Nadia Niaz reviews Open House by David Brooks
by David Brooks
ISBN 978 0 7022 5352 2
Reviewed by NADIA NIAZ
How can we
Be so arrogant, to think that our
souls are worth so much?
David Brooks poses a cogent question and one that has often been asked by writers. Surely the act of writing is one of arrogance, the act of preserving our own thoughts an act of egotism. Expanded to the way modern humans interact with their environment the question remains valid, even essential. But the question of our value is not just an interrogation of our arrogance as a race – it is also a vital component in creating and re-creating ourselves, in understanding not just who we are, but how.
There is a meditative quality to the poems in Open House that seeks to answer these questions, but gently. There is through much of the book a sense of a breath held for a moment of contemplation and then gently released. It is the kind of book one must read slowly so that each poem, each line, may sing itself into being and back, and us with it.
Some readers may find the length of Open House daunting – most books of poetry published today are fairly short and self-contained and may be read in an afternoon. And yes, this book does demand a lot of attention, but it is also the sort of volume that you can come back to in a quiet moment, the sort that you can dip into the way we do into our favourite music albums, and revisit the bliss of its music.
Open House constitutes a poetic, and sometimes actual, journey. Each of the five sections that comprise this volume has its own distinct character while also retaining a logical relationship with the others. The poet’s voice rings out clearly through each, carrying the reader from poems about place, history, and loss all the way to the last section, which conveys a quiet wonder and delight at life and existence.
This is not to suggest a linear progression so much as a development of interconnected interests. While the first book is more solidly grounded in history, the present exists in it as well, and while the last book feels more about the present – or perhaps just conveys more presence and immediacy – the past is given its due.
‘A Place on Earth’ interrogates the poet’s sense of belonging, truth, guilt, and the quest for peace and meaning. Themes as disparate as Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, looking back at one’s youth, night trains, and quotidian intimacy, sit comfortably side by side and often flow into each other. There is a historicity to these poems – a sense of things observed and absorbed, but not let go. Perhaps, as in the blood from ‘The Assassination of Benazir Bhutto’ and the dust coating all things in ‘Dust’, it is history itself that persists in holding on.
This changes considerably at the beginning of ‘September’. Suddenly there are images of abundance, ripeness, pulchritude, and a relaxing of sorts. This is however quickly juxtaposed with images of sexual abuse and a grittiness that shakes the reader out of the trance of plenty. The poem ‘Nona’ may be the best encapsulation of the nature of this section. In it, Brooks describes an old woman as carrying the history of the town (and perhaps, by extension, of the nation), “a kind of midwife to the day” (32) performing such tasks as are necessary to transform it into a place where travellers may find comfort. With her death, “another part/ of the village/will flap untended in the Boria, another/ house lose its hold.” (33). There is a great noticing, as Rilke might phrase it, of people, things, animals and birds – the smallest creatures are given attention. In contrast, the reduction of ‘pederast priests’, to two words seems an act of righteous contempt.
‘Open House’ brings the reader back to Australia. The title of the section (and the book itself) suggests an inspection, which in turn implies an invitation to come in and browse, assess, and judge what one sees. However, as with actual inspections and open houses, much of what we are shown is curated and translated and so it is here. As in the rest of the book, each poem is crafted with great thought, attention, intelligence and feeling. Brooks seems a poet entranced by life in its variety. The opening poem, ‘In the Kingdom of Shadows’ sets the tone:
In the Kingdom of shadows, world without end,
slugs traverse the prairies of the soul,
mice enter the pure land,
cockroaches conquer the valleys of death.
In the Kingdom of shadows, dominion
of cats and sugar gliders,
moths are mastering the constellations, spiders
whispering their histories to the stars.
In this section, the quotidian and ordinary are made as evocative as the lofty and philosophical because he has understood that both must exist for there to be life.
‘Report from Blue Mountains’ is another shift in mood. It is less contemplative and more direct. The rest of the book seems more the ‘report’ and this section its defense as the poet seems to be in communication with others for much of it. This does not diminish the poetry, but rather adds an element of the conversational to a book comprising mostly soliloquy thus far. It is not that there are no other people in the book – indeed there are many and they are well described characters or beautifully rendered spectres – but that the poet seems to talk to as well as about them here. Here the poet seems to be stepping out more fully into the present world rather than examining it from afar.
The final section, ‘Reading to the Sheep’ repeats the now familiar themes of nature, the observation of creatures, domesticity, but in it the poet seems even more present than in the previous section.
If I’ve regrets
whose life is without them?
If I have debts let the creditors come.
The rain this morning
was like the first rain,
the sun in your eyes the first sun.
(‘Birthday Poem’, 146)
Unsurprisingly, sheep appear rather often in the poems and although they may not seem the most poetic of animals, their solidity and solemnity, their presence in the immediate moment, is effective. This feels like a good way to close this meditation on life and place and belonging, this journey through not just looking at things but seeing them and experiencing them by being open to them. The observer necessarily changes the observed, but seldom is the observation so gently and yet thoroughly presented. This is no aggressive investigation but rather a letting be that echoes concepts of mindfulness and meditation. Muck like the best haiku, the poems feel both complete and resonant.
Brooks is not a strongly political writer, but his views on animal rights are evident. Politics and poetry – particularly in English – can be an uncomfortable fit, so it is further evidence of Brooks’ mastery of the form that these poems often have an odd sweetness to them despite the brutality they describe. Brooks knows to turn the lens onto himself and his own actions and let the message grow from that presentation where lesser poets focus instead on the message to the detriment of the poetry.
Brooks not only captures the minutiae of life and turns it into poetry that makes the reader catch her breath – finding poetry in the mundane is almost the mission of the modern-day poet and writer and many do it well – but also takes the frankly anti-poetical and weaves it into poems that remains accessible and open as well as multi-layered and tantalising.
The quiet, unassuming nature of his poetry that comes through even though each poem is brilliantly structured and considered is what places Brooks in the league of the greats. You don’t so much read these poems as hear them sing themselves into being in your mind, as if they were always there, waiting to be awoken.
NADIA NIAZ is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and Cultural Studies from the University of Melbourne where she teaches Creative Writing. Her work has previously appeared in TEXT, Strange 4 and The Alhamra Literary Review.