David Brooks: The Other Side of Daylight: New and Selected Poems

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press: 2024, 206pp.

I usually think that David Brooks’s third book, Urban Elegies, provides readers with the first sight of what he is – a great contemporary poet. It replaced a tendency towards a kind of gestural lyricism in his earlier work with an aggressive, free-wheeling personal style that has formed the basis of subsequent developments. This selected poems provides a good opportunity for an overview of the shape of his career. Like most modern selecteds, it begins with a new, book-length work and then selects from earlier volumes beginning with the most recent and concluding with the first. It probably suits readers who are interested in new work and it certainly suits the poets for whom, understandably, what they have done most recently is what occupies their minds. Early work gets relegated to the back of the book. But for critics – who want, among other things, to map changes in theme, mood and mode – it’s a frustrating arrangement: we have to read books like this in reverse order. Doing so, reveals that many of the characteristics of Urban Elegies and the later poems can be found in a single poem in Brooks’s second book, “Depot Elegy”.

What “Depot Elegy” and the third book share is the word “elegy” and elegy refers here not to its later embodiment as a lament for the dead, a solemn piece set perhaps in a country churchyard, but the classical sense of an intensely emotional rehearsal of passion, despair and fury mixed with wit and, as I’ll discuss later, a degree of surprising off-handedness about the poetic side of matters. We associate the classical elegy with “love poets” such as Tibullus and Propertius but Catullus is probably the best point of entry into the features of this mode, not least because Brooks has three poems in The Balcony which are imagined to be later productions of Catullus. At the risk of momentarily moving too far away from the subject of Brooks’s poetry which is, after all, what this review is about, I’ll quote one of my favourite Catullus poems as an example of what we might expect from a classical elegy. It’s Catullus VI in Guy Lee’s translation:

Were she not unsmart and unwitty,
Flavius, you’d want to tell Catullus
About your pet and couldn’t keep quiet.
In fact you love some fever-ridden
Tart and you’re ashamed to own it.
That you’re not spending deprived nights
Silent in vain the bedroom shouts
Perfumed with flowers and Syrian oils,
The pillow equally this side and that
Dented, and the rickety bed’s
Yackety perambulation.
It's no good keeping quiet about it.
You’d not present such fucked-out flanks
If you weren’t up to something foolish.
So tell us what you’ve got, for good
Or ill. I wish to emparadise
You and your love in witty verse.

The reader can feel in this translation the stress caused by Catullus’s intricate Latin syntax which has to be wrestled into English – “That you’re not spending deprived nights / Silent in vain the bedroom shouts / Perfumed with flowers . . .”- but the sense and tone of the poem is preserved. It’s obviously a long way from the statelier poetry aiming at high art: think of something like Yeats’s “Among School Children”. In fact this kind of poem is a sort of assault on that kind of poetry, perhaps a counter-current that runs alongside the pretensions of major works. The language is far cruder than poetry is used to and, as such, it perhaps puts poetry closer to an area where linguistic development and its associated excitements can occur. Brooks’s “Depot Elegy”, though in many ways it is quite unlike Catullus VI, is in the same mode. It begins with a deliberate vulgarity:

The retired sawmiller, great arsehole,
has ploughed a road through the cycads
and that is the beginning of an end to it.
His three-storey brick-and-tile monstrosity
cranes out of the hillside
and the whine of his chainsaw or grind
of his four-wheel-drive as he hauls
his fourteen-footer from the boat ramp
can be heard any day of the year . . .

It’s a long way from the language and tone of the poems of The Cold Front – “I come to the river / down the precipitous bank / and I kneel / and drink deeply, lifting / the dark water from its foil of stars . . .” – and may well be built around the idea that fury best expresses itself by demonstrating how it breaks the bonds of polite speech. But the vulgarity is part of the elegiac style.

Another feature of the classical elegy which gives it an important role in poetic history is its casualness. There is a throwaway quality that contrasts with the intensity of the driving emotion in interesting ways. Catullus’ poem looks like a quickly scribbled note that may well have been left on Flavius’s refrigerator door – if he had had one – in the same way as Williams’ note about the plums. This impression is, of course, an illusion: Catullus may have spent just as long getting this one exactly right as he did on a formal “high-art” piece like LXI – it’s something we will never know. But the sense is always that intensity of passion is likely to overwhelm existing formal modes with their inbuilt stateliness: this kind of poetry is, in English at least, marked by lists tumbling through enjambments as in the end of “Depot Elegy”:

. . . . . 
the lyre-birds on Mount Agony,
the great monitor,
wallabies, kangaroos, quolls,
all of us
wrapped in this lasting, this
absolute night,
and everyone of them expecting morning.

