Bev Braune reviews Pam Brown

13 May 2004

Textytext thing, by Pam Brown
Little Esther Books, 2002

My topic is local. The poems rarely leave whatever street I'm on. They are as mobile and as mutable as my daily life. (from Pam Brown's Statements on poetics) [1]

The art of looking for the text, the thing it's in and re-thinking it, is Pam Brown's forte. In reading this collection, I find myself thinking of Brown's development. She is a poet who reads, travels, observes and re-thinks her own backyard.

I see her growth in the context of concerns raised by poets such as, Lee Cataldi and John Kinsella. I am reminded of Cataldi's ‘my gallant friends are going to their graves/ without a murmur' [2]; and John Kinsella's ‘A right idea has no history, just punches/ in the old time clock decorating the tessitura' [3].

text thing, too, abounds with clever observations Brown seems to have been working through slowly and carefully. The acknowledgements note that many poems here first appeared in ‘My lightweight intentions'. A different version of ‘Retarded pretensions' was published in 1999. Pieces such as ‘catalyst', ‘Drifting topoi' and ‘eleven 747 poems' appeared between 2000 and 2002.

enter –
a topos of entertainment –
there's Barry Crocker
& Barry Crocker's son,
if I was on
advice-giving terms
with Guo Jian
I'd suggest he do
the Crocker family portrait.

Guo Jian from Duyun –
a chaotic southwest Chinese city –
from the Peoples' Liberation Army,
from Beijing, from Tiananmen Square,
from underground
Yuanminguan –
a topos of parodic locale
compels Guo
to paint a leaping monkey
escaping every garish picture

entertainment topos –
(monkey's bum)
(‘Drifting topoi')

an epiphytic magnavox box
clings to a telegraph pole
beginning the link outwards
transitive and optimistic –
flick that crow off the antenna !
head pell-mell
for the grammar !
(‘Retarded pretensions')

As well, some of the poems selected for text thing occur again in Dear Deliria (Salt) published in the same year. But I want to talk here about the poems as they stand in text thing.

Interestingly, text thing tries to construct (these) texts as ideas in transition, on the move, even if it's in one street at a time. ‘Casual citations/ accumulate' as Brown cites/ sites herself, sometimes upbraiding herself that these may not be more than a sorting of illustrative stories (rather than new insights?):

casual citations
accumulate,
ballooning
empirical tactics –
o no it's
an index of anecdote
(‘This & That (I cite myself)')

For me text thing is about encounters with things in which texts live and thrive or grow weak and recover or malinger and lie on the brink of recuperation. Things–billboards, tv sets, political slogans, street signs, weather reports–purport to be readable. Furthermore, with so little practice in reading carefully, people seem more and more unable to determine what is readable. In making the point, Brown teaches us to re-read.

I found the most beautiful poem in the book to be the last, ‘Scenes'. It threw new light on the collection and took me back to the beginning–encouraging me not only to read, also to re-think. It extended the vision of the book in the same way that, say, a prisoner finally looked away from the muddy ground beyond the bars of her cell to the unlimited sky in that view.

what's graspable
on the starless night
of the blackout
as the gleaming cars
snake cautiously
up around
that hillside curve
is the way
the absence of street light
suggests the past –
not a past
I ever knew,
but one I make up, tonight
(‘Scenes')

Just as we rush through instructions and find the things on which we rely for such instruction fail us, we participate in activities of a very unstable and unpredictable nature but on which we act nevertheless–where we can ‘make [things] up'. Not only are we gently but firmly encouraged in text thing to think again about the motives behind how we act–in a political and personal sense–it seems to me we are primarily being put the question: Are we still able to read what is readable? Perhaps what urges us to make our actions finally readable is our ability to reflect on the blank page. It is ‘encounters' with the blank page which may allow us to move from the things that appear to have absorbed our thinking to a meeting between our thinking selves.

that white plastic bag
has been drifting
from the gutter
to the road
for three days,
when the rainwater
carries it off
to the Tasman Sea
I think I'll miss it.
(‘Scenes')

For the most part, however, Pam Brown portrays our daily lives as overwhelmed by the things that write our existence in a world balanced between two frames. There is the political struggle to transmit the text by which we measure our social existence. There is our struggle to take this up, either in an aim to write ourselves from the given or to re-write the contradictory objects presented to us.

A plastic bag on the verge of a storm water drain stands in her poem as a real and symbolic threat to our ecological balance. Yet, now discarded, the plastic bag has at some point carried something for someone and, while empty, still floats as a once-repository for someone's memory already texted–perhaps by an advertising slogan on the bag, a receipt and, most importantly, a desire for what once filled the bag.

Brown seems concerned, more so than she has in previous collections, with the missing text between the frames, compassion and an apparently human fear of transcendence. By this sense of transcendence, I mean to draw on the idea of the virtue of the creative work–transcendence as an acceptance of the reader to embrace an intangible aesthetic as occupying, at last, a tangible place where the reader discovers something new.

Patti Smith was right,
twenty-five years ago,
to say that rock music,
meaning, then, for her, punk-rock,
would replace painting
& sculpture

as representative of untranscended
life itself.

(‘Patti Smith was right' – read this poem in Issue #9 of Cordite)

We invite seemingly reasonable claims from transient and fixed objects, each writing its own text–from a sigh to political placard–into how we read ourselves. Because human beings are hopefully bound to being (our)selves, we will come (even if either seemingly unaware of or avoiding the most thoughtful texts for the fact that we are so absorbed with things) to reconcile ourselves to our need to think again–to review a meaningfulness of our place among ‘things'.

preparatory twaddle
as a starting point
for glosses
and doctrines –
my fingerprints
on every glass,
but then
everything I do
is, really,
rearranging, rethinking,
& obvious – break it up
& float it
____

(‘it really happened')

NOTES

[1] Jacket Author Notes (no longer online).
[2] ‘afternoon at prince henry (for Bill Foster)', Race Against Time (Penguin, 1998)
[3] ‘polytype (for J. H. Prynne)', Boxkite: A journal of poetry & poetics 1: 1997, ed. James Taylor

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Bev Braune

About Bev Braune


Dr Bev Braune is interested in practice-led research in poetry and theories of literature. She completed a Doctorate in Creative Arts (UOW, 1999) in the areas of Epic Poetry and Old Norse Poetry, its history, criticism and translations into English, with the first part of her poem Skulváði Úlfr. Her related areas of interest are reader theory and aesthetics. She brought out a book poems on the search for beauty entitled Camouflage. Excerpts of her thesis appeared in Cordite and other journals, such as Sulfur 44: Anglophone Poetry & Poetics Outside the US and UK and Salt 15: An ABC of Theory & Praxis.

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