Kit Kelen, Poor Man’s Coat: Hardanger Poems; Kevin Brophy, Look at the Lake

Poor Man’s Coat: Hardanger Poems Crawley, WA, UWA Publishing, 2018,197pp.
Look at the Lake Glebe: Puncher and Wattmann, 2018, 161pp.

These two books, different in so many ways, share something that makes a comparison between them almost irresistible. Each is written in response to a period the poets have spent in an environment far different from that which has produced most of their previous poems. Kevin Brophy’s book responds to a year (2016) in the north of Western Australia as a volunteer at a local school in the town of Mulan, next to Lake Gregory not far from the border with the Northern Territory. Kit Kelen’s Poor Man’s Coat is a response to time spent in the little Norwegian town of Ålvik situated on the upper reaches of the Hardanger fjord about 60km east of Bergen as the crow flies (though it would be a tiring mountainous flight). These are both spectacular venues of an almost completely different character – flat, red, dry as opposed to vertical, green, wet – but there is also a touch of the abject about each of them, even in the case of Ålvik which looks, for all the splendours of its setting on the fjord, to be a rather grotty little town, a “company town” dominated by a large factory, the subject of a poem significantly titled, “I Don’t Know What They Make in There”.

Of the two books, Kelen’s is likely to be the one which causes a reader more initial puzzlement. If it is true that books of poetry teach us how to read the poems within, then this learning experience takes quite a bit longer in Kelen’s case – not necessarily a bad thing of course. It’s a very unusual style not specifically designed for this book because you can find it in the earlier Scavenger’s Season, a book devoted to life in the Myall Lakes area and which shares not only a style with this book but themes also. “Time With the Sky” is especially reminiscent (or predictive) of the obsession with sky in Poor Man’s Coat and “Sydney and the Bush” begins “a patch of blue demands inattention”. Lyric poetry is, customarily, strung on a scale which at one end produces shapely, completed but resonating objects and at the other, fragmentary poems which reflect life lived as a process: Kelen’s poems seem all about process. The style mixes assertion with fragmentariness and incompleteness. Take, as an example of the style of Poor Man’s Coat, a poem like “On Blue Disc”, the opening poem of the section called “The Other Worlds” and, like the poems from the earlier book which I have mentioned, a poem about the sky:

time is weather

each syllable spoken
still goes round
it’s like the book’s afloat

on that world
after an all-nighter
it could be any dawn

never the same sun rises there
but every god gets a turn

we are our own pyjamas
day’s naked
dream it
waking wonder
how things will ever again lie flat

we dance around for a sparrow-fart hour
just to see what’s up

True, there is a sense of completion here that gives the poem a final shape but its deliberate bathos makes it almost a denial of lyric roundedness. Undoubtedly this is a deliberate tactic and it is a rejection of the shift to high style which is a cliché of conventional lyric conclusions. In fact the poetic method involves rejecting all conventional lyric graces and this contrasts with material (and location) that might seem to cry out for some lyric elegance. There is a strong sense of fragmented assertion and a reader quickly learns to respect the stanza divisions and build a whole out of very separate components.

The poems focus on the poet’s self and its interactions with a very distinctive environment. It’s not just that the emphasis is on sky, clouds, rain, mountain, trees, fjord, what is more important is the way the locations make the interaction (and arrangement) of these elements absolutely specific. The blue sky usually appears between trees and its appearances are determined by the season; similarly, the sun is always seen in different positions dependent on its season – “and over the cliff it comes / through treetops far and near / already at its winter angle”. Since seasonality becomes more important the closer one gets to the poles it’s no surprise that two of the book’s divisions include poems of summer and poems of autumn. The poems of the former celebrate the dominance of sun and warmth: the fjord (“a little whale’s way”) looks like a glass mirroring the sky, ivy “strikes up / as if just thought of” and the sun is “reluctant to set”. But it’s also marked by the behaviour of the locals – painting sheds, raking leaves and fishing – “the book hasn’t been written / to hold all one could do / on just such a day”. The autumn poems, likewise, include the activities of the human population – the summer campervans come back and people make the most of the remaining light to finish domestic tasks of sawing and painting – but it’s also the time when the “last blue” is “most meaning” and the time of omnipresent rain. And it is rain that is such a shaping force that it gets its own section, “The Rain Is Its Own Room”, though many of the poems here touch on an important move for the poems of this book in that they allow the self and the world of mountain, trees, sky and rain to interact and become synbols of one another. Not least in importance is the way that the flow of water in the rain can symbolise the act of writing and in “A Record of First Falls” many of these elements come together when a description of the light appearing after a day of “not going out / steady precipitation” is connected to the writing of the poem:

. . . . . 
the sun comes into it
now and then
nothing to depend on

rain sets the pace
but upstairs there’s another idea
you can see a light dusting
these signs the screen collects
won’t amount to much . . .

perhaps not but they do make a final, comparatively conventionally-structured poem, working with the syntactic possibilities of the phrase “light dusting” as noun-verb and adjective-verbal noun.

