Brian Henry reviews
Dear Deliria: New and Selected Poems, by Pam Brown
Salt Publishing, 2002, 159 pages, A$21.95, £9.95, U.S.$15.95
Considering the extraordinary energy of Pam Brown’s often amiable, always engaging poems, Dear Deliria is an appropriate title for this volume. Because ‘deliria’ is the plural form of ‘delirium’ — a temporary state of confusion characterized by disorientation, delusions, and incoherent speech — the book’s title seems to address the poet’s own hallucinations. [Note 1] Here we have a dilemma, for how can a poet communicate — if we accept that the ‘Dear’ in the title signals such a desire — when she is delirious? Many of the poems in Dear Deliria dramatize this dilemma in various ways, and the results are always worthwhile, never dull.
Restless and internationally aware, Brown’s poems often recall the work of poets associated with the New York School. [Note 2] The book’s epigraph by James Schuyler — ‘I order you: RELAX’ — aptly sums up the two (seemingly opposed) strains of energy that run through the poems’s simultaneously frenetic and unruffled atmospheres. The spirit of Frank O’Hara appears throughout Dear Deliria — Brown knows that one can be a serious poet without taking oneself too seriously, and like O’Hara’s, her work is precise despite seeming casual — as does the self-deprecation reminiscent of that in John Forbes’s work.
Brown also shares Forbes’s willingness to confront — consider, incorporate, or deride — literary and cultural theory as well as his fondness of the second-person pronoun. But where Forbes, in his later years, looked to Cambridge, England, for new possibilities, [Note 3] Brown has turned to Language Poetry — not to reject the lyrical ‘I,’ which is usually present or implicit in her poems, but to enliven it. Though Brown reads and responds to Language Poetry, she does not necessarily want to accept all, or even some, of the tenets proposed or enacted by the Language Poets she reads. [Note 4] Nor should we expect her to. [Note 5] Dear Deliria demonstrates the work of a community-minded poet with an individual’s concerns and limitations. Always cognizant of ‘our soft little lives’ (‘At the Wall’), she wants to make those little lives interesting, because they often are, especially in the hands of a poet as savvy as Brown.
This ambivalence also emerges in Brown’s poems about Sydney, a city of great beauty and — like most large cities — many problems. A large part of the problem is what happens when any urban center expands: the natural world is further harmed, if not destroyed. Like Forbes, Brown effectively juxtaposes the natural world against the urban to illustrate the situation, as in ‘Capricornia’: ‘the red moon rises over the lake / like a giant motel sign // dead kangaroos hit and run / for miles and miles.’ Clearly ambivalent about urban life despite having chosen an urban lifestyle, Brown elsewhere refers to Sydney as ‘my / paved city — / pocked concrete / & traffic carbon’ (‘In Ultimo’), and writes ‘the city is empty // ... & as / deodorised / as heaven’ (‘Pique’). In Sydney, ‘even the rubbish / appears artificial’ (‘This & That’) and ‘the harbour waters / are the colours / of a haemorrhoid’ (‘Balmy’). This awareness lends even the most caustic social commentary additional gravity, or sadness.
have I flipped? into a strangely placid
If so many names can seem like clutter, the names of contemporary poets — usually in epigraphs and dedications — are the community. The writings and company of Australian poets Adam Aitken, Ken Bolton, Laurie Duggan, Cassie Lewis, and Jennifer Maiden and American poets Charles Bernstein, Tom Clark, Eileen Myles, Alice Notley, Jack Spicer, and Susan Schultz appear throughout Dear Deliria.
