Pam Brown, Missing up. Sydney: Vagabond, 2015. ISBN 978-1-922181-50-3
… & /, what truly astonished Louis Nowra in his recent review of Contemporary Australian Poetry[i] was that most of the poets in that collection although living and working in the city, perversely turned their backs on the urban environment. Not so Pam Brown, whose 2015 collection of verse Missing up[ii] distinctly interprets traces of the city, the title of each piece effortlessly incorporated into a notational verse structure. Written over three years, this corpus is urbane, parochial, (“disliking Bondi Junction”, 145) and self-deprecating. Brown’s collection is multifocal, irreverent (“the dolt in residence” 93) and cacophonous,
varying repetitive sounds
on the street
& a shrieking siren
en route to rescue
It’s a conurbation of ‘Collected melancholy’, stories of – among others,
a bipolar daughter
cherishing her hands
coupled with the natural world, where the landscape is “wearing out” (130). For fear of too much melancholia, Brown, boldly polemical, goes “where no manifesto / dares to go…” (125) in ‘Here’s to you’, and in ‘Non-responder’ (“guess the ideology / in this one”, 99) and in ‘Blank lyric’ drily noting, “money buys stuff / there’s probably / more stuff than people” (109).
Val Plumwood calls for writers to engage in “the struggle to think differently, to remake our reductionist culture”[iii] and become “open to hearing sound as voice, seeing movement as action, adaptation as intelligence and dialogue, coincidence and chaos as the creativity of matter.”[iv] Angus Fletcher maintains that poetry is “bound to stimulate an awareness of varying conditions of life and ‘living through’, [to] engage a willingness or refusal to experience these [as a process to] include a willingness to discover where the self is and where it lives through its experiences.”[v] Brown’s ‘Twelve noon’, is an imaginative wrestle between reminiscence and moment. Rifling through her memory she shuttles between evocative flashes from the past and derisive verdicts of the present – “at last / a C21 moment!” (86), persistently adjudicating the increasing complexity of her mental and physical dwelling place.
Brown’s poems are strategically punctuated by a visual composition of themed monochrome cropped-snap-shots in a network of connected and unconnected fragments, composed through the sociolect of an urbanite; a poiesis of continuous, pulsating (“tiny twitching”, 29) movements. Worded space, paginated silences and purposeful suspensions contract the expression of her social reality. The seemingly arbitrary stanzaic construction is reminiscent of a child’s play at hopscotch – akin to the jump at the beginning, one foot down, the other poised with inbreath, to lunge into space – and land all over again. Nowra is right, her short lines have bounce.[vi] Brown is deeply and wordfully spellbound by the city, the dwelling-thinking place-space, the Umwelt of her surrounding urban environs, her worded reflections strung like light bulbs across streetscapes. The ‘West End blues’, “click” (12) “flick” (13) is “where the poems say / more /…” (10) and less, as you leap up, momentarily off the ground, to alight, ‘A second ago’ with Schuyler’s peonies and Nelson’s bluets
… out walking
a grubby blue
above the shifting mist
There is a conversational quality to her expression, allusions to thinking, art, authors and inventiveness wherein ‘& Surrounds’ ampersand Klimt & Kraus and ‘Gifted’, Saint-Exupéry. “Donna Haraway / invents / canny declarative statements” (70) amid The Simpsons who opine “never try” (72) in ‘This whole thing’, where the poet’s stream of consciously discursive thinking finds a reality pestered and “bitten by the faux midge” (69), as Brown makes known that “here in the midge world, you’re caught / no one’s actually listening” (73) – or are they? Without hesitation, if you listen-through-reading to ‘Inklings’, the words in the audible feeling of “scraping / a squashed raisin / from a floor tile” (64) can only make room for a denser appreciation of “continual life” (64). ‘Inklings’ is also a poem for those who have planted nemesia seed, the miniscule seeded inkling of life, which when bloomed is “golden / moment-brightening” (65). Brown as great noticer –
I use my eyes
than my ears
(this is the city)
– seems to be confounded by the microscopic seed for its radiant gift. If the reader is ignorant of the nemesia seed then, in my eyes, they will be forever Hansel – “tracing the postman’s” (67) pebbled bread-crumbed
red rubber band trail
down the footpath …
and missing out on … nemesia’s moment-brightening blooms.