Rain as rain is celebrated in “Parables of Rain” from the Autumn section:

even before it comes
rain creeps into the joints

“an ache of rain” must be the measure
you want to light a fire . . .

but even in such an externally-oriented poem as this, there’s a movement at the end towards the symbolic identification of the environment and writing – water as writing, trees as books:

. . . . . 
rain is like a road here  
grey then it falls

this would be the gospel
but the book’s too wet to read

And the rain seems to affect all the other items in the landscape so that “Parables of Rain” is followed by “Every Day the Mountain Needs Naming” which has, as its modus operandi and poetic shape, a list of names for the mountain that looms behind the town, covering it in a kind of linguistic mesh:

September I call it Blueberry Hill
some days its name is Mud
or From-Which-The-Stream Mountain
. . . . . 
out of the corner of your eye
something moves
on the Mountain of High Suspense 
for instance it could be called
Slippery Track
Trip on a Loose Rock
Left Days to Crawl Back
(or more likely starve)
One Cold Night Would Put You in the Deep Freeze For Good
(Merciful Mountain)

Mountain of the Tumbledown Signpost
Mountain of the Tiniest Moth
After Work Brisk Hike Mountain . . .

There’s perhaps a touch of the naming parts of Murray’s “Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle” here but it doesn’t seem derivative at all and a poem undertaking the ritual act of naming something according to its appearance and uses results in an attractive and not overcommon mode.

Just as rain, the mountain and the sky (with its clouds that want to symbolise thought) bulk large in this environment so do trees which, like the rain, get their own special section, “Minded of Trees”, though they make appearances throughout. These poems are often marked by an imaginative identification but one, “Fairytale”, a faux-naif treatment of the cutting down of trees – “one tree wandered off” – finishes in a way that registers three of the uses of timber as paper, building material and something that can be burned to provide necessary warmth:

God knows where they were heading, those trees
no one’s ever seen them again

it’s a cosy book
this story’s in
under the polished beams
feet up by an open fire.

Since all of these items are needed by poets in this environment, there is nothing ecologically unaware about Poor Man’s Coat.

Kevin Brophy’s Look at the Lake is a complex and affecting, not to say, profound book. It is, from the outside, something of a compendium with portraits, documentation of place and documentation of odd, outsiders’ experiences and perspectives. But that doesn’t quite capture it and risks seeing it as the poetic equivalent of high-quality reportage of the “My Year Among the X” type. Perversely, perhaps, I’m inclined to read it as being made up of poetic challenges rather than the psychological and social ones that an experience of a new and alien community provides. Its challenges, then, would include the attempt never to sound like the sort of attractive project to accompany a grant or enrolment application and the attempt to avoid the tonal and stylistic sameness of a diary-based suite of poems. The challenge posed by odd experiences – like the ones in “After School” where some boys bring witchetty grubs to eat or “Canning Stock Route II” where “The map was more or less misleading / about everything but latitude and longitude” – is how to make a poem from them that doesn’t rely on the extra-poetic phenomenon of the experience to keep it afloat. And the same could be said of the descriptive pieces which are of everything from camels, christmas beetles and wild bulls to the town’s adults and its children.

And since Brophy is a fine and resourceful poet the success rate is high and the individual poems rather then the book’s conception, are where this success lies. There is a lot of variety in the structure of individual pieces and the way the experiences are approached. There are quite a few list poems, for example, a structure which avoids tonal variations and the usual way of creating the basis for a satisfying conclusion and provides, in exchange, a situation in which each item has to sustain itself. “A Day in Education” is one of these:

They tried to listen to their hearts.
They tried to reason with their souls.
They tried to tie the laces of new boots. 
They tried to line up like a nest of ants. . . .

