Have Been and Are by Brook Emery
Gloria SMH, 2016
Brook Emery’s new collection, Have Been and Are, continues in the vein of what might be called philosophical-demotic established in previous volumes such as Uncommon Light and Collusion. I don’t think that anyone else in the cohort of contemporary Australian poetry does this quite as well as he does. One might look to a poet of the recent past like Bruce Beaver as a model (or rival) for these sophisticated but always humble meditations, and there are occasions when Emery sounds very like Beaver, but Beaver’s poetry has a suppressed and often irrational anger not far below the surface, something that I cannot detect at all in Emery’s poems. And then, moving back, there is John Blight, whose sea sonnets – though hardly poems of process – often bump up against similar questions. And Blight was an early admirer of Beaver, and one of his poems was called (quoting a critic) ‘His Best Poems Are About the Sea’ which reminds us that one of the poems in Have Been and Are says, ‘I’m always writing about the sea, about change, / about power …’, so perhaps there is a small local tradition here.
Though many of these poems address a subject, you feel that Emery is more comfortable with those that are based on some kind of progress through the world, where the movement of the body is reflected in the movement of the mind as it hunts themes along sidetracks. Indeed his poetry has the capacity to reanimate dead metaphors like ‘sidetracked’, ‘off the track’, ‘catching my drift’ and ‘lost in thought’. The fine first poem belongs to this category: an early morning walk immediately begins to wonder about poetry and language (‘that word “dappled”, that won’t do’), about what kind of poem it is (‘it wants to take you by the hand and say / “Come, come with me into this environment, // this moment and these meanderings”’) and about its connections to the world of poetry, referencing Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison and having a kind of admiring tussle with Hopkins. In fact Have Been and Are works this contextual approach consistently by using quotations from a range of writers as titles.
But the walk of this first poem takes place between the sea on one side and the trees and cottages of the coastal inhabitants on the other. And we are reminded that the sea is always there – ‘the endless, pulsing, / not to be assumed, reassuring sea’ – even when the poet’s mind is on other things. This sea stands for many things in Emery’s work and those poems in which he swims in the sea have a special resonance. It is, among other things, a huge body of ever-changing patterns whose determining and generative drives lie deep within it and far back in time:
This morning the rain-splashed, glass-grey dimpling of the sea is unvaried, seems unvaried, though gutters, sandbanks and channels, the ebbing tide all leave hints of movement, change, unmeasured depth. I see little more than surface …
All this manages to be both classical Greek and Buddhist at the same time – it’s a ‘changing world … which doesn’t change’ – but it defines what a poet must do: be aware of the processes of endless change, symbolised by the sea; know that such continual changes are products of profound forces; and focus on responding to the challenge of rendering the present verbally. Sometimes the poems do it as a self-confessed exercise so that ‘Only keep still …’ and ‘Echo, Repetition, Statement …’ each have plans:
… To sit in one spot, perhaps on a balcony looking through rainforest to the sea, from sunrise to sunset and record everything I see. All that is not me …
The ‘me’ – ‘the unconvincing fiction of myself’ – is also, of course, subject to change and this explains why there are a number of poems in the book (as there were in Emery’s earlier books) where the current self investigates a younger self: it’s the changes that register.
And just as inevitably as this poetry raises the issues of the surface and the depths, so it also has to deal with ethical issues as well as worry about where such issues fit into the broader philosophical scheme of things embodied in the symbol of the ever present sea. In Have Been and Are, ethical issues run the gamut from minor and intrusive niggles – nothing more than part of the experience of moving through the world thinking – to things that require full-intensity expression. At one extreme there is ‘World Without Hope’ detailing the experience of being asked to ‘save the wetland, tree frog, crocodile, / to cure cancer, heart disease, diabetes, liver failure, / free prisoners of conscience …’ by ‘peddlers / of worthiness’ at a local shopping mall. All are causes the poet is happy to endorse despite looking askance at the way the causes are framed, inevitably, in cliché: ‘Of their own accord / my eyes begin to roll and I hear an unintended / sniffing sound whenever someone says “affirmation” / “journey”, “empowerment”, “closure” or “community” …’
At the other extreme is ‘The Brown Current’, an attempt to deal with human cruelty at the macro level. Or perhaps it is an attempt to keep human cruelty (or stupidity: an earlier poem says ‘we must be stupid … the alternative / is too ghastly to acknowledge’) out of a poem which wants to be another poem about moving through the world and observing. Whatever the plan, it is a poem made up of segments of the kind of poem Emery writes brilliantly. Observations of the sea mingle with meditations about mind and random allusions to childhood, current events, etc. These are interspersed with small prose sections making up a kind of anthology of cruelty: beginning with the Athenian massacre at Melos, working through Genghis Khan up to the Rwandan massacre and the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s a brave experiment and, while it isn’t as successful as other poems in the book, you can see the importance – in content and structure – of the issues this poem is dealing with.