Warm Auditorium, by James Brown (Victoria University Press, 2012), 78 pp., $28.00.
In their prime, Ian Dury and the Blockheads released a song called ‘There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards’ — the B-side of ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’. The song name-checks an eclectic list of Noel Coward, Einstein, Van Gogh and Andrés Segovia. If Ian Dury had written the song about New Zealand poets, he would almost certainly have name-checked James Brown — because James Brown is, pre-eminently, a clever poet. But is he more than that?
Now, it’s always dangerous to approach writing a review with preconceived ideas about the book, because these preconceived ideas may lead the reviewer astray and result in the book not being considered on its own terms.
Yet when the poet is as well known as James Brown and the book is his seventh collection, the reviewer is likely to bring some expectations to the task. For the record, then, I can state that I expected to find poetry that was witty, urbane, ironic and detached; that I would admire the high degree of skill with which it was written; and that I might find myself more impressed with the cleverness of the poetry than engaged by it.
In the event, some of my expectations were met by this collection, and others exceeded. James Brown is a very skilful poet, and this skill — in the use of rhyme, in extended metaphor, in rhetorical forms — is evident throughout the collection. But the relentless display of skill for its own sake can become exhausting, like Barcelona’s midfield passing game or an Yngwie Malmsteen guitar solo. Consequently I was delighted to find that many of these poems engaged my emotions as well as my intellect.
So what are James Brown’s poems like? Well, one of his favourite rhetorical devices is to deliberately draw attention to the artificiality of the poem he is writing. The final line of a poem entitled ‘The Personal Touch’ is an instruction to:
Include the words ‘wife’, ‘sunset’, ‘palm’ and ‘unction’
in the following poem — and the following poem, ‘Bridlington Weekend’, duly includes those words.
The high point of meta-ness in the collection is ‘Dan Chiasson’(the name of a contemporary American poetry critic), which begins:
I’ve never written in a way that really pleases James.
He likes my poem ‘XV. Randall Jarrell’,
from my second book Natural History,
and has even used it as a writing exercise,
but not one of my other poems stays with him.
‘Randall Jarrell’ is not a poem I care for, particularly.
The cleverness sounds too ‘creative writing course’ — which it isn’t, quite.
James Brown does this sort of thing very well, but thankfully the good news for readers who have a limited tolerance for poems that comment on the circumstances of their own creation is that such poems are very much in the minority. For me, this collection was at its best when the poet put his intelligence and wit at the service of something outside themselves.
A good example is ‘Your father would never have said that’, in which Brown adopts a balance of paternal and maternal voices, denoted by different fonts, with the poet’s own voice coming through in the last two stanzas. The picture that emerges is one of a high-maintenance pair of globe-trotting English expats, and what works so well in the poem is the change in register when the poet’s own voice comes in:
I got out asap, I can tell you. When I last saw them
they were watching TV in an appliance store window.
The cricket — which we were probably losing.
This is where I’m supposed to say how I tried to call out
but couldn’t find my voice, how it somehow got lost in the crowd
or the words caught on the tip of my tongue
or simply failed me, then, finally, refused to come.
But nothing like that happened. I just ran.
Warm Auditorium is divided into three sections, and the third section has both the poems I liked least and those I liked most in the collection. ‘Ezekiel’ and ‘Popocatepetl’ are poems which appear to exist for the sole purpose of finding rhymes for, respectively, Ezekiel and Popocatepetl. They succeed admirably in that virtuoso aim, but why bother?
By complete contrast, my favourite poem in this collection, the prose poem ‘Willie’s First English Book’ is a brilliantly sustained exercise in storytelling — yet it clearly falls on the prose poem side of the poetry/fiction divide. The poem is divided into six sections, Mahi 1-6, and it begins:
In that house. In the boat. In the ship. In this basket.
Tell Mary to come in, it is cold. A little girl fell into
the river, and James ran in after her. The dogs are in
our house. There were many ducks in the river this
morning. Where is the gun you had in your hand?
Where indeed? Even this short excerpt shows the deftness with which the restricted vocabulary of a first English reader is deployed to tell a story of colonialism and violence. When James Brown applies his intelligence and literary technique to a subject that is worthy of them, the result is both moving and impressive.
From mahi to work: ‘Willie’s First English Book’ is the penultimate poem in the book, and the final poem, ‘Needs Work’, is a conspectus of the book and of life itself, or at least one person’s life. The poem is built of contrasting and overlapping short phrases, many of them clichés into which new life has been breathed:
Fresh ideas. A breath of fresh air.
No more apologies. No more nos.
Sorry. You’re fresh out of luck.
Missed boats. Loose cannons. The hospital tuck.
The force of the poem is cumulative, so it’s difficult to capture the full effect in any one extract. Although its scope is less wide, the poem that ‘Needs Work’ kept reminding me of is Bill Manhire’s millennium poem ‘The Next Thousand’, with its similar rhyme scheme and the use of clichés to anchor the poem in the present while evoking the passage of time. I love ‘The Next Thousand’, and I think ‘Needs Work’ is a great way to finish Warm Auditorium.
And am I any wiser about James Brown’s poetry than I was when I started reading his latest book? A little, perhaps. I still think he’s a fine poet, with an enviable command of a range of poetic techniques; equally, I still think he is sometimes too concerned with showing off his command of those techniques, with cleverness for its own sake, with poems that concentrate on their own artificiality, on their own creative-writing-school-ness.
But the stronger poems in this collection, and they are in the majority, go beyond such five-finger exercises to produce poetry that is moving and intriguing; poetry that while not necessarily giving up its secrets easily does have secrets that are worth pursuing. As you’ll have gathered by now, poetry has to engage me on a level beyond the purely intellectual to stay with me: many of these poems will stay with me.
TIM JONES is a Wellington-based fiction writer, poet, and editor. His most recent poetry collection is Men Briefly Explained (Interactive Press, Australia, 2011).
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