There are many ways in which one could, in a poem, speak about students’ experiences, and others of the book’s poems exploit some of these ways, but this one works as a list. Although there is a lot of play with the tensions between items of the list – I read listening to one’s heart as a physical activity for children to show them something about physiology but it has a conventional metaphorical meaning which is taken up in the next line where they try to “reason with their souls” – a list reads like an anti-poem, structurally, which poetry, in its all-absorbing, poetics-rejecting way, has simply made part of itself and which it can then explore. The preceding poem, “Spirit”, is also a list but because it is a list of if-clauses it is dynamically structured to prepare the way for the clinching clause (technically called the “apodosis”) so that the poem can end:

if this is all there is for now and ever,
if brumbies’ nightmares are of being culled,
if the desert hears dying voices in our voices,
if there’s a spirit then we must be hearing it.

A poem like “Morning” has a quite different though not unfamiliar structure:

At seven o’clock they come in by the gate
sleepy headed, uncombed, bare footed,
walking as if they had walked all night
to get here.

They are preparing themselves
for a day in Standard English
at tables where the future might open
one eye and look at them
with something like a promise that says,
yes, is it possible to live
several lives at once and to walk around inside
each one of them like some Adam.

It’s built out of two parts, the second twice as long as the first. Each part has a climax but the climax of the first is only a preparation for the climax of the second part. The first produces that beautiful imaginative description that the children look as though they have walked all night to get to school and indeed a fine tanka-like poem might have been made out of this on its own. But the second part has a rather profounder climax since it involves not a visual felicity but a conceptual one: each child is given the possibility of living simultaneously different lives and each child will be as unique as Adam within that specifically framed life. (There is also a trick enjambment so that at first we think that the poem is going to say that the future opens itself for these children but then find that all it does is lazily open a single eye, cat-like, which holds nothing more than “something like a promise”.)

One could on at length like this about the poems in this book and never really rise above the sort of critical observations made in writing classes, but I want to stress that the structural keynote is variety and lack of an easy predictableness. True, there are some fixed forms – there are a couple of villanelles and some sonnets – but most of the poems have only their internal frameworks to support them. And the same could be said of the structure of the book as a whole. It very carefully doesn’t begin with an arrival (though it does conclude with the cleverly conceived and titled “Before We Leave”) but rather with a map:

. . . . . 
A finger like a bird of prey
casts its shadow on the open road,
lake, town.
The map never folds away
as neatly as it arrived, for its
soul, swollen a little with longing
to be known
wants to stay open on our laps.

It might be a fanciful reading but to me this recalls the more abstract meditative poetry of an earlier book like This Is What Gives Us Time and thus establishes a link at the same time as preparing a departure. When the arrival is narrated/described, it’s already the eleventh poem and has been preceded by another “Where is the Beginning of the Story” which, in narrating a child’s attempt to grasp western narrative styles (“She knows that every story / starts with a thin, proud / letter ‘I’”) asks the same question Brophy must have asked planning the structure of this book.

Given that Look at the Lake is poetry that arises from a temporary immersion in a culture that is at once part of ourselves and also alien (a point made nicely in the second poem, “Rice Puffs, Pringles, Lindt”) it is tempting to reduce the poet to the role of passive, transparent observer. But it is worth reminding ourselves that this is Brophy’s book as well as a book of life in Mulan. It is dedicated to his parents who both died (in deep old age, it should be said) while he was in Mulan, though he points out that they “urged us to go and they both had a strong interest in all we were doing there”. That’s quite a burden for someone to experience, to carry with them, and then to omit from the poems. So, fighting against the grain, I read this powerful book as one which explores poem shapes and developments in the poet’s inmost personal life. One poem, “Naming”, begins with an anecdote about Auden, and this brings to mind – to the mind of this reader at least – Auden’s comments about middle-aged travellers from the north who arrive in the Mediterranean (as alien and familiar a culture as that of the town of Mulan) “hoping to twig from / what we are not, what we might be next”.

Kevin Brophy: This Is What Gives Us Time

np: GloriaSMH Press, 2016, 80pp.

Kevin Brophy’s This Is What Gives Us Time together with David Musgrave’s Anatomy of Voice are the first two productions of a new press, GloriaSMH – a name which derives from the wartime Parisian resistance group and thus, like Puncher & Wattmann, conceals a Beckett allusion (and the morse code for GSMH makes a very satisfying logo). This Is What Gives Us Time is, to me, the most satisfying of Brophy’s books since Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion. His contribution to Radar, a book shared with Nathan Curnow, was a set of prose poems which had a decidedly abstract ring (as prose poems often do) and Walking, from 2013, has always seemed to me to have a slightly unfocussed quality. The overall shape of Brophy’s poetry, despite its unchanging interests and values, seems to be a move away from documenting life in a Melbourne suburb towards elegant abstraction. A few poems are no sort of evidence, of course, but a comparison of the first lines of Brophy’s first book, Replies to the Questionnaire on Love, with the first lines of this new book will give some idea of what I mean:

In my street
there are fig trees and grape vines in back yards
and stone lions guarding front gates . . .


