Lesley Saunders reviews
Judy Brown’s poetic (though not necessarily her person) thrives on missed footings, lost opportunities, failed relationships, metal fatigue, house-moves, getting pissed. Her self-admonition – ‘Be more interesting’ – in the first stanza of the opening poem is entirely otiose (as one suspects she knows): continuously interesting, thematically, rhetorically and psychologically, is what the book manages to be.
The impasses and embarrassments she finds or puts or imagines herself to be in – this is not poetry to be taken at the face value of confessional – are not only attentively, cleverly observed but also rendered with a deceptive straightforwardness that allows her to manoeuvre words into positions where they can do maximum damage to the reader’s expectations. Here’s the beginning of ‘Dignity’:
Four am in a five star hotel.
The atrium drops beside you
like a turquoise mineshaft.
It goes on:
In the toilet you fall in love
with your own boozy sweetness.
And spirals down to this:
To be much less than you
should be. In the taxi back, always
the same, hiccups worse than
sobs, your skirt rucked right up.
It feels like an obligation.
As in that poem, Brown has an evident talent for titles, using them to call attention to each poem’s unique existence (though in this collection we are in little danger of just sliding off one poem on to the next); and/or to name what’s in or behind the poem without giving anything away about its nature: ‘After the Decree Nisi’ opens with:
The one who cuts the cake is not allowed to choose
and segues through a TV news item about a man being arrested for videoing female runners taking their clothes off by the roadside, with the poet stopping to wonder if she can empathise with him:
I kind of get it – that he tried to make it his:
the way, beneath their numbered vests, the runners’
bodies flare and split to white against the trees;
the neatness of the moves they make to crouch
and piss, pull up, run on…
before the whole thing comes full circle:
And still I can’t decide –
whether I will cut or whether I will choose.
The poet (again, one makes no assumptions about Brown the person) is a frequenter of cafés that serve burgers with ‘the condiment / still life of Daddies sauce’ on formica tables (‘The Trick of It’, ‘Freefall’, ‘Best Drink of the Day’); of bars and pubs where ‘I sat in The George… riding the smooth Atlantic swell of the afternoon’ (‘Embittered, A Loner’); of waiting rooms, hotel bedrooms, a helicopter and the top deck of a London bus. Places of transit and casual contact, opportunities for having or hearing anonymous conversations, occasions for watching oneself and others: the stuff of poetry’s vocation.
Indeed, I’m beginning to wonder whether these poems are not all, at one level, ‘about’ the act and art of writing poetry. I do not mean this to sound as if the poems are either repetitious or solipsistic, up their own backsides in any way. But take, for instance, the wonderful ‘Spontaneous Combustion’ that starts in medias res:
Later, I learned that someone might enter
a house where the smell of pork, burned-up,
contradicts the cold
– the way an incident of spontaneous combustion is introduced, reported, meditated on and finally turns into an almost-prayer for deliverance feels to me like something that, summoned by the lit match of Brown’s virtuosic imagination, flares ex nihilo into full being and then burns itself out again.
‘Thirst’ does the same kind of thing with the travelogue poem, transforming that staple of poetic subjects, the description of a remembered sojourn abroad (here, ‘Kowloon City’) into a self-reflexive consideration of how such memories get written – depending on what the recollecting eye records – and then over-written by ‘later weather’ that washes away all the names. Instead of reaching for the exotic, stand-out aspects of being in a foreign country (and probably, like most such attempts, failing), Brown is content to note how they were ‘amazed at novelties of a minor kind – / fork-spoon-knife concertina’d in a leather case.’ The ‘he’ who was with the poet (presumably a lover) only briefly condenses out of the misty ‘we’: apparently less memorable now than the stallholder who ‘kicked towards my sandals / a tiny snake escaping from the pak and bok.’ The poem enacts the way such trivial experiences make a habitation for themselves deep in our current dreams, so that ‘Sometimes I wake there…/ and I sit up here…’
I think my favourite poem is ‘If You Smell Gas’, because of its wilful determination not to be trammelled by the conventional reading of routine instructions, but instead to find a way to conjure the genie out of an unprepossessing bottle:
IF YOU SMELL GAS, the devil is close. Do NOT smoke:
show some respect… Sniff again at the pipe’s crusty elbow.
Do NOT use naked flames. They will not save you.
turn electrical switches on or off. I run things now.
And I love the way Brown writes about sex, like a man but just like a woman – in ‘Idaho’, ‘The Expats’, ‘On the First Night in the Cottage You Said It Was a Mistake for Me to Buy’ and, here, in ‘The Swap’:
‘As the man sat on the steps…
I came alongside in muted shoes, just at the moment
he touched his balls, and the orange-red sluice
of sunset swelled to fill the end of Gleneagle Road
and he whispered a curse he had saved to celebrate this…’
This poet is no victim and picks her way, ‘fluorescent, / into the west’. Any lasting wounds are self-inflicted, and crisply analysed:
I didn’t suss for years. A decade’s passed
since I unpacked and put the Chinese lions
on the fireplace, stony-faced and facing me…
fits (and not pleasantly) between their teeth….
Ten years’ bad luck. That daily dose of friendly fire.
(from ‘The Souvenirs’)
There’s a restless kind of shape-shifting going on in Brown’s poetry but in a good way – not pseudo-mysticism but the disciplined exercise of a fertile, ironic, troubled, sensuous imagination.