The Balcony by David Brooks
University of Queensland Press, 2008
In a review originally published in Heat #6, David Brooks praised Peter Boyle’s The Blue Cloud of Crying as being influenced by the tradition of Cante Jondo or deep song, and as being more accessible, recognisable, and emotionally engaged than most Australian poetry. He then went on to observe: “There has been something of a tradition of emotional reserve in Australian poetry. There’s also been something of a tradition of complaining that no one reads poetry very much in this country, that it is no longer very close to the national heart. Not many have seemed willing to make the obvious connection.”Over a decade after this suggestion, we can observe Brooks’ own attempt to rectify the situation through a similar type of affective poetry.
We have in total eighty-five poems, some a few pages long, one only sixteen syllables long, another only four lines long (including the titles); the rough majority, though, are around twenty lines. The pieces are beautifully sequenced, each in one way answering its predecessor, with death usually followed by Eros. The influence of a number of writers can be felt, particularly Czeslaw Milosz and Jacques Prevert (who has a poem translated by Brooks here), but also – as John Kinsella has pointed out in his review of the book in Blue Dog – that of Blake, Pound, Bert Pribac, and Srecko Kosovel. There are references to Milan Kundera, Su Shi, Rilke, Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, even John Howard; there are allusions to Tennyson, Donne, Edward Albee, a Billie Holiday ballad, and the practice of Arthur Stace, who for over thirty years wrote the single word Eternity on empty public spaces throughout Sydney.
Stylistically, we find elegies for friends (as well as one for a cat), many explicitly sensual pieces, quasi-prose-style philosophical meditations, two subtly didactic pieces on vegetarianism, the odd brief lucubration or aubade, some lyrical reflections, but primarily what slightly inadequately can be called love poems. (Brooks dedicates the work thus: “for Teja / 77 love poems / (and then some)”). In one of the book’s central poems, ‘The Year You Came’, the poet outlines something of the context in which this relationship occurs:
The year you came
three of my best friends died.
The year you came
I lost my home, my country, so much of my name
the rest was hardly worth arguing for.
The year you came,
like a fire-scorched seed,
I burst with such green flame
no other year mattered,
the year you came.
Throughout, there is an unselfconsciousness and apparent ease of expression that would seem to come from a deep acceptance of – and relaxation into – both the art of writing as well as that of loving. For the large majority of the book, the tone is conversational, close to casual at times, and even when dealing with a theme such as the source of one of the “seven shames they say / make up the life of anyone” (‘Blood’), the poetic voice is gentle, subtly dramatic, and here, almost self-forgiving. Very occasionally, this delicacy and lightness of touch becomes airy to the point of insubstantiality (‘Major’s Creek’, for example), but with such Imagist-inspired writing there’s always a fine line between the luminous and the invisible.
The other primary risk Brooks takes here is the courting of the cliché. Once in a while, as in phrases such as “her perfect breasts” or “soft as your breath”, he may not completely succeed in his bravery, but language like this is also a poetic equivalent to the vulnerability that occurs when one opens oneself to another in a loving way, as well as a product of it. ‘Thinking Like Pigeons’, perhaps truly entering its title, ends with a simple, glorious, well-earned “ah…” In ‘Song for Teja’, Brooks manages the remarkable achievement of infusing the repeated phrase “I can’t take my eyes off you” with the worshipful intensity it would seem to have once had before Hollywood and lounge music got to it. These poems are the antithesis of what John Ashbery called “ideas about thoughts”, but also of so much previous versification which elsewhere Brooks calls “poets / prowling through the chambers of their loneliness” (‘Harbour’). (It should be said, though, that in the same poem he subtly implicates himself as also guilty of this.)
One of the great strengths of the work is its unadorned but undeniably artful style, which is a willful denial of the postmodern emphasis on bricolage, complex surfaces, and the multipartite self. In ‘Catullus 123’, he imagines a response to his own new writing:
‘One hundred love poems? Don’t be ridiculous.
‘If you publish them, I warn you,
you’ll have to make them look
like something else entirely
so people can read them with impugnity.
‘The lover is criminal in this real world,
a social embarrassment, like a pregnant woman,
a suicide bomber, a vegan.
Fuck if you have to but don’t go back for seconds
unless you can make it look like you don’t want to.’
“To flourish is to become dangerous”, as Robert Frost once wrote, and Brooks certainly does not overlook the political aspect of this kind of writing, or of this kind of relationship with another human being. Equally, the world outside the intimate world is not forgotten either. There are a number of poems that show great insight into the spiritual and ethical values that go into creating countries, and the borders between countries. In the resonant, incisive ‘Wheat’, his lover (who he refers to as simply “Balkan” at another point in the work) asserts “Every country … every nation / has its secrets”, and in the act of refusing to be secretive about some of the darker parts of his own heart, Brooks is already acting as an honest citizen – therefore a subversive one. The word balcony shares the same etymological roots as Balkan, and in the book’s relatively lengthy title poem, the poet’s lover is:
outside on the balcony, translating poetry again,
from one language to another, bribing
the border guards
The balcony is both a scaffold-like extension from which one can see one’s dominion (or ‘Empery’, as another poem is titled), and hence one’s past, but it is also a ridge or a raised platform which can separate oneself from others. In this collection, it is a place of exhibitionism and privilege, but also one from which such activity makes the world and time disappear.
In these pages, we also encounter places both familiar and perhaps rather exotic-sounding: Brest, Queanbeyan, Murska Sobata, Melbourne, Isola, Vukovar, Istria, Nanos, Lendava, Sport, Koper, San Michele, Piran, Korte, Kortna. While a European air floats through at least a third of the work, The Balcony is situated beyond both Padna (Slovenia) and Darghan Street (Sydney) (to refer to two of the section titles given to the work), and essentially exists in a sort of amorously estranged realm which could be termed ‘A Different Life’ (the name of the poem which gives its name to the first of the three section titles). Here, Brooks asks, almost demanding an answer from the reader: “What do you want from a poem? // The truth? // In my other life / I knew so much.” Similarly, in the book’s third last piece, the poet breaks off – mid-poem – from a description of his own garden, to tease us: “What, you want / something else? Frank / O’Hara? John / Ashbery? Vladimir / Holan?”
One answer to what the reader might seek is found in that different life, which can also be seen as the loving (or even simply erotic) life, where the ordinary physical world is repeatedly transcended. The poet’s lover becomes not merely a divine being manifest as a woman, but is also experienced as a panther, a deer, a cat, and where his love is so charged that late at night it seems to him that even nature itself feels her absence: “I heard… // the Moon / saying something about the Earth, / the wind / asking the trees where you had gone” (‘Twelfth Night’). In the book’s final poem, there barely exists – if at all – a division between writing, lovemaking, and the work of nature itself. The one achingly sublime word Eternity is somehow simultaneously inscribed on vacant walls by moonlight, and on the inside of the poet’s lover by both his fingers and his heart; he exists in a state of vagrant purity: “the mind / like the heart / wide open” (‘Eternity’). If the reader seeks poetry of great dignity, tenderness, humility, playfulness, and devotion, they will find it in this rare and intimate work.