Fountains work hard to be joyous for us. Look how they 
                                                                   keep their mouths open.

Of course all of this oversimplifies badly. There are poems of great local precision in This Is What Gives Us Time just as there are lines like “Now in its fifth year, / my plant learns to take / on the details, all the business / of being a tree” in Replies to the Questionnaire on Love but the feeling that this is a poetry moving from the specific towards exploring the more abstract remains.

What anchors This Is What Gives Us Time and is one of the reasons for the favourable impact it makes is, I think, the fact that all its speculative, imaginative flights are anchored firmly in a place. It was written, the book itself tells us, during a six month residency at the Whiting studio in Rome. To be entirely accurate, the book doesn’t say how many of the poems were written there but almost all of them have a Roman background. As a result, familiar themes from Brophy’s other books are given both a twist and an extension by their Mediterranean setting. There is something imaginatively satisfying, for example, in considering the general issue of the all-round potential for sheer destruction that humans possess in the context of a city which for nearly two millennia has pillaged its own ruins for new building material so that people actually stand metres above the past and in kaleidoscopic creations from the material of the past. This appears in the book’s fine second poem, “Elena!”, for example, whose refrain – “We are building the ruins” – is both a statement of this fact and a perverse image of destruction. It is

. . . . . 
left for latecomers to imagine

what might have been said
from a second-storey window
on a Sunday morning late in April

when a woman called from the street
Elena! Elena! -
to her friend above.
. . . . .
Elena, leaning over her red geranium
on her window sill calls back down to her friend
in a voice that carries all that will be ruined.

And, of course, as Italy is geologically far more active place than Australia, the possibilities of a purely natural destruction are also everpresent: as “A Name For It” says, “I read of volcanoes and earthquakes coming”. The poem, “Rabbit” is devoted to this more general view of the mechanisms of history:

. . . . . 
The fat black rabbit knows each crack and hole
a poet or hermit might creep in.
It knows who pilfered the bronze and the marble,
what the earthquake said when it shoved its shoulder
under the deepest rocks it could uncover . . .

Another reason why This Is What Gives Us Time seems so satisfying is, I think, that Brophy has moved towards responding to the challenge that each poem should satisfy as a unique conception rather than, as with so much contemporary poetry, being cut and pasted from an endless conversation between the poet and his experiences of the world. One of my favourites among the earlier poems, “Up There” (from the 2002 volume, Portrait in Skin) describes fixing a leak on a fellow poet’s roof. The strength of the poem comes from the symbolic possibilities of its narrative situation – two poets dealing with a flaw in the universe perched between the earth and the sky, etc etc – in verse which is kicked along by a lively metaphoric language:

On top of your house I could see the universe
still needs a carpenter for your tin roof 
where the nails pop like toast
and tin buckles worse than wet carpet.
My shoes were scuffed red with the roof’s patient rust
and we were leaning to the east. . .

But, fine as this poem is, it doesn’t attempt anything unusual at the level of discourse. If it’s compared to a poem like “A Visit to the Convent of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary” in the current volume, you can see the effort to do something distinctive at this level:

If the chapel is white, and the nuns have their founder
Put away in a side room, in her own sarcophagus,
If their seven martyrs are on the wall prepared to die,
And the chapel door is open to people from the street . . .

And so on through a total of twenty-five conditional clauses that have us yearning for a simple consequence clause.

The book’s first poem, “The Drowned World”, is about one of the most important recurring images in the book, that of water. It appears, at first, to be a set of discontinuous propositions:

. . . . . There is something unstable in water, a life under
                         ground then this spilling of light.
The surface of the mind is permeable under the swirling
                      suggestion of water.
If fountains are only truly happy in summer, why do we
                      leave them out in winter?
There is something ridiculous about water, its mindless
                   falling and welling . . .

and there is even an uncomfortable narrative thread that emerges every so often – “She was drowning, her face was upturned. Someone / lifted her clear of the water . . .” – as well as a personal element – “My first thought is to swim across it. The water invites / me in to its liquid mind”. At first it seems like a mix of these elements – imaginative proposition, narrative, lyric – that strains any conventional notion of unity. But the poem’s structure is, at heart, mimetic: what looks like a mix is really a braiding, taking its shape from the way water flows like (to use another image from the poem) a rope. And the formal quality is emphasised by the poem’s visual layout in which turnovers regularly decrease and then increase.

