Review Short: Michael Brennan’s Autoethnographic

4 July 2013

Autoethnographic

Autoethnographic by Michael Brennan
Giramondo Publishing, 2012


Michael Brennan’s Autoethnographic requires a curious reader, one to read its sketch-like poems carefully. The title, a reproduced image by Erico Tonotsuka and epigraphs by Edward Sapir and John Grey (‘We see the world through eyes of ancient mud’) suggest we should be reading the language of the poems reflexively, with an eye towards their ontological implications. But the poems don’t fit into this frame, and employ plain speech, dark comedy and lyrical melange un-reflexively. The framing suggests an ideal of reading, an interest in the subject and the subject’s language-work. Thus, the collection’s interest in auto-narration, the effects of which can be naïve (‘Character actor’, ‘Authentic’), creepy (‘Lost soldier’) or toxic (‘The ape’s second chance’). Or all three at once:

‘Tomorrow,’ I said, ‘ will train the ox to hum
a concerto. What would you like? Beethoven?
Tchaik? Satie?’ Jumbo’s disdain was palpable,
noting ‘Satie didn’t write concertos,’ flicking
the tea-towel over his shoulder. ‘Tchaikovsky 
it is then!’ Even I knew my enthusiasm had
grown a little strained. He put the plates back
on the hardwood shelf and dropped the peels
into the compost. ‘It’s almost a year,’ he said
warily, sighing like a tube of paste completely
squished out. All I could do was keep my mind
on the bullocky and those juicy tomatoes she’d
be bringing home, while the freeway hummed
murderously by the door. 
(‘Those ox-heart tomatoes’)

The utterances of the characters in Autoethnographic play out against their ‘background’, and the poems depend on this dynamic to suspend and interest. The collection offers a discontinuous narrative that plays out over many of poems; there are also temporal and political backgrounds like the end of a war (‘Any place to go’), ‘After the Great Forgetting’ (‘Unwilling’ and ‘Autoethnographic’) or leisure (‘Lucky stars’). Many of the poems are compressed dialogues, engaging, identifying and departing from a second person subject. Particularly good is ‘Georgia talks to a painter’, where the occasion of landscape becomes a thick, phenomenological complex:

...
years departed before your arrival. The wattle an
edged blur in distance, melancholy of the sheoaks
weird, almost human with arms languorous,
supine to a brutality of light that in another
language might be what is. Gust gathering yellow
...

Ali Alizadeh suggests Australian poetry has for the most part not broken with representation, instead seeing ‘the mimetic as a quality which can be rehabilitated and even eulogized.’1 We could add a number of verbs: imagined, neutralised, joked about, caressed, dreamed of, simulated, et al.. Brennan’s poems take representation for a walk. Some things happen with a sense of occasion that isn’t part of a performance, but some poems are nothing but performance, like ‘Monochord’ or ‘Noah in love’. For this reason, I find instances of earnest affect in Brennan’s figuration interesting. How should one react to lines like the following, for instance?

It was one of those crisp blue winter days, just
before spring, the ones when you think your nose
might snap right off your face. We were walking
across a mountaintop. The early morning air
was a sheet of glass we skated down to the city
waiting below. Watching the sunrise she turned
to me and said, ‘It’s so beautiful, it’s like the
beginning of the world.’ A bird turned sharply in
the breeze, twisting this way and that ...
(‘Countless times’)

Is ‘so beautiful … like the / beginning of the world’ supposed to be funny in its naivety? I don’t think so, but it is quoted speech and operates as a kind of narration or commentary. Should we read it as an extension of the figurative language that proceeds it, or a break into ‘real speech’? It doesn’t seem possible to say. But perhaps because of this lack of tone, I find passages of description like the one above compellingly blank or bare: ‘I’m a flat expanse staring back at you’ mouths the poem ‘Character actor’.

The way these ‘speaking poems’ play out against the frame of the book is both interesting and problematic. That this collection cites autoethnography in its adjective form for a title, but then begins with a poem (‘Who is Alibi Wednesday?’) that narrates a poetic experience of immigration from the point of view of an immigrant is both troubling and puzzling. This strategy does not belong to Brennan: Australian poetry often appeals to an othered subject to mediate poetry’s affect. But as Astrid Lorange noted in her introduction to Cordite’s Sydney issue, such strategies are counter-productive; and perplexingly, the strategy of the poem flaunts the representational sensitivity the practice of autoethnography intends to counter. The interest is the relationship between self, voice and object, especially when the object is the other. Brennan writes in ‘Monochord’, ‘one cannot be a self on one’s own’, and this is correct: narrating the other is central to the practice of monologue. A lesson to keep.

  1. ‘Against Representation: Louis Armand and the Limits of New Australian Poetry’ Ali Alizadeh, Antipodes, Dec 2011, Vol 25, No 2, p. 193.
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