Dan Disney reviews Radar by Nathan Curnow and Kevin Brophy
by Nathan Curnow and Kevin Brophy
Reviewed by DAN DISNEY
This shared book between two poets from different generations is a fascinating collection of segues, ellipses, and strange unities. The binaries are obvious: two poets (at different stages of their careers) populate separate halves of the book with their own styles and, more pertinently, diverging forms. Curnow’s free verse texts are lyric expressions of sense-making in response to weird contexts; Brophy’s wilder propositions are prose poems which chime with their own logic. These two separate formal, rhetorical gestures work toward a unity hinted at by Curnow on the back cover of Radar: ‘My poems are (seemingly) conscious, direct confessions and yours are unconscious waking dreams’. The palindromic title exemplifies this book’s unusual coherence: both halves begin in centralized locations (of self) and then move outward across psychic and/or external terrains. I am reminded of Rimbaud’s cri de cœur, ‘Je suis l’autre’: in their own ways, both poets call into versions of the unknown … while Curnow’s wakeful, sentient texts crystalize meaning, Brophy’s incursions into unconscious realms are less interested in thoughtfulness and valorize instead pure affect.
This book, then, contains two modes of response: the thinking of intelligence, and the feeling of wisdom. Turning attention to the first half of Radar, Curnow’s thoughtful explorations reveal a childhood spent enduring ‘the magic burn/ of anticipation bound in faith, belief and trust’ (‘The Curtain’); inside weird arenas where angels visit and stones miraculously turn to diamonds (‘Boy Got a Bullet’), Curnow seems to forgive one parent – walking across sand, the poet tells his father ‘it is easier if I fill your prints’ – while another cannot stop blaming herself ‘for all she can’ (‘The Piano Lesson’). This is a family romance seemingly populated by the usual tensions, humiliations, and resentments: but Curnow’s texts are at their most human when scanning the vistas of memory through the lens of his own fatherhood. Remembering how –
The last piano lesson I ever had
ended in a drug raid on my teacher’s house
Curnow reconciles his own off-key upbringing with teaching his children ‘all the right wrong notes’ (‘The Piano Lesson’). The implication hidden in the imperative is that there is such a thing as wrong wrong notes, but Curnow never descends into recrimination; despite a ‘foundation/ riddled with flaws’ (‘The Hallway’), here is a poet generously open-hearted, and unproblematised by the presence of memory.
One gets the sense that a lesser man may have more anger to offer than ‘So we grew up in your shitty houses’ – a sentiment directed not at his parents but toward ‘the High Church Men’. Indeed, rather than an ideological imposition, Curnow views his parents’ religiosity as not much more than an inconvenience – in church meetings, ‘My sister and I would lie across the chairs, tiring of our best behavior’ (‘Boy Got a Bullet’) – or an exercise in illogicality: why, Curnow wants to know, do some get bullets while others receive miracles? And why, amid the monsters, giants and talking animals, is there no mention of aliens in the Bible? (‘Made from the Matter of Stars’) Indeed, Curnow persists with framing whimsically logical questions throughout his half of the book: he asks ’what happens to birth/ if death is undone/ where will hope reside’ (Neruda, anyone?) and the absence of a question mark here contains a trace of the investigative mode made by any religion. But Curnow is never closed off from possibility, and his half of Radar scans unrelentingly for truthfulness. In ‘Blessing’, he starts with his early experience of magical thinking –
It came rushing toward me across the paddocks
all I had to do was stand – the moment roaring
silent and ancient, collapsing into bloom
and ends in a personal engagement with mystery: ‘perfect questions, rhyming without a word’, and Sunny the horse who, unlike some creatures in the Bible, offer no answers (despite being tempted with an apple).
Curnow’s meditations on his origins paint, then, a picture of childhood as a place for mild incredulity … a good site for a poetic imagination to evolve, and then escape from. As he shifts his gaze, other themes are developed: the final poem from his section, ‘Made from the Matter of Stars’, acts as a coda which tells the story of the young poet taking flight – ‘my bike was chewing gravel for Melbourne’ – in order to flee for an urban landscape. ‘Made from the Matter of Stars’ frames those poems that shift focus toward his own young family, other poets, and the new contexts of adulthood. The sense is that here is a lyric poet scanning for how human connection creates meaning: amid the epiphanies, though, there is occasionally drear honesty too. Of his own parenthood, Curnow writes –
The tight circle of parenting is terminal,
much like my need for escape – the guilt of
imagining a new life beyond the stress
of this disheartening chorus
while his relationship with the mother of his children is cause for both celebration – seen in the surreal ‘Love Song #5’: ‘I will ask if you’ve fed the monkeys/ hand you poetry as a necklace, this lyrical wish/ of elephants in feathers’ – though is not all joie de vivre, captured especially in the pallor of ‘empty sex and non-argument’ (’24 Hour Landscape’). Curnow, who grew up amid religious truths, is not afraid to venture his own versions of well-shaped thoughtfulness, and what I am struck by is his acuity paired to an esprit: these poems about escaping a rough country existence with poorly-fitting ideas – unimpeachable fiats, really – are suffused with sensuality and sense-making but also, most importantly, generosity … surrounded by his family and friendships with poets equally up to the task of observing as a mode of self-clarification, these poems are contoured by kindness and shadowed by the larger circumference of thankfulness. Ultimately, in taking flight (both literally and psychically), Curnow has escaped to himself.
