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.