Walking to Point Clear contains poems from nearly a twenty year period so it is hard to know exactly where a poem like “Depot Elegy” fits into Brooks’s development but it certainly provides a springboard for the poems of Urban Elegies and after.

Before I leave this subject of the classical elegy something needs to be said about its shape. One of its features of this sort of poem, as Brooks himself notes in a poem from Open House, is that it’s “a place where you can bring things together” and part of the power in bringing things together is the way it threatens a more trivial kind of unity in a poem, the unity that derives from a consistency of tone and subject – prose virtues, some might say. “Depot Elegy”, for example, shifts abruptly from excoriating the retired sawmiller to memories of fishing “from the wharf at Huskisson”. The structural tensions here are part of the sense of headlong excitement that the elegy mode creates. And, one feels, each poem must seek out a defensible shape. Catullus’s poem, for example, resolves itself by switching from a tone of intimate mock-castigation to one of gracious acceptance and offering – “I wish to emparadise / you and your love in witty verse” – neatly referring to the poem we have just read. Each poem requires a different solution to the problem of shape and this is one of the reasons why Brooks’s poems, with their comparatively restricted themes, never seem repetitive or predictable.

I need to point out that the lyric mode isn’t abandoned altogether. Poems like “Winter Longing Poem”, “Night Rain” and “Swallows” from Open House, are brief, gestural lyrics using recognised lyric techniques: the first feels like a tanka and the second has a repeated final line, for example. But Brooks’s elegiac style is a considerable achievement, not least because there aren’t (or weren’t) really models in Australian poetry for this kind of thing. One could point to the poems of Bruce Beaver but the differences between his poetry of celebration and lament and Brooks’s are great.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Brooks’s poems abound with references to poems, especially the act of making poems. It’s their nature as visitations which is focussed on in a poem like “Postmodernism and the Prime Minister” from The Balcony:

After making love
we sit on the balcony in the dark,
start talking and pretty soon
an idea for a poem has come, and then another.
It’s embarrassing.
It's not often like this and I’m loathe
to pass a poem by, but that’s
six in the last two days, the flow
seems too good to trust, too
facile . . .

It would be interesting to know what form this “idea” took. It seems unlikely to be a theme as we sense that the themes of Brooks’s poetry – love and a despairing rage at the sheer casual brutality of the way in which we live our lives – are everpresent. So it is more likely that the idea is a shape in the form of a bringing of different things together or of providing a conclusion to a meditation which will make it poetically satisfactory.

Another poem on the subject of poetry and Brooks’s decisions about where his poems are going to go, is “Barnyard Revelation Poem” from Urban Elegies:

An academic poetician friend
while discussing my
barbarous adventures
tells me that he hopes I won’t fall victim
to the endemic poematosis of the region, by which, he explains,
he means the writing
of “barnyard revelation poems”.
I haven’t laughed so much in years. . .

What follows is an imagined description of the sort of poetry produced by someone up to date with the kind of theories then doing the rounds of contemporary literature departments:

I suppose, instead, I should be producing
postmodern supermarket odes, or linguo-spatiological
poematographs of the 
secret life of words – the kinds of things
a close analysis of “intimate” might intimate, or the way
“impact” can become “impacted”, as if
the postmodern supermarket were anything much other
than sawn-up, mashed, sliced, bottled or deep-
frozen barnyard
or the forms and paraforms, traces and
fathomless abysses of words were any more
than the cum- and pain- and joy-cries
of farmers and their
wives and children, buried under
layer upon layer of the tangled Western Mind.

The choice is made for life in all its messiness as the true subject of poetry and, again, it is in the elegiac mode inclining to an anger which expresses itself in lists. In the hands of Catullus it would be in the form of a direct address to the “poetician friend” who would also be named, but the spirit is essentially the same. Given how major the theme of our treatment of farm animals is in Brooks’s poetry, the setting of “Barnyard Revelation Poem” is a little more than it might appear on the surface: it isn’t a poem simply about the relative merits of living on a smallholding over living an academic life but rather about what kind of poetry is needed in the contemporary world. Passionate celebrations and denunciations win out over postmodern assemblages and mimickings.

