Lachlan Brown: Limited Cities

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2012, 87pp.

One’s first impression of this first book is that it is devoted to (in both senses of the phrase) its poet’s home suburb, Macquarie Fields, situated to the west of the Holsworthy Army Barracks in Sydney’s south-west. It begins with a diptych, a portrait of this suburb in spring and in autumn: the former is rhapsodic (“Give me corrugated iron & grinning billboards . . .”) but the latter darker as the stain of the 2005 Cronulla riots spreads into neighbouring suburbs. Significantly Brown concludes by asking about his own position as suburb-dweller, observer and poet, and he decides that he is “somewhere / in between” the “hooded kids” who throw rocks and the “members of the gated community . . . on the other side of the tracks” – the pun in this cliche is significant. “Twenty Sestets” is an attempted portrait of the place largely constructed out of fragmented character studies. Although many of these are rather unsuccessful – you feel that people are not the items that Brown’s poetry is most comfortable with – those which yield to an inbuilt pressure toward abstraction do succeed in making a kind of composite picture. Number 5, for example:

The lawnmowers are calling from suburb to suburb
and fences click in the heat, 
                                                                     as though the sun
were a meter, slowly ticking
                                                   through the earth's final minutes.

He stops and considers all this,
                                                          the grass-stained afternoon,
the air thick as engine oil,

a complaint of dirtbikes skidding across the reserve.

Though it is not as good a poem as its avatar, Dawe’s “Homo Suburbiensis”, you do get the sense that the distinctive life of the suburb, if entered into fully, can generate a distinctive kind of poem, attuned to unusual but telling elements. “Petrol Stations, or Nine Vouchers Without the Optimism” is another composite portrait, this time of an iconic suburban feature, and “Poem for a Film” is a five-part meditation on aspects of life in “this weatherboard valley / . . . six degrees from the // city.” I like the last of these which, set at noon when “the eucalypts / point their leaves toward hard ground”, deals with stasis and change:

                                            . . . it's like a gate

that's been welded shut because you know
we're not in Vaucluse or near some beach

where they film iconic Australian TV. You
know that within these cul-de-sacs you

have to earn any hint of breath or change. You
have to pay with sweat, with grease on

a two-stroke, with teeth set like wire cutters,
ready to meet the fenced-edge of the landscape. 

It doesn’t take any great critical insight to register this book’s desire to celebrate and explore one particular suburb, but I can’t stop being interested in Brown’s obsession with the railway that connects Macquarie Fields to central Sydney (via, amongst other stops, Sydenham, Revesby, Glenfield) – I don’t know if it is called the “City Limited” but if it isn’t, it should be. It seems, at the poetic level, a profounder and more valuable image. A sceptical reader might think that the rhythmic rocking of the train on its daily journey to the city and back is the place where the author’s meditating and writing gets done and thus this writing is predisposed to celebrate the train, but I think the importance of the train is more than this. It is valuable partly because it enables contrast (still the best rhetorical trope for defining something) but mostly because of its possibilities as a metaphor for life as a lived process (rather than where it is lived).

The process of contrast can be seen in “” where the poet finds himself momentarily “citied” in an environment where the artificial replaces the natural (“cast brolgas gasp in their metallic / permanence”) in what ultimately becomes a perpetual and perpetualising loop symbolised in the city’s roadways. The central question, “What region is this?” is posed, punningly, in a DVD store where “recreations of immense television events / appear on shelves”. The secret of this world, whose mercantile imperatives hang over innocent suburbs like Macquarie Fields, is that “dumb permutations / engineer most details, like pokies / & genetics & search engines & / personalised plates on a fleet of / nissan skylines.” A later poem, “Evensong”, is essentially about this comparison, celebrating being “back in the suburbs at dusk”:

. . . . . 
Don't you know that winter means
passing houses during the family meal,
each hallway bathed in a television's blue?
Don't you know that we must live in the shadows
of great financial institutions? . . .

But the suburbs, with their expanses of low-level housing don’t obscure the night and the glories of the universe:

. . .  But this pinstriped night
where stars bleed into city lights,
where planes could be writing
the evening sky somehow,
here each constellation scaffolds the canopy,
allowing the universe to find its breath
in imperious and strange relations.

