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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
ISBN 1-876857-54-4
This piece is 2,200 words or about five printed pages long.
Endnotes are given at the end of this file. Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.

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.

Photo of Pam Brown
Pam Brown

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 doesn’t mean that Brown’s poetry lacks bite, or targets. Early objects of her satire and scorn include academics and ‘pastoral solipsists’ — i.e., the closed-minded, self-important, and dogmatic. In ‘Adelaide,’ for example, ‘ideas / come second / to funding’; even worse, ‘the poetry scene / is insular, / eats itself, / is well-heeled, / and uses words / like “burgeoning.”’ Brown’s current targets include the bourgeoisie — ‘money now / determines class, / focus, promise, function’ — real estate agents, [Note 6] and the men of government — ‘chinless wonders // ... like cows / in big tuxedos’ (‘Sheer veneer’). At times, this approach risks cynicism; but Brown realizes and admits that she is complicit with the society she criticizes and that some things — ‘the smoke hazes / of late March,’ ‘calumny & gossip,’ ‘embittered, / competitive acquaintances,’ and ‘cluck nucks / prattling, prying, / levering away’ — ‘depress’ her (‘Miracles’). While Brown is socially conscious and critical, satirical and sarcastic, she also emerges as vulnerable and, perhaps more importantly, generous — through humor and amicable gestures toward others.

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.

Brown’s current style might be described most succinctly as improvisational. Her lines are generally short and staggered — unevenly indented — conveying (perhaps misleadingly) speed in composition even as the poems unfold to four, five, six pages. Working against the idea of the self-contained, brief lyric, this is distinct from her earlier work, which was characterized by brevity and sharp wit. [Note 7] Brown’s wit is still sharp, but it now has a languorousness to it that makes it more pleasurable and multi-faceted. Many poems in Dear Deliria focus on, or create, the present moment. Of uncertain import initially, the poems move and build through observation, wit, and action (or its absence).

But Brown also writes about the past; the words ‘remember’ and ‘memory’ are prominent, linking her to such writers as Lyn Hejinian, whose compositional process in A Border Comedy is built on forgetting, and Lydia Davis, who recently translated the first volume of Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu and whose books include Almost No Memory. In ‘Relic,’ Brown writes, ‘this is how     it ends up / an inventory / of breakages’ — a striking metaphor immediately undercut by ‘& what you remember / seems idiotic.’ When she acknowledges that it is ‘good to be back / in such sweet air,’ she does so in a poem called ‘Sentimental,’ the title of which short-circuits potential criticisms of sentimentality even as the poem ironizes its own subject. In ‘Front’ she admits feeling ‘relieved / to live here / in the sluggish flux / of the quotidian // with a poor memory.’

In keeping with her inclusive aesthetic, Brown includes numerous names, places, and brands in her poems: Maya Deren, Susan Sarandon, Nina Simone, Thomas Chatterton, Ingmar Bergman, Dan Graham, Raymond Roussel, Lawrence Sail, Ken Searle, Mark Twain, Gladys Knight, ‘Ezra,’ Blaise Cendrars, ‘O.’ Wilde, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Barthes, Baudrillard, ‘JF’ Lyotard, ‘Joe’ Cornell, Barry Crocker, Jurgen Habermas, Paris, Cuba, Canberra, Pinatubo, Toowoomba, Montréal, Normal (Illinois), Dunedoo, Oahu, York Street, Hyde Park, Bondi Junction, Tiananmen Square, Tasman Sea, Salem cigarettes, Nicorette, ‘I Love Lucy,’ Fodor’s, Toys R Us, Foxtel, Mobil, Shell, Saab, BMW, Daihatsu, Johnny Walker, Starbucks. This specificity grounds her poems even as the language slips and rushes, while also providing the reader with specifics and the joy of recognition. Given the enormous variety of references — from the commercial to the local, pop culture to ‘high’ culture — Brown is working to invite readers into a world they may already know but have not seen before in delirium. ‘Patti Smith was right’ revs up the naming:

have I flipped?    into a strangely placid
           political zone        a lack of clutter
    and environmental concern —
these things are so simple,
             two hours here & I begin to enjoy
                                     Dan Graham
more than Soutine, Braque, Delaunay,
  Bourgeois, Basquiat, Sherrie Levine,
     Agnes Martin —                   although
I can not deny my memory
      of her beautiful mid-1960’s picture —
           ‘Milk River’ —
nor her small collection
           of pick-up trucks —        the green Chevie
    glinting with polish — the very driveable
  Dodge parked
outside her desert home.

