|Jacket 36 — Late 2008||Jacket 36 Contents page||Jacket Homepage||Search Jacket|
The Internet address of this page is http://jacketmagazine.com/36/r-brennan-rb-mccooey.shtml
As its Author Note explains, Unanimous Night is the second part of a triptych begun with Michael Brennan’s prize-winning debut, The Imageless World (2003), also published by Salt. That these two books are the first parts of a triptych is not altogether surprising given that Brennan’s poetry works largely by accumulation and repetition in the way a triptych often does: small forms are brought together to make larger ones; sequences — both continuous and discontinuous — are favoured; and repeating motifs thread both volumes. It is not surprising, either, that Brennan should use the language of visual art, given the investments in the visual that his work has already made in an illustrated chapbook and an art-book collaboration.
The stylistic connections between The Imageless World and Unanimous Night are readily apparent, most obviously in the complex and stylish interplay between opposing categories: light and dark; presence and absence; prose and poetry. In addition, the discontinuous ‘Letter Home’ sequence can be found in both titles, while the oxymoronic style of Unanimous Night, a kind of ‘rich minimalism’, is also found in The Imageless World. This oxymoronic quality can be found elsewhere in the first two parts of Brennan’s triptych. The poetry is both brilliantly imagistic and pared back, both worldly and almost mystical in its concerns. In both books we also find similar interests and motifs: hunger, darkness, eroticism, the earth, and the sky (concerns and motifs that suggest more than a family resemblance with the poetry of another ‘rich minimalist’, Kevin Hart).
But where The Imageless World tends towards ‘the elegiac’ generally, Unanimous Night engages with elegy formally in one of the collection’s key sequences, ‘Sky Was Sky’. This sequence, in memory of the poet’s brother, addresses the poet’s family, showing the process of grief as a shared, familial experience (a surprisingly rare strategy in formal elegy). The poet’s brothers and parents figure in the sequence, though their presence is more symbolic than biographical, illustrative — among other things — of the shared elegiac knowledge that the brother’s death has engendered:
We all knew each other
now was dying.
He had shown us that,
I don’t remember
before, before was
ahead of us now,
somewhere he waited,
we would come back,
we all knew it. (‘Before Never’)
Such a moment shows Brennan’s interest in the temporal confusions and paradoxes central to modern elegy. Another feature of modern elegy seen in the sequence is its concern with the difficulty of speech itself in the face of loss. This is seen in the first, eponymous poem in the sequence, which begins: ‘I woke up but it was a dream, / my brother died years ago, / I tried to write about it / but the words never held’. As the rest of the sequence shows, while this ‘holding’ may refer to the legitimacy or otherwise of the poet’s words, or the elegiac project’s ability to offer consolation or otherwise, it also refers to the way in which elegy is a process of symbolically ‘holding’ and ‘letting go’. The sequence’s profound ending — which reprises many of the motifs of the sequence such as sky, earth, and hunger — offers images of holding and letting go through the interplay of loss and gain:
I am watching the sky now,
where we bury everything,
listening for his voice
of stone and wood, or light
our bodies catch for a moment
and take deep into ground.
It is growing inside each of us,
a room, a house, a body
rising up in tears and words.
We are moving now, moving
again, carrying each other
into nameless places.
As ‘Sky Was Sky’ suggests, Brennan’s skill lies in offering highly aestheticised versions of the world that avoid preciousness. His poetry, with its attention to negativity and the uncanny, are too edgy for preciousness. In addition, there is an earthiness that may be unexpected in such highly symbolic work, like the image (in one of the ‘Letter Home’ poems) of the poet and his brother pissing on their mother’s lemon trees ‘to help them grow’, or the following line from ‘Singles’: ‘No, not her, the drinking was alone’.
