Toby Davidson Reviews Michael Brennan and Barry Hill

5 April 2010

Unanimous Night by Michael Brennan
Salt Publishing, 2008

Four Lines East by Barry Hill
Whitmore Press, 2009

Unanimous Night and Four Lines East are very different collections physically, the latter being a limited edition chapbook of thirty-five pages, but they both revolve around a central theme of the Australian poet out in the world, away from home, discovering new dwellings for body and mind in the process. For those like me who have been backstroking through the poetics of remorseless national introspection for some time, this provides a welcome moment of forward propulsion without feeling as through you're being completely let off the hook.

The author's notes to Brennan's handsomely-rendered hardback declare that Unanimous Night is the second part of a triptych begun with The Imageless World, which won the 2004 Mary Gilmore Award. Readers familiar with this first volume will recognise the continuation of the ‘Letters Home' sequence and the lines of semblance between the minimalist ‘Ellipses' of The Imageless World and ‘Twenty Studies' of Unanimous Night. From this is may be safe to say that the (as yet unreleased) third volume of the triptych will continue these semblances, if Brennan is content to stick to conventional notions of what a triptych is and does.

Prior to his current existence at Chuo University, Tokyo, Brennan completed residences in Berlin and Paris and Unanimous Night certainly reflects European rather than Asian influences. A reproduction of Paul Klee's ‘Eidola' precedes the collection and the third poem, ‘Sky was Sky' features an epigraph from Paul Celan. The sixth segment of this poem ‘The Gift' stylistically screams Kevin Hart, but it may simply be that Brennan is immersed in similar influences to Hart, and not just Celan. ‘Sky was Sky' is in fact about memory, the often involuntary travel to past unresolved both personally and poetically:

I woke up but it was a dream,
my brother died years ago,
I tried to write about it
but the words never held.

I walked outside, watched the sky
as if it was a face. I saw nothing,
nothing at all but the immense joy
as if the sky was an open door.

While its subject is fraternal death, this sequence is a life study rather than a confessional. It traces how life returns, or refuses to, or undulates halfway. The final we in the poem (‘We are moving now, moving / again, carrying each other / into nameless places') undulates accordingly between the inclusion or exclusion of the family member who remains intangible yet present like the phantom limb of an amputee.

Critics typically adore minimalism, perhaps as it reminds them of the restraint and control they imagine themselves exercising, but aside from the gloriously-titled ‘The Disaster of Grace' I found the prose poetry of ‘North Country Abstracts' far more satisfying:

Out here, it was all hours of daylight, the amount of food eaten, the fatigue from the day before and the day before that, or the adrenalin and endorphins pushing through the clockwork of the body, the cold change of the air, the warm glow of the sunrise. For all of that undergone, I had no way to judge your arrival.

Is it just the atavistic cohesion of journeying and the prosaic narrative mind that facilitates this attractiveness, or the refreshment gained from the fact that ‘North Country Abstracts' is unlike anything else in the collection? Brennan is a lecturer, and ‘abstracts' in the scholarly sense are the descriptive preambles that introduce scholarly papers; hence, ‘North Country Abstracts' can be read as intuitive introductions to unrealised essays of the mind as well as abstract in the artistic sense. I think the prose poems are successful first and foremost not only because Brennan would make a superb lyrical fiction author in the style of a Winton or Malouf, but also because of what slips in amid the more clear-cut physical actions:

In the half-light, the rough scrub felt like it concealed the same darkness slowly forming our bodies, gradually feeding and filling out of our forms, running headlong into the darker places, the sudden clearings and openings, stumbling on the abrupt silence of the crickets, the strange coolness of places that even then seemed made of memory, of a time before our births, a time that still dwells on in our bodies.

‘Letter Home' is the title of fourteen separate poems in Unanimous Night, and it is important to realise, as Brennan has explained elsewhere, that these are written to different people–friends, colleagues, family, presumably others of various ‘homes'–from places as different as Paris, London and Sydney. Naturally, these vary in style and tone, but the meatier ones such as the eleventh letter recall Martin Harrison's robust style, which is no bad thing. The first and last poems of the collection are letters, and much in between seems as though it could have been drafted across to still more of them.

The obvious exceptions to this are the poems already discussed and the title poem. ‘Unanimous Night' is a love poem, similar in length (and even, possibly, in aim) but less metaphysically cranky than Kevin Hart's ‘Colloquies'. As the poem progresses, the object of desired union becomes increasingly de-identified through an absence of detail, until it is love/Love/The Transcendent Namelessness itself:

I close the door of my name
I give into praise

I shout the silence of your touch
I give in to love

I lock myself in the key
I give in to nothing

What begins as a tale of strangers, eyes (‘your eyes describe / imageless worlds'), cities, limbs, telephones and other earthly signifiers lifts into the cataphatic mode of religious praise most famously demonstrated in Psalms, melded with the erotic overtones of the Song of Songs. Absence doesn't just make the heart grow fonder here, it changes the ambition of the poem. By its closing stages, this is no longer a story of love over distance, but inseparable Love. Brennan's final recourse to one of the most famous mystical poetic metaphors, that of river to sea, only confirms this. Is it a religious poem, or just an interpersonal love poem that has railed against its bonds until it has transcended personality? And is there a difference? Much here depends on the reader's ability to suspend disbelief in more ways than one on the way to such unanimity. My only gripe, by comparison, seems absurdly microscopic: ‘Monologue in the Dream: Decoding', featuring its own ‘unanimous night', concludes:

Forgive hope,
Forget your name,
keep only this,

a love
not our own
but of what
we are part.

