Liam Ferney Reviews Kate Lilley and Pam Brown

30 August 2018

These returns are one of the book’s minor pleasures. For instance, a scene is established (‘high on cleanskin / & cynar’), the poet tacks on an idea’s breeze, in this case a reflection on Giorgio Agamben, turns again, musing, coincidentally, on Lilley (‘burglary / looks like a good idea / if I read Kate Lilley’) and philosophical pondering (‘happiness / seems / to happen accidentally’) before eventually declaring, ‘we finished / the wine’.

Though for all her talk of Agamben and philosophy, click here for what we do isn’t highfalutin. Some of the books best moments are its jokes:

‘thanks very mush’
                begins my email
          to the proofs editor

Or the thumbs Brown gleefully pokes in pretension’s eyes when commenting on some essays she is reading:

I’d say ‘second last’ 
			  rather than ‘penultimate’
 	   maybe ‘brokered’ or, even, ‘supervised’
				       for ‘proctored’
	(context depending)

			  (when did ‘proctoring’ begin?)

Brown sifts out odds and sods from life’s swarm of krill. Extracting these pieces, weighing them for inclusion, making decisions on their preservation. This is interest and importance being made. The lunches, letters, quips, ideas, headlines, correspondence with friends are, as she says in a section of ‘Left wondering’, ‘my attention’s / creaky scatterings assemble.’

But this isn’t just a book about life amongst a certain inner-Western Sydney caste. It probes questions of poetry’s place in the world and its utility. We are accustomed to the idea that poetry is the least popular, the most marginal, of art forms. Shrinking funding buckets, publishing lists and bookshop shelf space attest to this, but, in the age of social media, where the written word remains omnipresent, clever wordplay and memorable coinages are as central to the culture as they have ever been. At its best, this opens up an immense new playground for poets to goof around in and is a potential gateway for new readers. At its worst, it trivialises and reduces. Mememakers stripmine Frank O’Hara’s beguiling love poem for Vincent Warren in search of likes, retweets and upvotes. The end result:

having a coke with you
	    goes round & round
		    the internet
		      until
	 the very end

(‘A mockery’)

The fragments we are left with quickly lose their varnish, becoming as prosaic as a bestselling guide to corporate management. Poets like Rupi Kaur co-opt social media’s brevity, assemble pat inspo (‘you / are your own / soul mate’ to quote a poem in its entirety) and shift upwards of a million units. But B-grade self-help with line breaks does not poetry make. Brown asks:

if, 
as the internet poet says
the first thing 
a poem
communicates
is communicability

then
what?

Then what indeed? The reason we are drawn back to poetry is, in part, because of its complexity. Its resistance to communicability. The way it rewards re-readings, continually offering new interpretations, resisting the idea of a final definitive reading.

The question remains, though, is this enough when ‘seventy percent of the coral / is dead’? Anxiety about a warming world has been part of the tapestry of Brown’s recent books. In this collection, tension emerges in the face of terrorism. A gruesome hit parade of recent terrorist atrocities that includes Westminster Bridge, Bangkok, Stockholm, Manchester, Idlib and Cairo concludes ‘mosul / baghdad / kabul /‘, reminding us how successful Western policies have been at inflaming fundamentalist violence. The fragment immediately following the list asks:

does
a list
like that
do any work?

The question has two meanings. Firstly, do the poetics work and secondly does the poem have any kind of political utility? The direct answer, at least to the second question, is no; but then poetry is hardly alone in its political impotence. All most think-pieces do is boost metrics to sell ads, yet their authors and readers consider them a valuable contribution to a public discourse. Poetically, though, the list’s structure foregrounds our complicity as well as highlighting the way in which these atrocities have come to wallpaper our lives, as omnipresent as the weather or consumerism.

So here we have two of Australia’s best poets (to be fair I don’t think its hyperbolic to say the world’s finest) making interest and importance in different ways and to different ends. Lilley, on the one hand, concerned with the construction of interest in an academic or forensic context, trying to use poetry, and everything that it connotes, to find a new way into understanding how things are actually depicted, and on the other, using poetry to make importance ensuring, for instance, that the abuse she documents is no only preserved as testimony but exists as a powerful warning (at least for this male poet) of the need for constant vigilance towards misogyny. In saying that, I’d still urge people to read the book because it is much more than simply poetry #metoo. Brown’s devotion to the making of interest is much more tactile, improvisational, an attempt to use poetry to track a mind’s wandering; while her pursuit of importance, the bits and pieces of an inner-Sydney life, should serve to remind us all that the world around us, as prosaic as it may seem, is gloriously rich in detail and in meaning. The end result is, for both books, poetry that makes it easier to live in this world.

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