Andy Jackson Reviews Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow

12 April 2013

While it is tempting, and perhaps intended, to take Curnow’s Radar as autobiographical, Kevin Brophy’s poems here are much more disorienting, almost vertiginous, in terms of their origin and destination. Brophy continues his curious excavation of suburban contemporary life with this collection of prose poems, which present wry, philosophical and unsettling scenarios on life, art, objects and meaning. We encounter a hole near the Fawkner Cemetery which is impenetrably dark and voracious, a banging gate with its thoughts caught from a passing schoolgirl, a man’s literal love for money, a touring exhibition of nouns from leading European novelists, pigs, maps, babies, bicycles and libraries. And we are told that ‘people come to the seaside when they are defeated by what they have found inland’ (‘The Man on the Narrow Footpath Above the Sea at Beeston Regis’).

Most poems are written in the third person, so there is a sense of the omniscient speaker, but the first person also occurs, and the switching between perspectives, modes and subjects is alluringly unsettling. The prose is not in an internal psychological voice, with its ceaseless flow and its confusions, but in a precise and composed tone, somewhere between that of a scientist, a journalist, and Borges, whom Brophy includes in an illuminating bibliography of sorts, adopted as part-homage, part-subversion. ‘Report on the Phenomenology of Post-Death Experiences’, for instance, takes the tropes and jargon of statistics and scientific journals to absurd and amusing territory.

For the most part, though, the critique in these poems centres on us, in our homes and in our language, with our small joys and persistent fears. The contemporary (Western) human is portrayed as vulnerable, confused and enclosed. In ‘No Winners I’, we watch a documentary about a ‘man of consequence’ failing to take responsibility for the death of a cyclist he has run over, and find ourselves ‘shouting our disgust as if these cries could raise us out of those corners of ourselves we found in the man of consequence’. In ‘Family Portrait with Beanie’, we have a dying man thinking of zucchini, his wife ‘struggling to stay awake’, and their son ‘perfectly content’ with his ‘unremarkable’ qualities. The poem is typical of Brophy’s contribution to Radar in its estrangement of everyday life and its subtle gesture towards allegory, but also in its compassion and humour.

As with Curnow’s poetry, some of the most moving and surprising moments in this section come when the reader is drawn explicitly into the drama. ‘Ransom’ places a gun at the temple of the speaker – or is it the page? Yet it urges the reader not to pay the ransom. ‘Here We Are’ places the poet inside the head of the reader, dissolving the time difference between them, making the moment of reading an eternal beginning. Yet in a way, Brophy is always inside our heads in these poems: whispering, questioning, making pointed observations, with a distinctly agnostic existential accent. The cumulative effect of these scenarios – alternately whimsical, stark, poignant and enigmatic – is disorienting, almost exhausting. It was almost a relief to pause for breath and reflection among the white space and slowness of ‘Thirty-Six Aphorisms and Essays’.

It should be said, though, that this half of Radar, unlike Curnow’s, doesn’t lend itself to an implied narrative. It can be approached from any angle, read in a random order (although, oddly, I wanted to move “Gaudi Gaudi Gaudi” away from its place as the final poem). These prose poems are seductive and they bear repeated reading not so much for any musical sensuality in their language, though their clarity and fluidity is certainly pleasurable, but for the provocations they hold at their core, their status as embodied secular koans.

The final question, of course, is why place these two collections together? The two sections aren’t given their own titles, which implies some sense of intended unity. But they are clearly distinct in their approach to language and poetic form, and their thematic preoccupations. Apart from Curnow’s ‘I Shoot You at the Pond’, which is dedicated to Brophy, what threads there are between the two halves are subtle and oblique – an examination of Australian suburbia and family, and a certain shared fascination with silence and doubt as poetic motifs.

So why are they together? There are no obvious or singular answers, only the various readings that we can glean from the technology of the page, from language-sounds of navigation and uncertainty. Brophy’s ‘Alice’s Husband Invents Radar’ is perhaps the closest the book comes to an answer. While wryly evoking the domestic world as a metaphor for the failure of sincere writing to communicate, the poem ironically succeeds in its transmission, as does Radar in its entirety.

Anyway, what is radar? she asked, in a loud voice from the front room where she was ironing and watching parliament on the television and checking emails that appeared regularly on the computer screen on the coffee table (they don’t drink coffee any longer but they had retained the table).

It’s a form of perception! You send out a signal that bounces off its target and comes back to you exactly as you sent it, only delayed by the distance of the target … Alice?

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About Andy Jackson

Andy Jackson is a poet and creative writing teacher, and was awarded the inaugural Writing the Future of Health Fellowship. He has been shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, the John Bray Poetry Award and the Victorian Premier's Prize for Poetry. Andy has co-edited disability-themed issues of Southerly and Australian Poetry Journal, and his latest poetry collection is Human Looking, which won the 2022 ALS Gold Medal.


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