Verbal aerobics and intimacies, John Horrocks

Favourite Monsters
James Brown
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0864734344

The Scientific Evidence of Dr Wang
Stephanie de Montalk
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0864734417

Readers of James Brown’s previous collections of poetry, Go Round Power Please and Lemon, will recognise in Favourite Monsters startling lurches in direction, a familiar multitude of voices, and technical sophistication. In these new poems, however, there is a perceptible shift towards directness, as though Brown is no longer quite so compelled to put up signs saying, “Don’t take this too seriously.” He still retains, however, the irony that marks his earlier work. Even the notes at the end invite the reader to spot lines from popular music, as though poetry-reading is truly the quiz that so many reluctant school-children wriggle away from.

There are some strange and very successful poems that play with biblical images, allowing Brown to appropriate the beauty of the language and then pummel the reader with the contradictions within the Christian message, as well as making mordant observations about actuality. “Engagement” is typical, finishing with the lines:

the kitchen sink overflowing with rimy dishes.
Oh the abomination of desolation!
Some seeds fell by the wayside.
She had coal dust all over her skirt.
Nothing is ever the way they say it is.
By my God have I leaped over a wall.

 

Brown is more conventionally postmodern, if that is a possible standpoint, in a poem such as “The Cost of  Living”, launched from Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”. Like the original, it plays with the notion that commonplace events are not disrupted by the sufferings and losses of other people. While Auden makes this into a general observation, Brown uses it as a conceit to deal with a particular death, so the poem becomes elegiac and personal. The ordinary world is represented by the inconsequential changes in a supermarket’s shelves, but with the bite of a final metaphor:

I learnt how
the price of groceries has risen over the June quarter
and that, even though offset by other factors,
the cost of living had quietly and imperceptibly
gone up.

 

Poems like this disarm the reader by indirection, so Brown can approach serious matters while announcing subjects with worn-out titles such as “The Pleasure Principle” or “The Truth about Love”. At other times, he begins poems with opening phrases that have a recognition factor that jolts the reader. In “Loneliness”, for instance, he reports that he “was just sitting there, wandering lonely as a cloud” when he saw Elvis. Spotting Elvis appears to be the primary subject, with all its bizarre unlikelihood and the reverent attitude of the Elvis devotees. Brown just slips in the serious dimension of the cult, which is that “once you’ve seen Elvis you are never alone.” The poem turns out, after all, to have loneliness as a real subject, together with the sad nerdiness of some ways of overcoming it.

For those who enjoy a thorough cliché-hammering, Brown is The Man. Eden was “stinking hot”, women get a “raw deal” (“Out of Eden”), while the poem “Temple Head” is a pure confection of clichés, just as “Cursed Be He That Removes His Neighbour’s Landmark” is made up almost entirely of biblical quotations. Brown is so deft with the surface of words that he is able to peel off one absurd metaphor after another in poems of considerable tenderness, such as “Family Planning” or  “The Family Unit”. Few loving poems could, like “Learning to Read”, include the sentence, “The children will play till they drop/like flies.” Yet this poem works.

Favourite Monsters provides the equivalent of verbal aerobics, with the occasional shift to a stunning simplicity, as in the parting described in “Other Ideas”. Just occasionally there is a note of PCness, which is unexpected with someone so thoroughly iconoclastic. The poems “Forgiveness” and “The White Girl” have a little sniff at opportunistic white people. Fair enough, perhaps, but you get used to Brown’s acrobatic suppleness and the expectation that you will not get what his poems promise. They do, however, almost always deliver and this is a wonderful collection.

2

The Scientific Evidence of Dr Wang, like its title, has something of the character of a research dossier. Stephanie de Montalk reports on her investigations of the small objects and rituals of daily life, the effect of distant places on the sensibility, and the relevance of an assortment of past actors – Beau Nash, Solon, Ovid, Gilgamesh, and Mr Puji, brother of the last Chinese emperor. In the process, she shows how meaning keeps intruding, with even the slightest things part of the significance of events – a lukewarm cup of tea on a locker, what a man in jeans is reading (National Geographic – the foldout page), an All Black win (by 12), and the number of faces a sheep can remember (50).

De Montalk’s first collection, Animals Indoors, won the Jessie Mackay award for the best first book of poems at the 2001 Montana Book Awards. This new collection shows a fuller range of styles and subjects. She travels from the practicalities of the hospital in poems like “Contrast Medium” and “Solatium 1 & 2” to elegiac musings in “Last Settlement”, “Style and Completeness”, and a poem about Gilgamesh, “The King Who Did Not Want To Die”, poems that echo the tone of the historical narratives of the Greek poet Cavafy. Despite this range of style, there is nothing that seems unfinished or experimental, and there are  often, as in “On the Dresser”, single images that on their own would make a poem worth reading:

The burnished
whinnying
of horses
*
and the strange
apricot chanting
of psalms

 

Many of the poems show a particular strength in providing details which make real what an experience is like – the “thickness” of experience – rather than giving a sense that the images are carefully chosen correlatives for something else. The poem “Serrations” describes some of the tasks of a solderer in a factory, such as cutting sheets of steel into squares, but skilfully moves from these mundane steps to the solderer’s plans and dreams, before returning to the street outside, which is itself now saturated with these imaginings:

The breeze snatches what it can
from the street: fate, intoxication,
the skirts of priests and beautiful women.
Steel filings shift on the floor.

 

Travel in these poems becomes a means not only for presenting new perceptions, but also for considering what is a valid perspective. “The Intransigent Traveller” records the feckless movement from place to place of a traveller, who vacantly recalls trivia such as the waiter with three thumbs, who served him an omelette. “Depth of Field” suggests the shallowness of tourists’ perception in their “star-/spangled bus/and their own/roving camera.”

Even food embodies this task of rightness of standpoint. Like a recipe book, The Scientific Evidence of Doctor Wang includes a variety of dishes and drinks: lamb shanks, pies, venison, cakes, soup, rice, salads, satays, tomato, paprika, veal, crackers, lentil log, tea and sherry, chicken, tuna, cheese, crackers, and donkey sausage. Hazel, in “Bar and Grill”, “will not be tempted to try a dessert://her lamb shank was lovely”. For Hazel, these minutiae are all as important as the question of how much to charge for doing her garden, while behind her other patrons are wondering about an asteroid that might hit Earth. In “Fifth Quarter”, by contrast, the preparation of food is more a sacramental rite, which ironically binds celebrating friends together.

Where the poems move into satire, as in “A Digression”, the holiday idyll of Mum, Dad, and a couple of kids on the Gold Coast, it is usually gentle, but there are harder moments in poems such as “The Retired Barrister”. De Montalk likes to take on big topics: colonialism, displacements of peoples, varieties of loss, death and grieving. Here she operates with a light touch, with an awareness of the cyclical nature of these events. In the concluding poems in this collection, “Notes Along the Cool Edge of a Page”, she returns to simplicity and intimacies, the images pared away to bareness. This gift for simplicity remains the strongest impression from this collection, and it fits that De Montalk should end with the following lines from “April”:

Your trees may not bloom
this year,

they vary
season to season,

but their leaves
are certain,

their trunks
indestructible,

their oil clear gold
on glass.

 

John Horrocks teaches in the Counselling School at the Wellington Institute of Technology.

 

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