To move now from mode to material it could be said that poetry itself is one of Brooks’s major themes. Interestingly it turns up in poems far earlier than “Depot Elegy” and Urban Elegies where the crucial decisions about the nature of his poetry seem to be taken. The last poem of the first book, Cold Front, is “The Swineflower” which I read, not entirely confidently, as being about poetry’s remorseless absorption of all experience, often to the harm of nearest and dearest – “I am eating life, / my life and the life of others, / births and marriages, separations, / the ecstasies of copulation, death”. Interestingly in this selected, the order of the poems is changed so that a poem from the middle of Cold Front, “The Darkness”, now occupies the final position. It’s a rather melodramatic piece but is built around the metaphor of a poet, in distress, roaming the “backcountry” of his own mind, haunted by experiences that “will not alchemise to song”. The loved one acts as an “unaware interpreter” of this journey among images of the self and reminds us, that at this early stage, love and passion are intimately connected to poetry. A long poem from Open House, “Spiders About the House”, after an extensive survey of the various varieties of spider, dangerous and not, which share the poet’s house, moves finally to the image of poet as spider, and poems as analogous to the spider’s wrapped up prey:

. . . . .
this last one, stranger still,
whose web’s his life itself: damaged
and torn, repaired a hundred times, ob-
ssessive beyond imagining, he’ll
lumber out at almost any trouble or
excitement in his neighbourhood,
wrap it clumsily in a
cocoon of words, as if he thought it could
be kept or understood.

Love and passion might seem, to anyone coming across a book like The Balcony for the first time, the obviously dominant themes of Brooks’s work although the selection in The Other Side of Daylight mutes this impression slightly. The love is passionate and intense. At one extreme, as in “The Ibex”, the poet is a willing victim:

My panther is active tonight,
hungry, intent,
nobody’s business but her own

not content
to leave me
gutted by moonlight,
I must be
her lair-thing,
her skin-to-lie-on,
her gnawed bone.

The Balcony describes itself in its dedication as “for Teja / 77 love poems / (and then some)” and the “Catullus 123” poem imagines a colleague ridiculing the book’s initial plan:

“One hundred love poems? Don’t be ridiculous.
Your colleagues will give you shit,
and all those others, for whom love is
an expression of failure, lack of nerve,
something not really to be talked about
in gritty Sydney or those smug and urbane
capitals to the south of it. . .

Matched with erotic love is the theme of the cruelty and insensitivity of the human race, especially towards the animals it shares the planet with. Again, this is a theme that can be found in Brooks’s earlier work. “Depot Elegy”, for example, starting with the insensitive retired sawmiller and memories of fishing as a child, is really about the extinctions of plants and animals by the thoughtless dominant species:

. . . . . 
All night I have lain here
listening to the owls
and the plash of wallabies in the undergrowth
watching the stars through the window-screens,
feeling a different cold
rising from the pole,
the whole Earth
rolling towards a new extinction
devoured by such sudden parasites
(and I am one),
another, deeper night beginning
even here
and going out over the forest . . .

That parenthesis is a crucial one, shifting the focus from condemnation to guilt, something perhaps more amenable to poetry. It’s an issue that has always puzzled me and I don’t want to pursue it here since it will deflect from the book at hand, but I have always wondered whether my irritation with poets condemning some social issue is a result of an Australian sensibility that won’t tolerate the incipiently superior stance of the one doing the blaming, or whether it’s not just a personal touchiness. At any rate, worrying as the implications are, I feel much more comfortable with Brooks’s poetry, knowing that he includes himself among the guilty. And it isn’t only done once. “Pater Noster” which takes it’s title and opening from Jaques Prévert’s celebration of the wonders of life “down below” on earth, has an intense passage of condemnation and guilt:

. . . . . 
here where twenty-two humans killed in an ambush is
international news but the slaughter of one hundred
million animals each day to feed their slaughterers goes unmentioned
like the guilty secret it is that the whole
civilisation rides upon
(you a slaughterer, I a slaughterer, she, he, all of us, yet the very mention is blasphemy) . . .