A number of other poems are built on the model of a list, something that, though common, still has a certain frisson because the mechanical nature of a list is so far from people’s conventional expectations of an imaginative mode like poetry. “Numbering”, “What We Know”, “A Life In Fifty Moves”, “Negatives Not to Live By” and “Sightings” are all built around this principle though each retains a distinctive character. What they share, though, is a sense of accounting – accounting for one’s values about life, one’s experiences of life, even for the fact that one’s life is being spent in Rome. At a profound level this is probably prompted by the unfamiliar setting but at a more trivial level it relates to the fact that anyone having been provided with a grant to spend half-a-year in Rome is going to have to, in the end, provide a written account, justifying the investment of the money. I think this lies behind both the structure and humour of “A Brief Report”:

I failed to sleep last night. I failed to find the dreams
that would take me safe from one day into the next.

I failed to be brave, afraid of the train, its snout of steel
pushing out of the dark into the station at San Pietro,

its sides towering over me blue and white and dark with night.
It hissed, cracked open, impatient, warm as a belly inside.

I was shaken as it took me; it was like some fallen angel breaking
its teeth on a language too new and too earthly to speak.

I have opened the door to the day without faith in its miracle,
I will cough up the night from my lungs, the city will breathe

and I will see across on the opposite hillside a man on a balcony
move among his plants, touching them, sprinkling them, nodding.

This parodies a formal accounting, moving straight to the world of dreams rather than that of mundane realities, but its linear structure is retained. Thematically, the threatening, apocalyptic world of dreams is contrasted with the homely world in which a neighbour can be seem watering his plants. It’s a kind of restatement of “Elena!” (which has a circular, repetitive structure) in which the warm world of the human (in co-operation, perhaps, with the world of geraniums and other domestic plants) stands out against ever-present and ever-irrupting forces of destruction.

“Sightings” and “How We Made It Through a Whole Day (Again)” are also linear, list poems with a ghazal-like disjunctiveness. The former is a list of two-line experiences:

. . . . . 
A man with a red string around his bare ankle and masses of hennaed hair under a
Straw hat sits next to me on the train, trimming his nails and talking of sunglasses.

The new cordless phone has instructions in Italian on how to set it to another
Language. It rings in English now but still speaks to me in Italian . . .

and the latter, closer to a diary, accounts for the events of a single day from early morning to night when

. . . . . 
         electric haloes on the heads of saints
burn prayers into the sizzling air, dissolving all complaints.

Their holy marble gestures are more eloquent than words:
we could never say what they have not already heard.

Finally, there are two poems of protest which, unlike the rest of the book are “set” outside of Italy. The first concerns the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran at the end of April, 2015 (ie within this book’s time-frame) in Indonesia and the second, “From The Book of Examples”, about Australia’s notorious treatment of asylum-seekers. In a sense it is public poems like this that demand most of a poet since they must be conceptualised in an imaginative way that prevents them being only one step up from an outraged rant. It’s something that the poems of Bruce Dawe did brilliantly (configuring the execution of Ronald Ryan as a marriage, for example) and I’m not sure Australian poets have done it quite as well since. If neither of these achieves that level of conceptual daring, they are, nonetheless, successful public poems. The former, “Somewhere They Are Executing Young Men”, circles back to the Indonesian president himself, imagining that the crime, “like all crime in his country, / Will be paid for in time” and it’s a reminder that by concentrating on the way the poems of this book are conceived I have bypassed a more traditional look at thematic obsessions.

Time (as the book’s title indicates) is certainly one of them and most of the poems in the first part of the book allude to it in one way or another. In “Hours” it is both a gift and something that can be escaped:

. . . . . 
Minutes fill the hour and go, gone as snowflakes.
A micro-second in a photograph could stand for years
of these hours.

I time my walking by them, then lie down with an hour
by lake, mountain, window, ruin.
Two dozen at a time they’re thrown our way. . .

And this strange fluidity applies to water, introduced so expansively in the first poem. In the book we meet water in the guise of underground, confined black fluidity, lakes, oceans, rivers (or, rather, the river, carrying its cargo of rubbish and dirt through the city) and fountains. In some forms it can represent the world of phenomena, the world of the dream-generating unconscious, the oblivion of death, and time itself. As the book’s second last poem says, “What is the ocean if it is not a god?”

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.

Kevin Brophy: Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion

Carlton: Five Islands Press, 2008, 96pp.

