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Susan M. Schultz reviews

Eleven 747 Poems, by Pam Brown

Wild Honey Press, 16a Ballyman Road, Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland.
March 2002. 22 pages. ISBN 1903090369

This piece is 880 words or about two printed pages long.

Critics use the term ‘747 poem’ to savage the work of poets who come from elsewhere to Hawai`i from elsewhere on a large airplane, and then write knowing poems about the place. Such poems are almost inevitably condescending in tone; even when they are not, they get important things wrong. One poet, who fancies himself a non-747 writer, waxed on about mongooses chasing snakes in the Koolaus. He had the name of the mountains correct (Koolaus) and there are, indeed, mongooses running around, but there are no snakes that need chasing. Brought in to kill rats, the mongooses and rats lived at different times of day, and never met (another in a long series of imported species disaster stories in which Hawai`i specializes).
      Pam Brown, much in the spirit of the Americans taking on the insulting Yankee Doodle as a mark of pride during the Revolutionary War, adopts the 747 label as her own in this collection of travel poems from Wild Honey Press in Ireland. Thus, in ‘From Manoa,’ a poem I should in the interest of full disclosure say is dedicated to this reviewer,  Brown invokes the ‘747’ category and then takes her reader on a tour of the island of O`ahu. As in the other poems in this collection, what leaps to a reader’s attention are odd disjunctions imposed by the contemporary world on an earlier one; hence she describes the art on the walls of her B&B, including a picture of George Washington inspecting his slaves; the ‘softer rural world’ outside Honolulu; the Korean bars with odd names like ‘Club New Office’ and ‘Club Memories’; the Brazilian cardinals; the performance of poetry in a largely un-air-conditioned place recently invaded by Starbucks and its air-conditioned landscape.

      Brown’s method, in this and in the other poems, is one of collaging places seen and voices heard, making only brief comments on what she sees. In some ways she does enter the realm of the 747-poem; the O`ahu poem, as I know because I live here, re-figures the landscape in ways that initially made it difficult for me to read. Places seem to have moved; roads don’t lead where they usually go. Re-figuring a colonized landscape to match one’s memories of it can be a dangerous business, especially when the poet is a white outsider.
      Brown further suggests, but does not state, that poetry and Hawai`i don’t necessarily mix very well; it’s too hot, for one thing, making her audience ‘languid & salacious.’ What Brown does not do in this poem, which she would if she were to live here for any length of time, is make more explicit connections between, say, the father of the country’s survey of his dark-skinned slaves and the tourist industry that feeds off Korean bars and a history that is permitted, nay encouraged, to dissolve in the Bishop Museum: ‘ceremonial hula museums in disrepair.’
      Yet, while this reader wants more commentary about the places she knows best, there is also virtue to not-saying. Brown’s refusal to say much about the places she visits — in the moral sense, at any rate — allows us to see, seemingly without much mediation, what it was Brown saw when she traveled. And she does not market in what one grows so tired of hearing, the ‘lost paradise’ metaphor.
      This must be what Brown means when she begins the chapbook when she writes of  ‘preferring the gist / to the opus,’ lines that are close to meta-poetic as you’ll get from her here. Like Elizabeth Bishop, a poet she sometimes resembles despite her inclinations toward the ‘experimental,’ Brown is fascinated by the ramifications of travel. Are places more interesting because they are foreign? she wonders. Why do people travel? Is it to cure their ‘wildness,’ find ‘happiness’?
      Rather than address these questions from the realm of critical abstraction, however, Brown, like Bishop, addresses them from one of particulars. These particulars serve not to answer old questions so much as to pose new ones. What do we make of places where the values we white tourists know well are set in radical juxtaposition with very  different values? That’s one question posed by the poem ‘Counting Day,’ where Brown writes:

Fireworks crack & Pop
in a din of horns,
whistles, cheering men —
the celebratory manifestation
moves through this town,

In this place ( tells me it’s Mauritius) where ‘independence day’ is celebrated, calls from a mosque compete for attention with ‘St Joseph’s cathedral.’ The lesson for the reader, sitting at home, is not that travel solves problems (as it so often is made to do in travel writing) but that it opens more cans of intellectual and emotional worms. This is not to say that Brown eschews commentary in her poetry of particulars, simply to say that what commentary there is must emerge out of the details.
      Oddly, perhaps, these are ‘local’ poems without the sense of place one usually associates with local poets. That very locatedness speaks both to the strengths and to the weaknesses of these poems; they are not my favorites among Brown’s burgeoning and highly intelligent oeuvre, but speak to her ambitions as a poet not content to stay at home, ‘wherever that might be,’ as Elizabeth Bishop would be quick to add.

But wait — there’s more! ...from Pam Brown’s author notes page here on the Jacket site, you can link to a photo and a biographical note, and also to dozen or so Jacket pages where her work features or where she is reviewed or interviewed.

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