It’s the position behind “Silent Night” which, like “Pater Noster”, mocks conventional pieties. Here, the sentimental images of mangers and watching animals at Christmas ends with a reminder of the fate of those animals:

. . . . 
“Unto us
a child is born,
unto us a Son is given”,
and from the squalor of the feedlots,
the horror of the holding yards,
the abject terror of the abattoirs,
under mute, indifferent stars,
unthought, unvoiced, ungiven,
the cows, the sheep, the geese look on.

Not all thoughts about the issue of the human race and its relationships to those other species it shares the planet with, result in poems of rage, frustration and guilt. “The Thick of It”, the second poem of Open House, begins with thinking about Baudelaire and “how one might / give one’s soul / to be able to write so well” before a radical change of perspective:

. . . . .
and on some obscure
impulse I went out
into the night air, for the
thick of it, the
hum of life everywhere – looked
at the stars, the
swarming about the back-door lamp, and
coming in, stepped over first a
cockroach then a
slug, leading its
small family somewhere.

How can we
be so arrogant, to think that our
souls are worth so much?

And so, briefly, to the collection of new poems, “The Peanut Vendor”, at the opening of this book. Dated 2016 – 2023 these are poems written in a bleak period of fire and plague and reflect that fact. The themes I have discussed re-emerge, the second section especially being full of poems of rage and grief about the fate of animals. “One Too Many Mornings” gets down to dealing with the commensurability between animal suffering and human suffering:

. . . . . 
but in exasperation, writing to a friend

I’d mentioned the Auschwitz of the Animals
only to receive a leaden reprimand.
“How can you compare,” she asked, “the suffering
of animals with the suffering of humans?”

I’ve considered this carefully and, ironically,
have come to think she may be right: there’s
the Auschwitz of humans, one
of the lowest episodes in the long

and foetid history of our race,
and there are these other, ordinary things
with no particular name or place,
these “natural”, daily things we do, the wrenching

of children from their mothers, the stealing
of milk to feed the children of others,
the maceration of infants or severing
of body-parts alive, the trucking

of countless creatures to their deaths – over
no stock-race, no paddock gate, no sty
that indefensible lie,
Arbeit Macht Frei.

“The Peanut Vendor” has the same mix of lyric and elegiac modes I have written of when dealing with the earlier books. “Requiem” is a complex piece that begins and ends with the call of an unknown bird and in the body of the poem moves from the death of a pet dog to the fires and Covid epidemic which follow hard upon. “The Magpie” is an equally brilliant compendium piece combining news of the death of an ex-partner with the disturbing appearance of an unknown young man at the bottom of a paddock. At the poem’s end the titular magpie – another strange visitor – walks through the house like a priest waving a censer. There are also more examples of lyrics. A poem like “Wrens at Nightfall” is based on a brilliant and surprising observation about the way the birds move in flight:

I don’t know where they come from
those fluttering wrens at nightfall
visiting the dying peach tree; half
bird, half
leaf or butterfly, rising high against the white
sky then falling back as if
there’s something, after all, they can’t
ever quite let go of.

Shared by these poems, and many others, is the sense of a visitant, usually an animal but sometimes a human. They can be visitants whose arrivals are described – a number of the poems record sheep entering the poet’s study, for example – but they can also be poetic visitants, arrivals in a poem where one hadn’t expected them, examples of poetry’s ability to yoke surprisingly different things together. In a sense, “The Peanut Vendor” begins and ends with a poem of visitation. The first, “Wild Duck Sutra” describes feeding eight wild ducks while going about farm chores and concludes positively with the idea that “we might share refuge, rescue / each other”. The final poem, “Black Cockatoos”, describes the arrival in the trees of birds who seem to have a reason for turning up:

. . . . . 
I feel
they follow me – how could that be? – from
year to year, as if they’ve got
some message for me
though they seem
in no great hurry to deliver it . . .

I read this as a fairly bleak poem. Its last line – “and suddenly it was evening” – taken from Quasimodo, is a reminder of the fact that some of us are in reasonably advanced old age. If animal visitors can be moments of calm and revelation, barnyard or open country, as night falls their ministrations become less frequent and more cryptic.