Kevin Brophy is a Melbourne poet who, in the course of four books published since 1992, has become progressively more interesting. I don’t use the adjective, Melbourne, in a casual manner. His poetry is deeply connected to his mother-city in all kinds of ways not the least biographically: as one of the biographical notes says, he grew up in Coburg and lives in Brunswick. And the first poem of his first book (Replies to the Questionnaire on Love) looks as though it is establishing as the ground of his poetry not Melbourne but the delimited suburb of his everyday life:

. . . . .
Last week a woman staggered from one house
with blood on her face.
She washed at the garden tap
while someone watched from behind a front window blind.
A woman from the flats next door
stands on the street with her mouth open for hours.
I sweep broken glass from the gutter
before I drive my car away.
The council planted trees along my street
and on the next morning they were lying, uprooted
as though they had tried to fly away during the night.
. . . . .

This poem almost lays out a host of images which could only be followed up narratively. But it also introduces a perspective more suited to poetry. At the end, when a nephew from the impossibly-alien suburb of Doncaster asks about the broken glass, he is told “This is Brunswick . . . where life is as fine as railyard dust”. In other words, instead of dissolving into infinite particularity, the poem suggests an image that will serve Brophy well: the continuous processes of entropy (another poem speaks of the “sandstorm of the years”) that reduce everything to a dust coating a surface. (Infinite particularity is something I’ve always thought of as a Melburnian vice, the counterpart to that intense sense of belonging to a small area and being acutely aware of differences between suburbs, football clubs etc. I can remember Alan Wearne’s brief biography in Australian Poetry Now saying that he was born and educated in Blackburn South and then continuing “the South is important”.) It is true, of course, that dust from Melbourne’s Brunswick will be slightly different to the dust of, say, Brisbane’s The Gap, but the process is a general one. Brophy’s second book (Seeing Things, 1997) begins with a poem called “My Mother Says” which does for Brophy’s life what “As Fine as Railyard Dust” did for his suburb: it lays out a set of experiences which might be the nucleus of a personal narrative or a poem:

. . . . .
Lizards in the back lane spiders in the back yard
tadpoles in the creek rats in the tip, nature grey or black
creeping metamorphosing dying in shoe boxes and jars.
My mother says I convinced her once
that I’d been delayed by aliens
on the way home from school.
And then to be left-handed.
What kind [of?] luck was this?
Each inky word smudged away as I wrote it.
To be left-handed is to know that everyone has taken sides.
Are the memories in the croaking head on the ground?
Or in the flapping body tied to the line?
Will I write with my left hand or my right hand today?
Aiming an axe-blow at the memories I miss the past.

Brophy’s poetry is all about the balance between the particulars of a finite, localised existence and the larger patterns of the universe. Perhaps, in a sense, all poetry is like this – strung out between particular perspectives and broader ones. It’s just that in Brophy’s work you feel the local component very strongly. This begins with a postwar Irish-Catholic upbringing and continues into a modern, highly localised present. Fewer major Australian writers than you would think are called Kevin.

One of the characteristic gestures of Brophy’s poetry is to move upwards, a move that takes you away from the immersion in the local perspective and to more of a God’s-eye view. A delightful poem from the third book (Portrait in Skin, 2002) is called “Up There” and it details the experience of trying to fix a leak in the roof of fellow-writer, Myron Lysenko. The poem slowly moves from one perspective to the other:

. . . . .
Up there, on the open palm of your roof,
lifted closer to the face of God
or closer to some eye that looks
at everything but changes nothing,
we must have understood the universe takes care
of everyone, even its poets taking words like coins
from chimney sweeps, like candlesticks from bishops.
Up there, where the universe must know what it’s doing,
we could shake hands with trees
. . . . .

If I had to guess at the shape of Brophy’s poetic development, I would suggest that his poetry has deepened and become more engaging as the local and particular has moved from being externalised subject matter to being a cast of mind that simply inflects any treatment of the experience of living in the world. This means that the poems become less focussed on their external subject and are freer to accrete structures and ideas. As his books progress, the number of predictable poems – portraits, narratives, satires, descriptions etc, decreases and the number of genuinely surprising poems increases.