The shuttling between her expressed thought and our unassimilated references, ultimately manifest as a network of living words, revealing through its generative structure – realisation. Following Wolfgang Iser and Roman Ingarden’s propositions of literary “places of indeterminacy,”[vii] Brown’s enjambments, gaps, compositional blanks and short horizontal line structures, stimulate the reader to configure meaning by leaping from line down to line and filling in blanks “interpreting the sonorous remnant into full existence,”[viii] as when we are led off in unexpected directions, we fill in our own gaps to create a richer realisation. It is through this convergence between text and reader that the work becomes manifest, awakening our responses. Emmanuel Levinas wrote that “communication with the other can be transcendent only as a dangerous life, a fine risk to be run.”[ix] Brown runs that fine risk, at no time starving us of complexity but reinvigorating poiesis, into its own existent language, making us all run the dangerous possibility of transcendence through realisation – the possibility we may reformulate ourselves – through an encounter with the worded other, the alterity of the city scape and the otherwise of the self in the Umwelt. Brown’s work echoes Plato’s chora, a spatiality, a place of environing spaces, full sometimes, often empty, all of which has life – if even at the subatomic level – all of which comes and goes.
From the space of the street, ‘Blank lyric’ questions the street itself. “What does the street know?” (102) the poet asks, only to answer with a chronicle of dissolution and disillusion. The verse is a time capsule, shuffling between now and the 1970s, a provoking microcosm of the-now and the-then. One hundred and twenty-two pages into the collection we land with hopscotch feet together on Missing up. I find expectations high when the title of the work appears. But the title work is short, two pages, left justified, except for the indent as an entrance space for a blowfly “in through the doorway / and out again …” (122) adroitly, with no full-stop at the end. It’s both a messing and a missing
that drove you to disappear
and hole up beyond location
… the opinion
of the specialist
on your body of work
Not without irony, there follows ‘Continuous improvement’, sixteen pages of verse demonstrating loose elements of an open-field poetics, distinctive of Brown’s structural execution. At her most irreverent she asserts that those who celebrate the birthday of the ancestors
care no longer
will need to
light three sticks
Had Brown’s collection ended with the overall sentiment in ‘Continuous improvement’ – that here in this world we find no trace of the public good “not / anywhere/ now” (147), then perhaps thoughtful readers would finish her corpus with heavy heart. Fortunately, brewing ‘Rooibos’ rescues the reader from despondency. Here we catch sight of Brown’s vocational sass, as she reflects during late afternoon when “there’s less than an hour / to wring / colour / from the backyard sky,” (152) that in writing poetry –
… there’s always
‘the things it’ll do
not to be a sonnet’
As a final remark, if an epigraph holds meaning, then the lines “we / have always made the sun come up” from Alice Notley’s City Of [x] evoke the number of references to poets in Brown’s collection. If trouble be taken to read Notley’s fuller lines we find a group of people re-counting the time they
… were in the parlor of a modest home with window shades
listening to a CD, several of us /
We heard the dead poet read
a poem which ended with sun-up
Another dead poet sat across the room
listening: but we were all the same one
have always made the sun come up.[xi]
And the image on the cover of City Of? – a satellite dish scanning up, listening for the poet – to make the sun come up.
[i] Louis Nowra, “Well Versed,” Weekend Australian, Review, 4-5 March, 2017, 16.
[ii] Pam Brown, Missing Up (Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2015).
[iii] Val Plumwood, “Nature in the Active Voice,” Australian Humanities Review, no. 46 (2009): 126, viewed 20 May, 2017 <http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-May-2009/home.html>.
[iv] Ibid., 125.
[v] Angus Fletcher, A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 136.
[vi] Nowra, op. cit., 16.
[vii] Wolfgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” New Literary History 3, no. 2, On Interpretation: I (1972): 279-299, viewed 16 May, 2017 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/468316>; Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), 170; Roman Ingarden, The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art, trans. Ruth Ann Crowley and Kenneth R. Olson (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 245.
[viii] Fletcher, op. cit., 178.
[ix] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991), 120.
[x] Alice Notley, City Of (Minneapolis: Rain Taxi, 2005), viewed 21 May, 2017 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2019037.City_Of>.
[xi] Ibid., n.p.
Brown, Pam. Missing Up. Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2015.
Fletcher, Angus. A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Ingarden, Roman. The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art. Translated by Ruth Ann Crowley. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.
Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History 3, no. 2, On Interpretation: I (1972): 279-299. Viewed 16 May, 2017 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/468316>.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.
Notley, Alice. City Of. Minneapolis: Rain Taxi, 2005. Viewed 21 May, 2017 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2019037.City Of>.
Nowra, Louis. “Well Versed.” Weekend Australian, Review, 4-5 March, 2017.
Plumwood, Val. “Nature in the Active Voice.” Australian Humanities Review, no. 46 (2009): 111-127. Viewed 20 May, 2017 <http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-May-2009/home.html>.
Anne Stuart is a doctoral candidate at Queensland’s Griffith University. Her doctoral project seeks to read the poetry of Kathleen Jamie through the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas and read the poetry of Francis Ponge through Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutical imagination. Anne won the Griffith University School of Humanities Poetry Prize in 2015.