Heather Taylor Johnson reviews Authentic Local by Pam Brown

Authentic Local

by Pam Brown

Papertiger Media, Soi 3

ISBN 9780980769517



In Pam Brown’s latest book of poems, Authentic Local, she asks
            who are we now?
            a tricky question,
            and a hopeless one.
It is the same question she has been asking for almost forty years, and so it must be tricky as the earth shifts and has epic consequences and the global community grows closer together; even trickier as she neglects the ‘I’ in the question and focuses on the ‘we’ so that she must find her place among a hugely diverse population and insist there is a commonality that binds us together as mere humans on a single spinning planet. When I pick up the book – when I pick up any of her books – I find great comfort in knowing what to expect: a continuation of the question ‘who are we now?’ So in twenty-five books I am not so sure she has been through much of an evolution as a poet, but more so a tweaking. As she writes in ‘Self Denial Never Lasts Long’,
            very busy here
            finishing up a 900 page epic poem I’ve been working on
            & on for
            25 years!
I don’t question this statement. Her style is one of movement forward and so we are always in the present. And yes, our landscape changes, and of course, Brown – the woman – has changed (to suggest she hasn’t is as ridiculous as saying her poems are a true reflection of her life), but her poetry, perhaps, is the one constant in her world. A nine hundred page epic poem spanning a quarter of a century is highly plausible with Pam Brown and, what’s more, ‘Self Denial’ may just be two pages of it, Authentic Local one small section.
Sentimentality is not favoured in Authentic Local. There are some poems about absent friends and ruminations on death, but still it is a measured emotion Brown brings to the page. Though there are strong overtones of ecopoetics in her writing, nor does nature pluck at her heart strings; no metaphors in the wind. Nothing romantic about her treeless plain, for example:
                for me, it’s useless
            a treeless plain,
            then describing it
            continually changing landscapes
            are way     too much
            sickly yellowing weeds,
            bogged gullies,
            cracking surfaces
            ruining pristine reefs
            and so on
                                    (‘Dry Tropics’)
Her landscape rather lies in the urban, where even amid
            a wide broom stroke
            of vomit     and
            puddles of piss
            under the bus-stop bench
we see her fascination with
            piles of shiny
            exercise balls
            illuminated to mesmerize
            in the Fitbiz window
                                    (‘City Lights, 6 am’)
In ‘Polka Squares’ she writes
            over 300 photographs
                        lost from my iPhoto
            slide show –
            there go the traces
                        of late 2002 to
            midway through
So memory, too, is tied up in electronics and gadgets, taking the idealism out of nostalgia and smashing it to bits. The closest we come to ‘romantic’ can be found in her musings of poetry and other poets, and the occasional artists and their worlds. It infiltrates her poetry with such persistence that it is no surprise Pam Brown is one of Australia’s most prolific poets. My favourite poem is ‘Day and Night, Your Poems’, which she has dedicated to Ken Bolton. In it she emulates his style, which is partly her own, to try to locate her absorption in reading poetry (his), thinking poetry, and in writing poetry. But even poetry is a slave (albeit a willing slave – so then not a slave – a ‘companion’ perhaps?) to technology, and is there romance in that? In ‘News & Sports’ she writes
poetry is like
            tv’s live coverage and if you change
            a particle you can arrive at an elegant result
            via electronic properties and, probably,
            high conductivity in an electrical storm,
            but the computer is down and so am I –
            my bad handwriting taxes my energy,
            how does my brain put up with it?
            (who am I to ask?)
When the handwritten poem causes migraines, dreamy connotations of the poet’s relation to poetry needs to be redefined. The next poem in the book, having the book’s title, ‘Authentic Local’, follows on with
            bun crumbs in the keyboard,
            the poet writes the whiteness
            of the city
as if not only does productivity in art revolve around the computer, but life is lived around the computer.

There is a certain amount of cynicism in a thematic sense but not so much in Brown’s presentation. I don’t feel a harshness of approach to modernity, nor even a flashing warning, however dull it may be. And to say her tone is ‘matter of fact’ is to say there is a certain dryness to the poems, which I don’t believe is present either. Brown presents us with an acceptance of a fast-paced world which blinks with lights and buzzes with electrical currents, which multiplies cell by cell by cyber-cell and does not wait for us to catch our breath and smell the flowers. There are no flowers. And she is okay with that, just as she is okay with having lived in thirty-six homes. Clearly she has found balance and can embrace a materialistic world as easily as she can write poems on a computer.For longer than some of her readers have been alive, Pam Brown has consistently tried to pin down the impossibility of pinning down in her poetry. But not in an existentialist BIG way; rather in a meandering ‘humph’ way. Has Authentic Local gotten her any nearer to a grounded understanding of a cosmic legitimacy? At this point in her career I don’t think we should be questioning it. I think we should trust in the ticking away of her brain and the furious tapping of her keyboard and relax into her style on page one of this or any future book she will write. It’s a journey – a Pam Brown journey – and if you’re looking out her window, there is such a lot to see.