The title of this new book, Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion, suggests, however, not so much an increasing interest in being-in-the-world so much as an increasing interest in abstraction, the world inside the head and even metaphysics. The book is framed by two poems about poetry, a sure sign that methodological and epistemological issues are at the forefront. Both of these poems are amusing and important. The first, “Difficult”, is about the poem as object: the metaphor used is that of a house which might be bought or visited. Significantly, it is not done as a satirical piece crossing a real-estate agent’s patter with the serious issue of the status of poetry. In fact it is a complicated little poem that moves away as the reader tries to grasp it. Although the writer has left – that is, readers will have a free hand interpretatively without having to worry about intention – the house is full of the signs of lived life: “a green bin steaming with the evidence of wasteful life / in a corner of the kitchen is what you’ve come to expect from art.” Most interesting is the conclusion:

A green and oily ocean’s creeping closer every century
and an ochre desert lies less than three thousand kilometres away.
It is difficult to know what is the greatest threat to this poem:
reader, silence, landscape, weather or its absent occupant.

This struck me as a surprise when I first read it and it still comes as a minor shock. One of the satisfying features of this book (and a sign of its quality) is the ability of its poems to take entirely unpredictable directions and this is no exception. The logic of the concern with erosion (a localised form of the generalised entropy of the universe) is a surprise in this poem but it is no surprise in the context of Brophy’s poetry generally.

The book proper begins with four poems based on holidaying in the Victorian uplands. They each belong to the comic genre of the city-dweller brought blinkingly out from his suburb into the bush. This, though, is never the driving force of the poem: it remains a delicately nuanced undertone. Everything is slightly sinister:

. . . . .
The kookaburras watch like cops on a stakeout.
The wombats move so slowly we do not see them.
The stars are too close, too many, spilled everywhere.
The river runs like a perfect machine past us.
. . . . .

but there is a familiar, strong sense of dissolution. The houses slowly become derelict and “House, River” actually deals with a visit to an abandoned house and, as it does so, describes the poet’s position in the middle of this process: “all I am is this visitor who touches / nothing, notes some things and backs out”. The image for this process (and shared by each of these poems) are the holes dug by wombats or miners: “always there is this going inside”. Even the past itself slips down muddy holes in the earth. In terms of the larger issue of the sort of ideas that generate this approach, it might be significant that this emphasis on dissolution occurs in poems which are set in a location which is both non-suburban and high. The mountain view of this group of poems, might well connect with the view from the roof.

At any rate, there are other poems in the book which involve an interest in the high and low perspectives. A sestina about being strapped at school blessedly avoids any comment on the brutality of the Catholic education system in the early sixties and rotates – in that weird and obsessive way that sestinas do – about issues of high and low. The boy has to lift his hand up but thinks of his own shoe laces which are unlike the teacher’s and “frayed and unravelled, offer no sign of higher / aspirations”:

. . . . .
We learn the virtue of respect by lifting an arm or
prayerful mind, any small gesture of attention
to the higher life or the closer matter of our laces.

“Shoe Laces” is followed by “Repaired and Disconnected”, an equally complicated poem. It is a meditation about the experience of relying on technology: of living, as the poem itself says, “in a city of engineers” and amongst others “who believe in engineers”. There is an elevated example – people in an aeroplane – and an earthly one – a man having heart surgery. Quite a lot goes on with these two images and the notion of being disconnected but I’m intrigued by the way in which the material about the airline passengers is concluded by the image of the aeroplane – disconnected – falling out of the sky. The writer imagines this but also imagines that the scraps of the plane are tidied away by “an authority designated to do just this” so that there is no real evidence of its ever having happened. Again elevation is connected to entropy and, in a way, the parts of the plane fall like the “railyard dust” in the first poem of Replies to the Questionnaire on Love. The idea of cleaning away the ground-down detritus of the processes of existence forms the image at the heart of “Manual Work”. This poem, which might have been merely cute but which resists that fate impressively, is about those who, at night, clear away the tears, the dead animals and even beggars

for gods at night must empty their pockets of misfired creations
knowing they will be scraped and swept
and carted away before dawn.
It’s the dark, the dark that keeps the sweepers in a job.
They open the hand of day for us. We hide until they’ve gone.

Entropy can manifest itself, of course, as the death that awaits us all. At this level its true poetic expression is the elegy. And there are plenty of deaths and monuments in this book although, significantly, they are not generally used as opportunities to sketch in the life of the departed one. They are much more abstract than this. One of these poems describes the processes of a funeral and has an odd and disturbing conclusion:

A woman murmurs to her companion about a spider
that moved across the cover of a book on her desk
as though it had emerged out of the cover illustration.
Could that happen? she asks.

The best I can do with this is to note that the scariest irruptions involve the movement into our lives of something that previously seemed contained in another dimension. Death turns out to be active even though it had always seemed to belong to another, order of existence.

