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”.