While the themes are somewhat similar, once we arrive at page 59 of this book, form and style shift to signify we are now in for a very different kind of exploration. Championing the prose poem at its emergence 150 years ago, Baudelaire called this paradoxical hybrid a mystérieux et brilliant modèle; rhetorically, prose poems subvert the lyric impulse to unconceal authentically-realized truths from a centralized authorial writing position, and instead act as model platforms for magical investigations, in which prose-like structures (narrative, plot, conflict, dénouement) work to convey an internal, weird logic. Under this definition Brophy’s prose poems are exemplary, and play a very different style of language game to Curnow’s texts.
While Curnow sets out to explain and resolve the weirdness of his lived experiences, Brophy’s texts formally and thematically elaborate oddness. These surrealistic experiments are self-contained universes of possibility, framed from the outset with a quote from Nietzsche: ‘Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings – always darker, emptier, simpler’ … over the page, and the poet dedicates his poems ‘To Andrea, who teaches me how to feel.’ This, then, is a half-book of mindful responses to affectivity; it is not thinking but feeling, a mode of originary not-thinking, that is taken by Brophy to be the most real mode of apprehension. And the prose poem is a form that grants him permission to make incursions into the non-thought of affect through playful innovation; differently to Curnow’s vowing gestures toward unconcealing truthfulness, Brophy acts as both trickster and visionary (often humorously), and his texts refuse to participate in an explicit sense-making program.
Indeed, and rather than explicatory, these texts are instead allegorical, shifting inexorably within unstable, non-logical dream worlds – places in which we can hear ‘scratching noises coming from behind the bookcase: characters trying to escape their novels’, (‘Siege’) or can catch glimpses of a shadow ‘flickering as it left like a movement from a horse at the far end of a paddock caught in the corner of your eye’ (‘Flicker’). Viz. the epigraph from Nietzsche: the shadow (as representation) of thinking versus the horse (as actual artifact) of emotion? Brophy is inviting us to ride with him through scenes of extra-ordinary domesticity, profoundly baffling (Brophy’s words) as the man who decides, in ‘A Less Personal Life’, to turn into an ant (Kafka, anyone?). These texts are weighted far more toward delight than instruction, but Brophy’s intentions are precise: rather than saddling us with random strangeness, Brophy directs attention in one of the ‘Thirty-Six Aphorisms and Essays’ to how ‘All we see and know is dreamed’. This section of Radar blurs, then, with illogicality, magic, and weirdness: the very modes Curnow seeks to wrestle into order, Brophy willfully celebrates.
In this, these discrete but unified sections of Radar build toward a gestalt that embodies and explores terrains T.S. Eliot concretises with his notion of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ (in which, put simply, thought and affect are harmfully separated). Does Brophy consciously homage the only prose poem Eliot wrote, ‘Hysteria’, with his own text, ‘Anxiety’ – which riffs literally on falling asleep: ‘falling asleep he fell into a river, which closed over him. He woke and fell asleep again, falling from a bicycle …’; on the next page, in ‘Against Falling’ we are in the realm of objectified, materialised language: ‘I must claw my fingers into the fissures of this sentence but keep moving, my knees and ankles tight against its flight upwards’ … speculatively, these poems are not about the horse of emotion but the Pegasus, that mythic symbol for wisdom, ascending: rather than the intelligence of thinking, these flights of the phantasmal seem to suggest our only hope of not persistently sleepwalking through our lives, or of falling into confusion and the hopelessness of repetition compulsions, is through consciously (here, literally) grasping the wild ride of affect, and next learning how to harness affect to language. For Brophy, we must learn the foreign realms of emotion; like Curnow’s prevailing gesture, this is an emancipatory quest after all.
There are several instances of neuroses hard at work in this half of the book – in ‘Fear’, a conversation begins with ‘What are you afraid of?’ and goes nowhere; in ‘Library’, perhaps the most sharply satirical poem in Radar, Brophy writes –
The book he sought was not on the shelf in its place, but there were so many other books on this and other shelves on this and other levels of the library that he almost vomited up every word he had ever read.
While this short poem may seem hilarious (and agonizingly accurate to those who, like Brophy, spend time researching inside libraries for a living), the angst nonetheless remains unresolved, and this pattern of affectivity ripples through Brophy’s section of Radar. One of the most striking departures between these two exploratory poets is that while one seems intent on weaving clarity into the disparity of flawed foundations through unified and resolved lyric texts, the other is inventing crazy-seeming vignettes from disquietude that is left unresolved. This latter section, then, is an exercise and introduction to the grammars of affectivity; Brophy wishes for us to learn the language well.
When I first read Radar I reached for Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, thinking of the six speculative models that the theorist maps in order to speculate an Oedipal swerve between generations of poets. But no such swerve exists in Radar: this is a book which can be read as either (the lesser object of) two discrete voices, or as a gestalt of weird and compelling questions asked in styles, forms, and modes which are mutually complementary and which extend each other. Buy this book for its novel, innovative connections; re-read it for two different explorations into humanizing, expressivist, learned terrains.
DAN DISNEY is a poet and essayist. He teaches twentieth century poetry and poetics at Sogang University, and divides his time between Seoul, Turin, and Melbourne.