True Thoughts by Pam Brown
Salt Publishing, 2008
Eighth Habitation by Adam Aitken
Poetry doesn't pay the bills but it does have benefits; claiming your internet and a trip to Melbourne back on tax, for instance. Or the overseas fellowships distributing poets across the globe like water from a sprinkler, as is the case with the authors of the titles under review. Part of Pam Brown's latest collection, True Thoughts, was written in Rome under the auspices of a BR Whiting Fellowship while Adam Aitken's fourth collection, Eighth Habitation, was penned in Cambodia and other parts of Asia with the support of the Australia Council for the Arts.
True Thoughts is Brown's first major collection since 2003's Dear Deliria. The book includes new work alongside poems drawn from chapbooks published in the interim. Noteworthy amongst the latter are Brown's contributions to Let's Get Lost, an epistolary collaboration with Ken Bolton and Laurie Duggan.
Brown is a light-fingered chronicler of the everyday. Her poems happen on trains, at desks, walking down the street. A case could be made for praising Brown as Australia's finest exponent of what Frank O'Hara memorably labeled, ‘I did this, I did that' poetry. O'Hara was writing about his own poems. Remember Frank shopping for presents in ‘The Day Lady Died': ‘and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE/ Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega'. Although this kind of writing seems easy, its deceptively simple surfaces have been a siren call to countless immitators, wrecking verse on the prosaic.
Brown has too tight a rein on her prosody. Using short phrases and cascading lines she adroitly builds her rhythms out of everyday speech. The music is always there. Listen to ‘Early October':
my friends, will be asleep,
or maybe talking quietly
at some nutty lines
in the bedtime books,
maybe watching late-night tv,
some old repeat a movie.
Read as three ten beat lines the closing three beats – ‘a movie' – make a perfect full stop.
In ‘Saxe Blue sky' she seizes on the iambic pentameter writ on the tollway signs on the Sydney Harbour Bridge: ‘CHANGE GIVEN CHANGE GIVEN AUTO COINS ONLY.'
True Thoughts presents a global panorama. Poems touchdown in Sydney, Auckland and Melbourne as well as Rome. This constant dislocation ensures that the idea of home, and the way home is constructed, is a recurrent theme. In ‘Ming Blue' Melbourne is defined in opposition to Brown's longtime hometown, Sydney:
a forecast we've rarely heard before
replaces 'a shower or two'
one we've heard a lot
In ‘Ultradian rhythm' the ‘weak Roman shade… seems like Brisbane / summer grey / and I've come so very far / to make this small comparison'. But place is only one part of the dislocation pervading the collection. Language is another major source of the dislocation. As an exiled Mowbray laments in Richard II, ‘My tongue's use is to me no more / Than an unstringed viol or a harp'. Brown has difficulty with a similar kind of loss in, for example, ‘Early October':
our absent friend, John
the 6th and 7th weeks
& he was here
for 3 months only.
I've been awarded
double that -)
Poetry, like letters or IM chat, bridge stilted deli counter conversations and the incomprehensible chatter of Italian TV. But it isn't just the language barrier that can imperil the poem. For a poet on an overseas fellowship, the apparent limitlessness and availability of writing time can cultivate stasis as Brown suggests in ‘No action':
but here am I
for half a year,
(only five months to go)
In the context of this isolation and (occasional) inertia, poetry is a connection with the 'real world'.
Like True Thoughts, Adam Aitken's Eighth Habitation is deeply concerned with place. Aitken's interest in place, however, is one more in line with postcolonial notions of identity. This is Aitken's overarching theme, something evident since Letters to Marco Polo. Significantly, the title of the second section of Eighth Habitation, ‘Crossing Lake Toba', refers to a massive lake in Sumatra sitting 900 metres above sea level. Created 74,000 years ago as a result of the largest volcanic eruption, scientists posit that it may have killed most of the planet's humans and, in the process, altered the genetic inheritance of all humanity from that point. No cap gun. Aitken's project is, in a sense, to cross Lake Toba in an attempt to reconcile the Asian and European aspects of his own identity and self-awareness.
But identity is complex and Aitken is savvy. ‘Cairns', a literary treatment of the oft-neglected north examines the way people seek to construct, deconstruct, alter or lose their identities. In this case, the people are the poet's mother's neighbours in their frontier milieu:
the Holloway Europeans:
Charlene, for example
barefoot, tall, fungal
Skinny Charlene from Dapto
who lived on the Hippie trail in the 60s
smoked hash in Afghanistan
'JP loves Thai food…
They think I don't understand
what it means to be European
They call me ‘Chinese cook'. I lived in London
fucking four years.
These are all people who have come to the north to shed their skins and create new names for themselves. They don' t feel as though they belong in Cairns, wondering if they have ever belonged anywhere. Perhaps belonging, for all of us, is only ever a myth.
According to Aitken, like people, nations re-invent themselves. Nowhere is this more true than of a country like Cambodia – the focus of many of Aitken's poems – caught in the difficult space between a new beginning and the imperative of not forgetting the tragic past. As Aitken writes in ‘A Map of Cambodia':
Under one map there's another
rising on the tide
as the pain recedes.
It was the Khmer Rouge who declared ‘Where the sugar palms are / you'll find a Cambodian.' Nowadays the map of the new Cambodia with ‘Magenta for bombed areas', only marks them out because they can't be easily turned into tourist resorts or mines; elsewhere ‘Shaded areas mean gas.' All these result in the country being carved up like a cow by foreign corporations and ancient enemies:
One piece for the Thais
another for the Viets and BHP.
The plantations, rubber
and what else?
Golf courses even generals can't afford.
Colonialism is nothing new to Cambodia. In ‘Dear Henri', a letter to Henri Mouhot (the Anglo-French explorer accredited with the discovery of Angkor Wat), the poet describes how:
the inhabitants of the jungles
learned the range of your rifle
and the calibre of your balls.
But Aitken is acutely aware of the colonial ramifications of his own tourism. In ‘S21' he recalls his reaction to a visit to Tuol Sleng Prison, the impromptu torture complex fashioned out of a Phnom Penh high school, a reaction which could be shared by anyone visiting the hotspots of dark tourism, places like Kigali, Srebrenica and Auschwitz. According to Aitken however, there is a problem with such personal reactions:
How to come away from it,
to photograph it, how long to stay there and stare
at the spattered tiles and the ripped out wiring.
To wonder what endless days
reading an archive of ten thousand 'confessions'
does for the eyes.
These days Hannah Arendt's line about the banality of evil is frighteningly clichéd but Aitken's description still manages to chill:
the guy with all the stories, who
knew how to file, the one who said
he'd done his job protecting his nation
with a few blunt instruments
a fountain pen, and a beautiful signature.
Eighth Habitation isn't just a travelogue. It also includes a beautiful series of lyric poems, ‘The Aubades', and the breathlessly intense ‘‘Anti-travel' travel poem'. Nor is True Thoughts all cappuccinos and Caravaggio – the insouciance of the poems set in Sydney is magnificent. The internationalism demonstrated by Aitken as well as Brown is characteristic not just of Australian poetry, but of Australian identity. Walk into budget accommodation anywhere on the planet, and another Aussie will have been there first. They might have had a Kiwi through the doors, perhaps a Finn or a German, but they'll have certainly had an Aussie, regardless of whether you're in Uzbekistan or Uruguay.
Travelling is about taking risks, trying things and reinvention – three things that make these collections so exciting. Aitken and Brown have been writing for decades yet their poetry shows no sign of losing the traveller's sense of adventure and that's what makes both collections such thrilling reading.