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.

Brown also frequently comments on her own activity as a poet — ‘taking so long / to write the book —  / only to be / remaindered’ (‘The ing thing’) — and as a reader — ‘I’m reading / dense U.S. poetry / still’ (‘First things first’). Though deflected through the second-person, ‘Memo’ comments on the poet’s early work: ‘when the slim / & clever stanzas / were a cover / for your deep reticence, / your private reluctance / to shine.’ In ‘Retarded pretensions’ she mentions ‘not writing / for any cause / & feeling / consequent guilt / about it.’ ‘Flickering Gaudi’ presents a twist on the notion of reading as self-improvement:

                           mild domesticity
where reasonable evenings become numinous nights
of reading difficult books patiently flat
on your back & raging,
privately, laughing, noting the clues,
improving your vocabulary, never your method.

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
      pissing for pleasure,
I strive to appear
      as normal as possible
  in the face of
surrealist tendencies —

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]

Perhaps because this is her first book readily available outside Australia, Brown seems intent on presenting a fairly consistent style in Dear Deliria, which means focusing largely on poems published between 1990 and 2002. The prose poem, which has featured prominently in her work, is absent from this book. [Note 9] Similarly, many of her erotic poems and love poems — ‘Roman Red’ and ‘For You’ from This World, This Place, for example — are also missing. Other omissions are some delightfully self-conscious (sub)urban poems — ‘Local Poem,’ ‘Mellowly Existential,’ and ‘Miserable Books’ [Note 10] in This World, This Place, ‘The Coast’ and ‘Lament’ in 50-50 (1997), and ‘On eventually entering the library,’ ‘It really happened,’ and ‘From a Daihatsu’ in Text Thing (2002) — and poems of acerbic social commentary — ‘Lit Crit,’ ‘The Money Times,’ and ‘Here’ [Note 11] in This World, This Place and ‘City fringe’ in Text Thing. Also absent from Dear Deliria are almost all of the hipster, anti-academic, Beat-influenced poems of the 1970s in which the poet is frequently ‘stoned,’ ‘coked,’ or ‘locked in a pharmaceutical ice box.’ Although some of these earliest poems seem dated, they can be enjoyable and illuminating; and while I think I understand Brown’s decision to keep them out of Dear Deliria, they do provide a useful context for her later poems while depicting the community to which she belonged at the time.

22 of the 72 poems in Dear Deliria originally appeared in 50-50, making that book the most heavily favored of her previous books. [Note 12] In fact, Brown includes most of her recent work — even from chapbooks [Note 13] — in this volume, apparently preferring the New(er) [Note 14] to the Selected. Dear Deliria includes only nine poems [Note 15] from her first nine books, which span nearly two decades. [Note 16] Because those nine books were published by small presses, readers interested in Brown’s early work would be well-served by finding a copy of New and Selected Poems, published by Wild and Woolley in 1990; her second volume of selected poems, this book is approximately the same length as Dear Deliria and covers the time period that Dear Deliria mostly neglects. The above observations are not intended as criticisms.  It’s not exactly criticism to wish a book — even one as scrupulously assembled as Dear Deliria — longer. But because Brown is a poet worth reading in large doses, and because her work has changed markedly in the past 30 years, Dear Deliria presents only part of the overall picture, even as it re-presents her strongest, most realized work.

Another point worth considering with books of selected poems is revision — i.e., whether or not the author revised work for the new collection. More interventionist than the selection process, revisions beyond editorial corrections can indicate dissatisfaction with part of the original poem [Note 17] or a slight change in outlook. Although Brown has revised almost none of the poems for their appearance in Dear Deliria, one revision in particular seems exceptional. The second stanza of the original version of ‘At the Wall’ (published in This World, This Place) — ‘sarajevo moldova somalia’ — has become, in the 2002 version, ‘sarajevo srebrenica palestine / rwanda kabul.’ Its import seems connected to more than timeliness. By dropping ‘moldova somalia’ and adding ‘srebrenica palestine / rwanda kabul,’ Brown is not only updating the poem for the twenty-first century (and showing us that she still pays attention to what’s happening in the world), but demonstrating, however quietly, that the list of place names associated with atrocity is, unfortunately, always being revised and expanded. And because both versions of the poem juxtapose these place names against ‘our soft little lives,’ the poet — and, by extension, the poetry reader — is implicated in that process, not through action or inaction, but through security. Although she does not belabor the point, she makes the point. And moves on.


[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.

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