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 . . .

and

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: Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion

Carlton: Five Islands Press, 2008, 96pp.

Kevin Brophy is a Melbourne poet who, in the course of four books published since1992, 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.