Kishore Ryan Reviews Lachlan Brown

By | 4 March 2018

Lunar Inheritance by Lachlan Brown
Giramondo Publishing, 2017

‘Toward dusk,’ writes Brown in the book’s penultimate poem, ‘when the sky is passport blue, / you return via the National Performing Arts Centre, / its vast half-egg reflected in the stirring water.’ This poem, ‘Blank face double vision’, is reminiscent in certain ways of Lorca’s Poet in New York. Both Brown and Lorca use the phrase ‘blank face’ as well as the word ‘egg’. Also, both Brown’s poem and Lorca’s ‘After a Walk’ – like Lunar Inheritance and Poet in New York in general – evoke a sense of alienation within an anonymous, urbanised environment. Whereas Brown’s ‘half-egg’ is a realist description of the National Performing Arts Centre in Beijing, Lorca’s ‘egg’ is a surrealist image of anonymity: ‘With the amputated tree that doesn’t sing / and the child with the blank face of an egg.’ Lorca’s portrayal of a nature-less conurbation is, in many ways, somewhat more unsettling than Brown’s depiction of metropolitan China, but both books are similarly formed around a poet’s wanderings through foreign cityscapes.

Lunar Inheritance is a collection of 17 poems and comprises five sonnets interposed between 12 longer works. Each of the sonnets moulds itself to a Petrarchan rhyme scheme (abba, abba, cde, cde). In ‘Tell it like it is’ Brown takes on the voice of a Pauline-Hanson-type (‘I believe we are in danger of being swamped / by Asians’). The fact that this is the book’s ninth poem, third sonnet and, therefore, is positioned in the exact centre of the collection is, perhaps, a deliberate reference to the racist attitudes at the core of the Australian psyche:

                                                                       […] Fail rates
indicate that many international students just cheat,
and they’re taking places from my Sandra and your Jack.

Just think about it. If no one in Sydney ever assimilates,
what were the ANZACs even fighting for? So keep
up the pressure and we’ll soon take this country back.

The longer poems are composed in free verse and adhere to a precise stanzaic form of eight octets (except for the last poem, which is seven octets). Curiously, each octet is preceded by a noncapitalised, parenthetical line, which acts as a subtitle to the subsequent stanza:

Switch off face-recognition
when your mother cries out 
after being abused in the street.
Just get to a stage where it’s all expected,
for example, at cocktail parties where
even the glasses adjectivise you, because
wealth’s a dog-whistling politician building
a platform on graduated levels of hatred.

The poet’s directive to ‘get to a stage where it’s all expected’ is reiterated through the collection. In ‘Artistic Licenses’ the poet attempts to discharge racist incidents from his mind, ‘your brother … / … is yelled at by a tradie mimicking ‘Gangnam Style’ / … a rival- / ry in your creative writing class ends with two guys / joking about Asians eating cats.’ Moreover, the title ‘Blank face double vision’ is redolent of a vacant expression, an apathetic or at least externally impassive attitude to the prejudice and antagonism that people of colour experience in Australia on a daily basis. The poet’s apathy, if it can be called that, is a survival device.

(where are you really from?)
Mechanically looping this question
through the speakers at Beijing Workers’ 
Stadium, the concrete reverberates like
holes in your starting line-up.

The bitter irony of the subtitle is promisingly engaging, but the following sentence is somewhat less compelling. Brown’s simile, ‘the concrete reverberates like / holes in your starting line-up’, suffers from its lack of imagism. Soundwaves bouncing off concrete are an invisible occurrence and, likewise, the effect that mediocre players have on the outcome of a sports game, although observable, is a protracted event lacking in pictorial value. Also, Brown’s combining of the literal meaning of ‘reverberate’, ‘to echo’, with the figurative meaning, ‘to have continuing and serious effects’, is, if not quite a pun, an example of wordplay comparable to the ball bounces like a bad check. This is not to say that every sentence of every poem has to be imagistic, or that every simile has to be as inventive as those of, for example, John Forbes (‘your profile / fills out like a bin-liner caught by the / wind’, ‘Colonial Aubade’), but the abstractness here is likely to leave the reader unengaged.

Elsewhere in Lunar Inheritance Brown’s similes are more imagistic and direct: ‘jackets with price tags that / flash like the white teeth of…sharks’, or, ‘sky as white as a Chinese model’s white skin’. Both similes – the former of which has consumerist, predatory and exploitative associations, and the latter of which indirectly calls attention to the popularity of skin whitening products in Asia – make use of the word ‘white’, a word that is imbued with not only the violence inflicted by white Australians on Indigenous peoples, but also the White Australia Policy and the laws that excluded people from Asia, particularly China, from migrating to Australia.

Much of Lunar Inheritance is back-dropped by urban Chinese settings seen from the perspective of an Australian with Chinese ancestry, a foreigner visiting his ‘grandmothercountry’ [sic]. When Brown writes about Beijing or Guangzhou, suburban Sydney and his family are always nearby:

                                                                                           your gaze
                caught by a workshop that is filled with clothes 
        and striped bags, and for less than a second this is 
your grandmother’s brimming house in Ashfield

Similarly, in ‘Sanctioned Entry’, as the poet approaches Guangzhou:

seen from the air become Mahjong tiles 
neatly stacked by your grandfather’s
imagined hands as he meets with the clan
on Dixon street, Sydney

Brown’s use of ‘imagined’ is an example of the type of word Richard Hugo in Triggering Town encourages poets to remove from their poems:

words that seem necessitated by grammar to make things clear but dilute the drama of the statement. These are words of temporality, causality, and opposition, and often indicate a momentary lack of faith in the imagination.

The fact that poetry has the ability to traverse, from one word to the next, space and time, makes the inclusion of ‘imagined’ slightly superfluous to the poem.

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