In Proportion

His Home is in the Mountains Nowbook cover

Poetry review by Jonathan Hadwen

Open House

David Brooks
UQP 2015
ISBN: 9780702253522
168pp AU$24.95

 

Deep respect for the natural world, love for his wife, but also awareness of the damage done by humans to this planet and its many creatures, and the damage we do to ourselves – this is the clear picture of David Brooks’ world view we get from his poetry. It has been seven years since the poet’s last, much-celebrated collection, The Balcony was released [1] and Open House is an almost seamless continuation of the conversation started in this earlier work.

The last collection started with a dedication to his wife: “For Teja / 77 love poems / (and then some)”, and although there aren’t quite 77 love poems in Open House, Brooks’ wife is a constant presence. Comparing poems from both collections, we can see how the relationship has aged and evolved. The love poems in this collection have less of the giddiness and sexual ecstasy found in The Balcony, but they portray a man in awe of, and thankful for, his partner:

            I take the time since I met you
            as time given,
            a decade I’d not have had otherwise.

            “Birthday Poem”, p.146

With this familiarity comes hardship, which we see in “Freight”: It begins with “[a] hot night ... So much / still left unsaid – the bed / so full of ghosts”, the couple remaining sleepless until the “slow ache of a freight train” drags away the weight of worry, and draws in the weight of sleep.

We do not need to search far for Brooks’ influences because he lists them for us in “A Call for Mandelstam” where we find the writer searching his shelves with a “sudden urge for poetry” – Yeats, Pound, Clare, Lorca, Miłosz, Merwin, Bly, Wright, Adamson, and the “beloved Chinese”. Some poems, such as “Looking for a Friend in the Mountains and Not Finding Her”, actually mimic T’ang dynasty poems, the title in this case a reference to Li Po’s “Visiting the Taoist Priest Dai Tianshan But Not Finding Him”. The poem “If Anyone Asks for Me” could be a translation of another T’ang dynasty poem, proclaiming “My home is in the mountains now” and “If anyone asks for me, let someone say / ‘He is lost among clouds’.”. 

The influence of the Chinese and Japanese poets on Brooks is obvious, as is the work of later American poets such as Ezra Pound who translated and then built on their sensibilities. This poetry often contrasts the image of something close with something very far away, illustrating the Zen concept of all creatures being a tiny part of the universe, while at the same time, the universe being found in every tiny thing. Take for example this haiku by Issa – “Reflected in the dragonfly’s eye – mountains” [2]. We see this also in the work of American poet James Wright, also a great influence on Brooks. Wright’s poem “By a Lake in Minnesota”, for example, begins with a description of the countryside where a “spume of light falls into valleys / Full of roses”, and then finishes back with the poet – “And downshore from the cloud, / I stand, waiting / For dark.” [3]. As Brooks says in a statement about his own poetry and its influences, these are poems where “in depicting the simplest scene the larger picture hovers” [4], and this is a foundation of Brooks’ own work.

These sudden shifts in perspective remind the reader of the connections and contrasts found in nature, and of the poet’s place within that environment. However, many of the longer poems in Open House go further than this, taking an observation from nature and then explaining its significance. They follow a pattern of show then tell, something most poets are encouraged away from early in their careers. In “Spiders About the House”, for example, the poet sets about classifying the spiders found on his Blue Mountains property, spiders who are his neighbours, and, the poet admits, sometimes his enemies. As we come to expect in these longer poems, the poet makes a connection from this observation to something either broadly applicable to life in general, or more personal, in this case the writer’s back pain that has kept him up in the spidery hours, and eventually, the poet himself

            whose web’s his life itself: damaged
            and torn, repaired a hundred times, ob-
            sessive beyond imagining, he’ll
            lumber out at almost any trouble or
            excitement in his neighbourhood

            “Spiders About the House”, p.59
                       
With this style, Brooks’ longer poetry bears many similarities with the work of Mark Tredinnick, who, in a recent episode of Poetica, spoke in defence of “telling” [5].

It is an interesting method, and one that leaves the reader with a clarity of the poet’s vision, but it can be taken too far. Brooks starts “Mushroom Season” with a description of how a field of mushrooms can actually be part of the same organism connected underground. Brooks then begins his “tell” stanza with “I could have let this all pass / and written nothing, but no, life / is a mushroom season”, the mystery and wonder of the observation traded for the explanation.