‘Singles’ comes from one of the most striking pieces in this striking book, ‘The Disaster of Grace’, a sequence that shows up most clearly Brennan’s minimalist technique of accumulation. Each piece in ‘The Disaster of Grace’ is made up of five prose sentences. The first, ‘The Mirror in Love’, shows Brennan’s abiding interest in Jorge Luis Borges and his parables of identity and paradox. The final sentence of ‘The Mirror in Love’ reads: ‘The mirror stole the face I would have traded for its emptiness’. In a sentence on hunger in the last piece in the sequence, ‘Summer’, Brennan shows the affirmative element that a poetics of negativity can paradoxically have: ‘Hunger, old friend, promise you’ll never leave me alone’.
A number of poems towards the end of the book deal with such an ‘affirmative negativity’. It is hard not to read biographically into the many references to feeling foreign and away from home in these poems (Brennan having spent a number of years working in Japan). But Brennan isn’t interested in autobiography or even documentation in the conventional sense. Rather he fashions a strange, sometimes surreal, world to illustrate the possible foreignness of any place, even home. The surreal is less prevalent than in Brennan’s earlier chapbook, Language Habits (2006), but it can still be seen in a poem such as ‘Impartial Bystander’ (from ‘Monologue in the Dream’) with its bizarre account of an unnamed narrator’s face falling ‘on the pavement’ and a crowd gathering to tell him off.
The eponymous poem of Unanimous Night, a long ecstatic love poem, uses the simple, elemental imagery found elsewhere in the collection almost to the point of abstraction. Interestingly, the original published version of ‘Unanimous Night’ (called ‘The roofs go down into the earth’) that appeared in Space: New Writing (2 ) was broken up into twenty sections of twenty lines. The revised version may be a little harder to follow because of its continuous nature, but it is perhaps more in keeping with the poem’s ecstatic nature that divisions are avoided, allowing the erotic energy of the poem to prevail.
The level of abstraction that ‘Unanimous Night’ approaches is consistent with the collection’s concern with ekphrasis, the verbal representation of visual material. ‘Monologues in the Dream’, for instance, borrows titles from a number of installation works by Shin Yoshika. The text from ‘North Country Abstracts’ was originally part of an art-book collaboration with Kay Orchison. This latter sequence is the most apparently autobiographical, and the most grounded in the ‘world’, revisiting various material places: a Tokyo park, childhood suburbs, a church, a highway, and so on. In these meditations on place, Brennan returns to characteristic concerns about loss, family, embodiment, and love. In the penultimate section the poet avers that ‘The world is the world. There is nothing to care for us’.
For a poet so attuned to the symbolic and associative weight of things the redundant literalism of ‘The world is the world’ may come as a shock (though it was already there in the title of ‘Sky Was Sky’). But its assertion, as well as the assertion that ‘There is nothing to care for us’, is an ethical one. The poems in Unanimous Night offer an ethics in which the self must be understood in terms of otherness. The only ‘care’ in the world, Brennan’s poems suggest, is found through the imaginative engagement with otherness and intersubjectivity.
The outcome of such ‘care’ can be found in the book’s final poem, a last ‘Letter Home’, in which an undefined object, presumably a statue in a Japanese landscape, allows a powerful connection between radically disjunct things: the living, embodied, subjective poet, and the lifeless, inert, objective statue:
I sit beside him
for the barest
heavy and close
to the earth, ground,
the day’s heat cooled
and gathering, our bodies
whole again and unfamiliar,
This vignette is paradigmatic, a totem for the experience of reading Unanimous Night, in which fragments are shared between poet and reader. Unanimous Night, like its antecedent volume, is a strange and beautiful book. Its ‘affirmative negativity’ is perhaps its most valuable gift to the reader, seen at its most powerful in the work’s eponymous poem in which we are promised that
No salvation will come
only peace, a gathering
of words between us, strangers
showing each other a way.
David McCooey is the author of Blister Pack (Salt, 2005) which won the Mary Gilmore Award and was short-listed for four other major prizes. He is the Deputy General Editor of the forthcoming Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, and he is a senior lecturer at Deakin University in Geelong, where he teaches and researches in literary studies and professional and creative writing.