This is a loaded and slightly gestural comparison, placing city and suburb alongside each other, but in Brown’s poems there is more likely to be a focus on the act of transitioning from one to another: that is, the act of travelling by train with emphasis on departures and arrivals. I have a soft spot, among these train poems, for “Lullaby” though I would have to recognise that it is a poem that doesn’t exploit Brown’s distinctive perspective. In fact, in a way, it is yet another rewriting of Slessor’s “The Night-Ride”, focussing on contrasting the inner world of the train with the outer world of the dark, rather than concentrating on the termini. I think it is the only one of the poems to visualise the train in any way – here it is seen as “a string of lit / beads”. It emphasises the living human beings inside the train – the poet’s “companions” in the journey of life – all of whom are surrounded by a sinister cold darkness that has no interest in the human:

 . . . . .
          A palm is placed upon the 
glass, and the window speaks its warning.
There is a chill that threatens to pour into
all of life: your limbs, this carriage, the
tracks of steel that disappear behind us.
All of us know the evening is vast.
It stretches into the distance, claiming every
space that exists outside whispered words.
And now I must sink lower in my seat, and 
draw the sleeping world about my ears.

The train as an image of our human surroundings appears in the second of the “Twenty Sestets” in which a woman who “loves the commute” watches, together with her fellow-travellers, a boy spinning a plastic biro in his fingers. “And the universe is here”, the poem says as though “Lullaby”‘s sinister exterior had appeared inside. But, at least as I read it, it is the human universe, the counterpart or rival to the cosmos, which is present in the carriage and it is this which sustains her: “She tries to remain still, to focus, / but it won’t stop rocking, / the carriage, this world.”

Train journeys have a role to play in the larger, more abstracted sense of what this poetry is trying to do. Trains, after all, move horizontally and their imagery is that of a single plane. But this poetry is also interested in vertical perspectives: it is notable how often the suburbs are celebrated in terms of the sky above them whereas the buildings of the city seem to be engaged in an attempt to, if not blot out the sky, then at least to continuously frame it so that it appears within controlled and human dimensions. Sydney is not the only city in this book; there are a number of poems written about Paris, for example, and their tendency is to look upwards: “Numbering the Days” – a sequence of seven sestets counting down until returning home – speaks, for example, of lying on the grass in Place des Vosges, “where the rooftops frame / an empty blue canvas”. But, in abstract terms, the vertical is conventionally the axis from which intimations of the divine arrive, and this is an issue that I am not entirely confident about in Limited Cities: is there a transcendental perspective? how does it relate to the human and does it come from a God outside or from human beings living within their social context – huddled together on the brightly lit train of life, living in susburbs where the cosmos is more than a patch of sky framed by buildings? Answering this question is not made any easier when a poem with the important title of “Epiphany” – it is the sort of title which makes one seek it out immediately – turns out to be the slipperiest of all the poems and, though I’ve read it many times, I wouldn’t feel at all confident about making any sort of paraphrase.

More helpful might be the two sequences either side of a poem I have mentioned already, “Evensong”. They are called “Advent Poems” and “Lent Poems” respectively and have a Parisian setting. The latter group, in keeping with its title, seems inclined to focus of the mercantile and cultural aspects of the city but one turns to the former group to see if they contain any conception of a Christian transcendence and any conception of how this might be made manifest in the world. The results are suggestive even if they aren’t unequivocal – at least to my blunt reading abilities. Certainly there are examples of an almost continual disruption of surfaces, of contradictions one must “live within”: in an outer suburb “a burnt out apartment / becomes a gash of black against / a massive salvific block and as / you walk it flares again in mira- / culous afternoon light”, elsewhere a statue of the virgin “sits beneath a / spinning disco ball”. But surface contradictions are not the same as intimations of the divine or, even, intimations of the infernal: Antonioni’s Blowup treated the London of the 60s in exactly the same way and I don’t think it has any pretensions to a perspective involving transcendence. Perhaps the most suggestive of the sequence is the third in which one of two kids who are watching Piaf and Charles Dumont singing on TV “starts to echo / mon Dieu in a high-pitched / voice” and the poem ends with a reference to “all those in icy bus / shelters who stare into the dis- / tance awaiting an appearance”.

Despite my carping sense that something crucial might be being fudged or gestured towards or not developed fully here, there is a lot to admire in Limited Cities. I’m always attracted to intelligent rhapsodic celebration and the poems which are devoted to Macquarie Fields can have this quality. At the same time it would be unfair to see the book as in some way a study of the suburb and its inhabitants: that would make it look gestural in comparison to the poetry of Dawe and Wearne. I think the best way to read it is to see it as using the suburb-city axis as a kind of lyric focus or, at least, a framework for a lyric poetry. What happens, when you do that, is that you realise that there is something quite distinctive here and that Limited Cities announces a new, accomplished and confident voice.