Perhaps the strongest poems in this collection are not the long contemplative pieces, but the shorter poems that record single moments. “The Man in the Lift” is one example, a love poem disguised as a description of an elderly man in a lift breathing in the lingering perfume of the author’s wife “as if he were a dog / reading the wind” – the man’s intoxication being the poet’s intoxication. These moments are not commented on, or explained and drawn out, but just left floating in the reader’s mind. Two similar examples are “Olives”, where the poet hears a bucket of olives tipped into a bin and thinks it is rain, and “Late Music” about hearing music from a distant party and contrasting it with the noises of the natural world. Interestingly, it is the engagement of a sense other than sight that plant the reader firmly in these moments, where the poet is present, but not overtly philosophising.

Another early tendency often wrung out of poets is sentimentality, but Brooks does not shy away from that either. In The Balcony he delivered a collection of love poems, and in Open House he asks again, with everything around us and everything we go through, “how not to write of the heart?” (“At Refuge”). The poet is obviously enamoured not only with his wife, but with the natural world, having a special sympathy for animals and their plight. The poet’s dog makes several appearances, once to “lick any cracked or wounded skin as I / get up in the morning” that “helps / heal some other, more ancient hurt” (“Poem”). One of the main themes in this collection is a love of animals, but also his anger at the establishment and the meat-eating majority, and there is a thread of activism, angry activism, that runs through these poems. Where there is great love for the animal kingdom, there is often something forlorn in the poems about humanity, including one comparison of humankind to “flesh-eating Ebola” with its “huge ulcers of ... cities” (“Plentitude”). Elsewhere the feasts of Christmas with its meat dishes are compared to the Holocaust (“Silent Night”), as we “[eat] our way mindless through all the creatures of the earth” (“At the University”). Brooks’ stance is perhaps best summed up by one of the poets from Brooks’ bookshelf, M.S. Merwin: “Tonight once more / I find a single prayer and it is not for men” [6].

It could be argued that eliciting sympathies for animal rights might be better achieved with poems of affection than anger. In “Reading to the Sheep”, for example, as his wife reads her thesis on the grief of animals to their sheep, “birds / placing branches over the bodies of their companions”, and “dogs / starving themselves after the loss of their loved ones” when

            one or another of the two sheep comes to her
            in the sad May twilight
            and with the top of his head, where
            the horns have not so long ago been sawn away,
            nudges her hand

            “Reading to Sheep”, p.143
           
These poems set the poet within the landscapes of his work, where the more hostile poems set the poet apart from the world in which he lives.

Brooks admits in one of his poems, “Wild Ducks”, that he has failed in his attempt to escape his human viewpoint: “I / don’t know why I write this, it’s all human and I can’t / get out of this place”. In this poem the frustration is angled back at the poet rather than at the human race as a whole, and all he can do is act as witness – “you / cannot not / utter you must / say, and say.” (“Witness”). This poem touches on one of the other common themes in this collection, poetry itself. To Brooks being a poet is a calling, and a demand. Several of the works take observations of the natural world or human history and bend them into metaphors for the creation of poetry. These poems can be almost instructional in nature. In “Indian Mynahs” the writing of a poem is compared to birds building their nests:
           
            how you need a ledge or alcove
            to lodge a poem in, how you
            build it with whatever comes to hand

            “Indian Mynahs”, p.64

And in “Captain Hunter and the Petrels”:

            A poem is a place where you can bring things together, you
            don’t have to know why. The mad and the bad, the
            gentle and the dead, tooth-ache and heart-ache

            “Captain Hunter and the Petrels”, p.85

The collection is also littered with simple intimacies. The poem “Morning, Station Street” does little more than list morning chores, but these poems incrementally draw us closer to the author – knowing the banality of his day is an intimacy we are granted. There is also a dryness to how this particular poem is written that suggests an adherence to a Poundian sense of sparseness, but instead of describing an image, we are given an itinerary. The poet is always present in Brooks’ poems, and even descriptions of the natural world are self-portraits as much as they are landscapes. By the end of Open House we have a good sense of the narrator – or at least the version the poet has chosen to present – his love and his anger broadcast with a very clear voice.

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[1] UQP, 2008.
[2] The Dumpling Field, trans. Lucien Stryk, Swallow Press, 1991.
[3] The Branch Will Not Break, Wesleyan University Press, 1963.
[4] “Statement [Delivered at a session entitled What I Want: A Personal Poetics, Australian Poetry Festival (7th: 2010: Kings Cross, Sydney)]”, Five Bells, vol. 17, issue 4, 2010.
[5] “On Hammock Hill”, Poetica, 12 April 2014, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/poetica/on-hammock-hill/5210578
[6] “December Night”, from The Lice, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1969.

 

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