Shouldn't that be of which? Ah well, it's in print now, so I'll shuffle on.

Barry Hill has maintained an interest in the East as idea and locale for some time, even incorporating Buddhist and Taoist wisdom into his interpretation of central Australia in The Inland Sea (1991). The East, of course has titillated the Western mind as a concept for centuries, often resulting in some pretty farcical self-serving exoticism put to the sword in Edward Said's foundational postcolonial text Orientalism (1978). Four Lines East, another attractive chapbook from Whitmore Press, features two initial epigraphs: the first ‘The East–what a subject for a poem!' by Walt Whitman is unwittingly instructive (yes, Walt, but you'd better surrender the poem to the subject, not vice versa); the second, from the Diamond Sutra, will be discussed momentarily.

I sense there are two kinds of writing about the East (which here is pretty much Asia and the subcontinent): the honest and the wishful. I also sense that Four Lines East contains lashings of each, sometimes even blending the two. The honest, often found in observational travel poetry, acknowledges how reality of the East surprises, defies and challenges the author's idea(l)s. The wishful is both more innocent and dangerous; it often results from momentary brushes with Eastern wisdom, texts and tracts that help the poet see something different in themselves, a weird conundrum of using ancient perspectives on egoless detachment to appear more enlightened than one actually is (for if you were, why would you use it?).

First, the honest. ‘Raven City' opens the collection:

Over at the Fairlawn
Where the table's set with doilies
They cloud fig trees and pester
Rats in the rockeries.
At dusk, when the cricketers
Withdraw from the Maidan
They pick and dance in garbage
Beating the kids to it
Hopping on one leg, neck twisted
Just to make the point.

‘The eye' continues this juxtaposition of bounty and scavenging. Upon seeing a boy wheeling a dead man in a trolley, at which the poet admits ‘I could not look for long', a lyric forms from the prose of the street:

One night, in deep sleep,
Your head will appear –
Wheeled in on a trolley.

Your wife will be there to kiss you
but you will have a feeling
your children are dead.

You are all eyes without a sound.
Then you are one eye
Waiting for rain.

This, for me, is the collection at its best, and by crossing now to the more wishful side of things I don't want to suggest that the rest of the collection is in some way dishonest, but rather that the poet's enchantments with the East occasionally occlude the stronger revelations such as the one above. I should also add that for various reasons I am diabolically ill-travelled, so perhaps this is all subconscious jealousy of a kind.

Still, I cannot let ‘At Green Lake with the Diamond Sutra', which is where the collection's second epigraph should have resided, pass without comment. This, for me, fits the wishful category. The opening quatrain (as the Buddha wants four lines of understanding from us, this is set predictably in quatrains), finishing with ‘What's the reality?' just rankles me no end as does the forsaking of an in-depth engagement with the Diamond Sutra for a pretty stereotypical reflection on fishermen on the green lake. Frankly, it's not enough, as the Diamond Sutra contains some of the Buddha's most profound teachings, including the immortal lines ‘The Tathagata says that the world is not the world, and that that is what is called the world' (in the 2001 Tom Graham and Master Hsing Yun translation). The second part of the sequence contains an epigraph from Lao-tzu – what is this doing here? It's an easy way out from actually engaging the Diamond Sutra, and the first couplet ‘The trouble is you don't believe / you have it in you' speaks volumes. Despite the fact I generally admire the greater share of Hill's poetry, there's no avoiding the fact that this is novice-work without a Master, which is the chief problem with Western poets parachuting in and out of Eastern texts. Any Master worth their salt would simply say ‘Begin again'. If the reader, by default, is forced to impersonate this Master, then they should say the same.

Michael Brennan and Barry Hill are two enterprising poets at different stages of their careers. If Brennan continues his absorptive techniques, then his next collection might well feature Japanese poetic and environmental influences, and not just the minimalism popularised in the West. Hill's work has always displayed an affinity with Asian thought, even when writing about Central Australia, and, like Brennan, it will be interesting to see what he does next, for despite my occasional misgivings I know these are poets for the long haul.

Toby Davidson is a researcher in Australian poetry at Deakin University and editor of the forthcoming Francis Webb Collected Poems.

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About Toby Davidson

Toby Davidson is a lecturer in Australian literature at Macquarie University. He is the editor of Francis Webb’s Collected Poems (UWA Publishing, 2011) and author of the critical study Christian Mysticism and Australian Poetry (2013), part of New York publisher Cambria Press’s landmark Australian literature series. His debut collection is Beast Language (Five Islands Press, 2012).

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