A very fine poem, “Monument”, also deals with a burial but is concerned that even the stone monument will be worn away by the rain:

We filed into a chapel much like any chapel.
Six men lifted the box up like an ark.
Afterwards we stood round trays of biscuits in a circle.
Under a porch other circles smoked and hunched because
the rain came down as though erasing this hour
would be enough. The rain was all there was.
No monument of stone can stay carved forever,
the rain will see to that, or a board of management.
Our dead will live then die with us we know.
The grave like love is more puzzle than testament,
its stone more frail than we can show.
The rain, the rain came down on us
a perfect monument forgetful of us.

The rain, symbolizing entropy, eradicates everything, eventually. It is intriguing though that in this generally abstract meditation the poem includes a little barb at managerialism: “the rain will see to that, or a board of management”. It is as though the poem arcs back to anchor us in the world of the small citizen of a Melbourne suburb meshed in the usual earthly battles with local councils, state governments and so on.

If entropy is associated with rain and the elevated perspective, death is associated with night. The dead, in the poem of that name, meet up during the night to shuffle around and they speak to us in dreams. Night is a complex state in Brophy’s poetry: it connotes domestic contentment (at the end of “You in Sleep”, for example) but it is also one of the states in which we are the vehicles for words and stories that we channel. Speaking of poetry, “Translations” says:

In this language the gods and spirits take an interest in us.
This speaking we do is another way of dreaming.
. . .
Our speech, we say, keeps arriving, a mystery.
In this language another world speaks to us.

Finally, there is a strong theme throughout this book, of that point where metaphysics and epistemology meet. There are scattered poems interested in a kind of sterile perfection possible only in the mind. Here the railyard dust has been wiped away and, as “Surfaces” says, “the cleaning of surfaces is a return at last / to the dustless paradise of a room in the mind / where thoughts like new appliances / are sleek and modern”. This theme can be found in the title poem, but it is present also in poems like the slightly Wallace Stevensish “Tulips” (“The tulip does not know the theory of tulips”) and also in poems like “The Mental Life” and, especially, “Plums, Prams and Camels”. This poem seems to describe a world of Platonic perfections:

Every colour made and re-made each day
and the shade kept dutifully below the trees;
each green spike of grass kept pencil sharp
and sand obeying laws of softness;
fences resting their long selves
against trees intent on filling plums with juice -

This paradise is ruined by the real world in the form of an intruder who breaks into the poet’s bedroom:

In our bedroom almost on the street
we talked and loved, gave our bodies
to whatever time we had until a man one night
climbed in our bedroom window
seeking peace or petty cash or nothing much
more than his arrival, making us believe
he’d left outside a wild and tired camel -

I believe all this.

It is not a poem to feel entirely relaxed inside but I read it as the irruption of the actual world into the abstraction of an ideal world. It is also, then, about how the real – in the sense of the gritty particulars of, say, a Melbourne inner suburb – can demand entrance into a poem. Interestingly, the “real” does not make the predictable demands of the local environment – it brings with it, instead, the surreal phenomenon of a camel. A most intriguing poem.

There is a lot more going on in Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion than these observations suggest. Like all good books of poetry it includes puzzlement as one of its effects. In fact it is the poems which shift gear in unpredictable ways that remain most defiantly with me. I’m thinking of small, slightly tangential, poems like “Bloodthoughts” and “Finger-mind”. And then there is the lyrically beautiful “The Hazy Ships” which announces the ships in the title and then ignores them to talk about a trip to the beach until they make a sudden and surprising reappearance in the last line. And then there is the significantly titled “After Rain”:

There are six thousand languages still spoken on the planet
and within each one the word for rain makes people look at the sky.
As it rains outside the radio talks low in the kitchen,
those small dry voices going on, reassuring me.
When the rain is here the sound of it is better than thinking.
My son asks me if a baby could be taught to speak
every language on the earth and we agree it might be possible
if the rain keeps up to teach a baby anything we wish.
The rain makes pairs of us, it muffles wars and panics ants;
the rain gives all its knowledge to the earth;
and after rain the birds around here have much to say.
They’re out there now like children let out of a classroom,
shaking themselves on Anna’s roof and in the bottlebrush
where there must be mouthfuls of insects like lollies in the air.

There are none of the expected meanings here. Rain is associated, not with the slow processes of decay but with a kind of teacherly and familial closeness. The theme of language – entirely unexpected in a poem like this – weaves its way throughout. Even the conclusion is a surprise because, good as a cosy day inside is, the newly-washed world outside, full of epiphanic promise, is better.