This consideration of her place as a poet is not always so self-deprecatory; in ‘Front,’ she approaches her role with more humor:
only a poet
The achronological arrangement of Dear Deliria works against the career packaging that is often the intention — whether on the part of the publisher or the author — of such volumes. It is difficult to trace Brown’s ‘development’ as a poet in this book because it does not offer that kind of career narrative. This distinguishes Dear Deliria from New and Selected Poems, which appeared in 1990 and is arranged in the conventional, book-by-book order. Any volume of selected poems (or new and selected poems) asks readers to consider not only what is there, but what is not there, because the end result cannot avoid projecting an image of the author that the author seeks to project. [Note 8]
[Note 1] I also like to think that the title invents Deliria as the goddess of delirium, and that the poems in the book are missives, if not offerings, to this goddess.
[Note 2] Especially second-generation NYS poets, but also original figures James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara.
[Note 3] See Forbes’s ‘Ode to Cambridge Poetry’ in his Collected Poems.
[Note 4] Those mentioned by name in her work include Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe.
[Note 5] I’m afraid I am making too much of a case here, forcing connections for the sake of demonstrating that Brown is aware of Language Poetry in the U.S. and is not afraid of it. While sympathetic to at least some of those poets’s work, she does not actively pursue techniques — like parataxis, alphabetical and numerical systems, and heteroglossia — that are often associated with Language Poetry. But there are aesthetic and political affinities and sympathies, which is not common among Australian poets of Brown’s generation.
[Note 6] Real estate agents seem particularly unpopular in Australian poetry. See John Forbes’s ‘Ars Poetica’: ‘Put a brick through / a real-estate agent’s window / and it bounces back / and cuts you. That’s what / I mean about targets.’
[Note 7] The poems from the 1970s — her first decade of writing — were generally less than half a page long.
[Note 8] Unless, of course, the book is edited posthumously.
[Note 9] This World, This Place (1994) includes 10 prose poems, and for this reader, ‘Colonial’ (‘Somewhere in England in Scotland in Brisbane in England in Jamaica in England in Scotland in Nambour in England in Scotland in Sydney in Surry Hills in England in Scotland in New Guinea in England in Melbourne in England.’), ‘This World’ (‘This world, this world, this world is shit. // Weep away, say the angels, gold comes from shit.’), and ‘Aerogramme’ (‘And I wanted all the places, all the moments’) are particularly missed.
[Note 10] With its quiet demolition of Czeslaw Milosz.
[Note 11] Which is so good I cannot think of any aesthetic reasons why Brown excluded it from Dear Deliria.
[Note 12] 50-50 includes 28 poems, so nearly 80% of the book is reproduced in Dear Deliria.
[Note 13] Except Little Droppings (1994), which is not represented in Dear Deliria. This is too bad because of poems like ‘Epitaph’ — ‘if there’s anybody up there / I hope it’s Jacques Prévert.’
[Note 14] Despite this emphasis on recent poems, Dear Deliria includes only two poems — ‘Eyes on potatoes’ (a ‘short sequence of fattening 12-line sonnets’) and ‘Glassine-wrapped’ — that have not appeared in other collections.
[Note 15] Of the nine older poems in Dear Deliria, five (‘Straight all the length of me long,’ ‘Honky tonk sunset,’ ‘Tree farm — Monbulk,’ ‘Leaving,’ and ‘the longer i write poems for you’) are from the 1970s and four (‘Capricornia,’ ‘Adelaide,’ ‘Sheer veneer,’ and ‘I remember dexedrine. 1970’) are from the 1980s.
[Note 16] 1971-1989.
[Note 17] If the poet were dissatisfied with the whole poem, it’s reasonable to expect that the poem would be excluded from a volume of selected poems.
Brian Henry lived in Australia in 1997–98. He edited a special feature of Verse on Australian poetry, and he has written about Australian poetry for the Times Literary Supplement, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Review, Harvard Review, Poetry Review, P.N. Review, Australian Book Review, Westerly, Meanjin, and Southerly.
But wait — there’s more! ...from Pam Brown’s author notes page here on the Jacket site, you can link to a biographical note, and also to dozen or so Jacket pages where her work features or where she is reviewed or interviewed.
August 2003 | Jacket 23