The point I’m making here is that what one might expect to be a solemn attempt to recreate one’s past in all its sensual preciseness is allowed to slide into a predictable lament for the speed with which things have changed. If this seems a rough judgement, it can be said to be confirmed by the opening of the next section:

I seem to have gone a bit skew-whiff
in the aforesaid. Despite my intention, this poem has become lament,
a debased form trailing threads of self-indulgence
and nostalgia . . .

All of this analysis is really just an attempt to argue that the basis of Emery’s poetry might be an alertness to process in the form of observing and recording the movements of the mind. And that this produces material that although it has no aesthetic shape in itself, does fulfil one requirement that most of us hope that the aesthetic does: it is true to reality (I’m aware that there is a considerable literature in which poets have argued that the best poetry is the “most feigning”). The shape has to be imposed and this can be done at the macro level by a good deal of organisation and at the textual level by a mode of writing very sensitive to the questions that drive it on. The fabric of the verse is also thickened by a strong tendency to quotation. Again it’s a technique that might derive from Beaver’s Letters to Live Poets (a book celebrated in an early poem from Emery’s first book) where quotations are inserted frequently, although in Emery’s case they are acknowledged quotations. And, as I have said in the beginning, it is no more than an accurate and truthful representation of the processes of a literary person’s mind. Quotations, whether entire and acknowledged, or mere syntactic gestures (as in the “trailing threads” of the last quoted passage which is an ironic glance at Wordsworth’s “trailing clouds of glory”) are not intrusions or showings-off but part and parcel of the way in which a mind like this works.

In keeping with the desire to structure at a large level, this book-length group of new poems finishes with another approach to the issue of self-portraiture. Unlike the first, which begins with a mix of first principles about conceiving and describing oneself – language, text and perspective – this final poem, “Self Portrait: Sea Scale” is located in the sea, an element which in the work of another poet might herald a commitment to a grounded life but which, in Emery’s poetry is a symbol of reality in a permanent state of Heraclitean flux. Matter, as another poem says, “is movement – / restless, oscillating particles tensely bound”, and we merely “live on the fringe, not at the heart of matter”. Also interestingly, this longish sequence has two human characters: the poet in the sea and a man “on the shoreline / facing the horizon” who performs a complicated and ultimately uninterpretable dance cum exercise. I’m probably skating over a lot of complexities here but it is hard not to read the existence of the two humans as an example of the doubling that the first sequence, “Self Portrait: Provisional Sketch” spoke of. I read it as an expression of a double existence: the first in the sea of “reality” and the second – standing on the shore between the flux of the sea and the solidity of the rocks that lie behind the shore – making the equivalent of poems in his body motions. At any rate the final poem of these new poems wants to end on a note which is simultaneously upbeat and undeceived about the inevitable processes of temporality. It begins by quoting Issa’s famous haiku which, in a few words, encapsulates the human response to flux by art:

What unfolds here, unfurls, is grace
(On a branch / floating downriver /
a cricket singing). I give thanks
for joys which come unbidden,
which cradle the uncommodified body
in a caress which could as easily kill.
I will take the devil’s deal for more of this,
for the dance, the sounding beauty, knowing always,
that I will surely end.

Many of the other new poems are brilliant. Again, as we expect by now, they are carefully divided into groups by theme and each section is marked by a three line poem which responds to the group that has gone before (the first “Self Portrait” group, for example, is followed by “Devote less time, O Poet, / staring into the mirror: / you can’t write your own reviews). The first of these groups is very much in Emery’s mode of philosophical speculation and its first poem, “Rendezvous” is devoted, yet again, to describing the odd and unpredictable movements of the mind. As a poem, it is structured around four descriptions of mind, beginning: “that dematerialised, invisible thing, / swaying like a ship’s light in a storm, / picking out memories, slights, landmarks / which may not exist at all . . .” and so on. You feel that the poem is built as though it were a compressed version of the sonnets which occur throughout Misplaced Heart. The second of these poems, “Pickpocket”, is about how the mind plays tricks in terms of our experience of time and change, allowing one state to overlap another. Memory, it says memorably,

to catch us off-guard, pick time past
from our empty pockets or put it back again.
Nothing mysterious here, other than a dawning realisation:

that the obvious can still surprise is, in itself, a surprise.

Another poem, “Joe Palooka”, focusses on memories, also, describing the way images of the past, of childhood, recur unpredictably:

 . . . . .
The past comes back stuttering, backlit
and un-sequenced like slides rattling and sticking
in an old-fashioned carousel:

A scene with a dog you can’t recall, children in cashmere,
three-quarter pose, awkward in a photographer’s studio,
a paddling pool made of canvas . . .

One thinks of the description of school life that the second of the poems in the original “Self Portrait” sequence falls into when it looks as though the poem is going to be about language.

Sea Scale collects the work of a major poet. It’s outlook – “demotic/philosophical” as I’ve described it earlier – seems to derive from its location. It’s a Sydney book in ways which it would be difficult to be too satisfactorily specific about – after all, all of Australia’s major cities are on the sea, inhabiting the symbolically potent landscape between rock and wave. But it does seem work which echoes, though it is very different, the poetry of Bruce Beaver, another poet of sea and shoreline. But, as I’ve said, rereading these, essentially twenty-first century poems (Emery’s first book was published in 2000), I’m struck be the tensions between the accurate delineation of process – especially the processes of the mind – and the desire to make aesthetically satisfying, even beautiful (a word that many of Emery’s poems worry at) structures. “Is this shape without pattern”, asks one of the new poems, making an important distinction but leaving it, as so often in Emery, an open question. Finally one might focus not so much on the tension between process and form as between experiencing and writing. Writing is imposing a kind of shape, even if no more than the shape of an interrogative clause, but the writing act, as Emery has said somewhere, involves a lot of fiddling, playing and exploring. It is not a logical controlling of meaningless flux. Typically, one of these poems brings the act of writing and thinking about writing into the texture of the poem itself. After making an analogy (very relevant in terms of form imposed on process) with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a law which, narrowly interpreted, would require process to triumph over form, Emery stops himself:

     That’s going too far:

stretching a milestone moment in physics and turning it into
      a cheap poetic trick.