Nicholas Jose reviews Lunar Inheritance by Lachlan Brown
by Lachlan Brown
Reviewed by NICHOLAS JOSE
One of the titles in Lachlan Brown’s new book is ‘(sorites and another traveller’s song)’. The parenthesis is a sign of casual deflection. The title of the poem is an add-on. It could be something else. But actually it provides a good description of the whole, which is a lyrical reflection of a journey and a heap of other things. ‘Sorites’ means ‘heap’, referring here to hoarding—the poet’s grandmother’s literal obsessive hoarding, as well as the metaphorical hoarding of memories, stories, observations and associations that make up (this) poetry—and conceptually to the paradox of a heap. Does a heap stay the same as things are added to it or taken away? When is a heap not a heap but just detritus, nothing? For a certain kind of contemporary Australian poetry, of which Brown’s is an appealing example, this is a problem of situatedness, of inheritance.
Poetry is hard to talk about. The usual way to do so is to add a heap of words, in appreciative response. Hence this review. That’s harder to do with the particular poetry I’m talking about here which is already adding its own loose, dense, fast, fluid language to a referential conversation going on with other voices that share the space. Perhaps with John Tranter at their back, Ken Bolton and Pam Brown comes to mind, Jill Jones, Adam Aitken, John Mateer, Greg McLaren, Fiona Wright, ‘Sydney’ poets, sort of. Lachlan Brown’s first book, Limited Cities (2012) links the 2005 riots in Macquarie Fields, the Western Sydney suburb where he grew up, with riots encountered in Paris, similarly fuelled by disadvantage and disenfranchisement. The poet re-visions the world through techniques of substitution, or ‘replacement’, what a hoarder imagines for the things at their disposal. The manner of the concern is what Brown shares with his cohort. It is exemplified by the epigraph from Borges that introduces Brown’s poem ‘Petrol Stations, or Nine Vouchers Without the Optimism’:
It is as if a novelist of our day were to sketch a satirical caricature of, say, service stations, treating them in a ludicrous way. Borges, ‘Partial Enchantments of the Quixote’
But for the poet of the Australian banlieues in the 21st century, this is no longer satire but revaluing with redemptive intent.
The new book, Lunar Inheritance (2017), makes that underlying purpose and power more apparent:
You rethink your motivations
for writing. You catch yourself frowning.
It is there, first of all, in the foregrounding of form and the ordering of things. The book is organised around travel between Sydney and China’s major cities, but with the notable addition of Kaiping in the Pearl River Delta. That’s where the poet’s grandmother left from in 1939, eventually for Australia. Three generations later she has farewelled her grandson on his ‘return’. The poet tells Fiona Wright in an interview (29 August 2017, Sydney Review of Books podcast) that he was ‘going back to China for the first time’. Yet his ‘first time’ carries the China that has been handed down to him, making this a family ‘going back’, even if to a place that the maternal line broke away from and no longer knows. What return can there be? The question prompts poetry in which the moving through of layers of place, time and identification are fashioned to communicate a questioning, multiple selfhood.
The poems in Lunar Inheritance appear as eight line blocks (with parenthetical titles) arranged in sets of eight. Each set is prefaced by a bold title and an abstracted ideogram and every second set is followed by a poem in sonnet form (14 lines) with its own title in bold. The second set ends with a poem called ‘Chinese Container’, for example, while the third set is called ‘Self-storage’, both indicators that the containment is thematic as well as formal. The pattern continues strictly throughout until the last set, which has only seven poem blocks, the last (eighth) being left void, in keeping with the openness of the last title, ‘Almost there’, suggesting that any arrival can only be provisional. There is cultural play in the arrangement—8, the auspicious number in Chinese—and an embrace of Chinese aesthetic features—the rectangle, the regular sequence—combined with cross-cultural play via the interpolation of the (Western) sonnet, in poems that often critique Australian anxiety about cultural crossing. Flowing through and over the formal constraints, however, there is a great flexibility of line, varied and divided up in all sorts of ways, allowing experiment and openness.
The lunar inheritance is the yin line of female legacies from China, the far side of the moon, through the poet’s great-grandmother, grandmother and mother, all present in these poems, but it is also the pressure of that experience in himself, for an English-language poet whose name is Lachlan (unpronounceable in China) Brown. There is an undercurrent here, and a determination to defend a family’s experience and the power of the culture it draws on. Brown appreciates what he finds in China. It inspires some marvellous similes—‘scaffolding like bamboo / hashtags camped around a high-rise’—and forces reflection from a double perspective: in a Beijing hutong, for example, you glance
sideways for touristic reasons and find your gaze
pattern caught by a workshop that is filled with clothes
and striped bags, and for less than a second this is
your grandmother’s brimming house in Ashfield….
This is not a China limited by national boundaries or history as the future unfolds: ‘Around the world ((y)our) people begin to wake….’ The poet welcomes such transformation with what he calls his ‘(absorption method)’, the title of a poem written on reaching Shanghai, where ‘the river [is] the colour of a bad espresso’. The blocks of these poems image the building blocks by which China has moved forward—producing, transporting, systematising, multiplying: economic activity with a cultural base that extends even to his grandmother’s hoarding: ‘buildings … become Mahjong tiles’, a ‘container’ heads to the coast, ‘my un-heritage stacked five / stories high’, ‘in a shelf-stacked reality’, ‘the promise of a perfect supply chain’, all modular:
So you now know the reticulated
of a Zili village like those gridbooks where your
friends all practised their Mandarin Saturday characters
while you pressed space bar to jump through traffic.
Brown is a fine phrase-maker, at his best when there’s something at stake. His method is to make a connection that glances to something else, recoining the familiar, converting a perception into a metaphor. He worries that he writes from a position of ‘deracinated privilege’, that his poems are selfies. His consciousness of that puts him properly at the centre of what he writes about:
You’re anxious that each new insight is just
self-surveillance missing/hitting its mark,
the sky-like mirror in a nightclub bathroom
in Chaoyang district.
In an empire of near-universal surveillance whether language hits or misses makes little difference. The presence of China in our world has become the uneasy sign of that: a condition in which we are all complicit. Lachlan Brown registers it with a tentative intensity, his language ‘already straining this experience … like a half-hearted net in a swiftly flowing river’. Lunar Inheritance is especially valuable for the uncomfortable awareness it shares.
NICHOLAS JOSE has published seven novels, including Paper Nautilus (1987), The Red Thread (2000) and Original Face (2005), three collections of short stories, Black Sheep: Journey to Borroloola (a memoir), and essays, mostly on Australian and Asian culture. He was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy Beijing, 1987-90 and Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University, 2009-10. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide, where he is a member of the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice.