Kishore Ryan Reviews Lachlan Brown

By | 4 March 2018

Brown’s dedication, ‘For my mother, Pauline Brown, with gratitude and tears,’ prefigures the book’s somewhat melancholic tone. The mother in the book, a woman who ‘stacks rice cookers behind / the couch so she is ready for any gift / emergency,’ is someone that the poet observes with unambiguous tenderness. But he also writes about her – as well as the grandmother and other family members – with a certain detachment, an awareness that ‘his’ (the speaker’s) life, at least to some extent, is an inexorable response to the lives and decisions of his parents, whose lives were, in turn, responses to the decisions of their own parents. This intergenerational concatenation – something that is by no means unique to immigrant families, but perhaps more severe in its counterbalancing – is evident in ‘Viewfind’:

(false prolixity and the diagnostic prophecy)
When my grandmother visits she tells the family
that our lounge room wall good luck characters
are all hanging upside down. Though I’m just a kid
who’s still inverting calculators to spell stuff, whilst
each overcompensating generation swings way too far
like an equation for simple-harmonic motion gone wrong.
So now we’re unable to say anything in words that matter,
and life’s walkthrough proof-texts itself with weird surety.

The synecdochic upside-down Chinese characters speak to the difficulty of intergenerational communication within migrant homes and ultimately, as Brown writes, this difficulty can lead to an inability to ‘say anything in words that matter’. The child’s failure to notice that the Chinese characters are upside down implies a loss of tradition, a loss that can lead to a distrust of language. A similar sentiment is apparent in ‘Crispy buildings in many different settings’:

we realise the poets were right, we can connect nothing
with nothing, because there isn’t a story for this material

Poetry, it could be said, is more or less obliged to question the value of words, but Brown’s interrogation of meaning reveals an almost defeatist or fatalistic attitude. The phrase ‘life’s walkthrough’ implies a life lived by observation, without genuine interaction. However, Brown’s word choice here – ‘life’s walkthrough’ as opposed to ‘life is a walkthrough’ – suggests that other options exist, that life is only a walkthrough if you live it passively. The speaker is entrapped within a walkthrough that ‘proof-texts itself with weird surety.’ The surety is ‘weird’ because the poet questions the truth of anything that proof-texts itself. Proof-texting – the use of out of context quotations to form a proposition in eisegesis – is, by its very nature, not altogether ‘truthful’. But despite being aware of this untruthfulness, the poet is not necessarily able, or willing, to interfere with the process of ‘diagnostic prophecy’.

‘I am silent’, Brown writes in a subsequent stanza of ‘Viewfind’, ‘before the Chinese government who have increased / military spending by 12.2% … before my mother’s de- / determined escape from the prospect of an arranged / marriage’. The poet’s profession of his own reticence furthers the notion that Lunar Inheritance is not a book of objection, gripe or protest but, rather, a book of acceptance. Despite the inherent defeatism of a ‘walkthrough’ life that ‘proof-texts itself’, Lunar Inheritance is nonetheless rather optimistic. Brown’s inclusion of the adjective ‘weird’ is significant. Despite the poet’s fatalistic acceptance of his reality, there is a sincere, if somewhat hidden, hopefulness. Lunar Inheritance is not remonstrative by any means; it is a collection of melancholic and sometimes striking poems that gently question the way things are.

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