Susan Fealy reviews Collusion by Brook Emery
by Brook Emery
John Leonard Press
Reviewed by SUSAN FEALY
Collusion by Brook Emery explores Daniel Delfoe’s question ‘is it better to be here or there?’ while imparting the experience of being consequent to living inside the question. We enter a deeply reflective, largely solitary world where uncertainty and complexity are paradoxically shaped by quiet balance, precision and dailiness.
The meditative flow of the collection is enhanced by the bold decision to present all poems as untitled, thus removing titles from prior published poems and poems which short-listed in the Blake Poetry Prize 2009 and 2010.
Regular stanza structure within poems, many long-lined poems and most poems being at least page-length further enhance its meditative, modulated quality. The first lines of the ten-line poems begin with an ellipsis, are indented towards the right margin and lines are often enjambed; all emphasise flow. Their compressed energy adds tonal range rather than rupture. The collection is book-ended with a poem of long-lined couplets followed by two short single-stanza poems creating a symmetry that accentuates this collection’s balance and precision.
Emery often combines metaphysical enquiry with images of urban coastline and its weather. The poems addressed to ‘K’ suggest a clear intent to communicate to another and this avoids the risk of solipsism. Yet, this is the poetry of thought and the sense of a solitary self prevails: the mysterious K does not speak back. He or she seems a real or imagined correspondent remote in time and space but may also represent an attempt to reach beyond the everyday self into the poetic self that gives utterance because K is described as ‘my interlocutor, my conscience, my will’.
The internal rhymes are subtle and nuance the pairing of here and there. At times we find sound play in poems such as ‘The half-awake world’ where ‘gloved sounds’ ‘tap the ear – bird-call, leaf-slide, door-creak, door-slam’, but, overall, word music is so effortlessly yoked to meaning, visual and kinaesthetic sensations imprint the mind of the reader more forcefully than the sonic. Sound, when evoked, is rarely the worded voice of another: it is that of machines, white noise, bird call or unworded human sounds.
Silence is the medium of thought so it is no surprise that silence itself is assayed:
Waking at night, silence has the colour
that is all colours, or none at all. …
nothing mattered except the need to sleep,
to inhabit silence. Now silence is an alien state
and I am on its rim, sensing rather than seeing
something for which I can’t conceive a name.
(‘Waking at night, silence has the colour’)
Sound as a strange undertow to silence is evoked in a poem about overseeing a schoolgirls’ exam in ‘Perhaps the first thing I notice’:
Something about the silence is amiss. Yes, every cough or
crack or scraping of a chair is startling, but beneath it all I
hear a low collective hum as though, unorchestrated, every
throat is growling.
Movement is a key motif: we find uncertainty and its flux, indecisiveness and its back and forward movement, expansive flow of thought, the reach of desire, movement of body, breath, water, light, transport, weather and time. A strength of the collection is the way that these elements intersect with each other to create momentary collusions which dissolve and reconfigure. This leads to inventive metaphors where natural phenomena are perceived as thought: ‘dusk as uncertain premise, premonition which cannot last/much longer’, (‘After the lassitudes of blue’).
In the surreal poem ‘You’ve been waiting for something like’, the strange paradox of the dream-world that allows travel which is everywhere and yet nowhere is evoked:
you’re stalled at the border surrendering a passport that’s
borrowed, a face which is mugging,
‘I’m not. . .’ but you are, there’s a sea in your mouth and sea
in your head, the words rushing out won’t listen to will or
and you’re nowhere specific, just pandering with monkeys
in parakeet clothes, angels in uniforms with heat on their
The beauty of the natural world colludes with the poet’s ease and the time when ‘light cuts loose the day’ to provoke the imagined unrooting of a jacaranda in the thirteen- line poem ‘In the hour or so before night’s certain fall’. Reprieve from the persecution of the spectator and rational self is found in the liminal (between here and there) and it is often when evoking the liminal that Emery’s poems are the most lyrically beautiful:
… The jacaranda
against the church’s mortared, crumbling mass,
mauve and stunning and substantial as it is –
all indirect flowering of twists and turns –
seems uncontained as though at any moment
it might escape the rooted, understandable restraints
of space and time and float away as weightless
as a dandelion on the emerging evening breeze.
Escaping the limitations of self is explored in ‘You know the way’. Body experience and the fecundity of words are accorded equal weight and measure as means of escape, and in the flow of thought, they seem implicated with each other. Whether intended or not, it seems that long-line couplets sometimes reach beyond the limits of the page and spill into tercets:
… I think of a dancer’s grace as she glides into the
air, or the diver’s equal grace gliding towards the sea: the
body in defiance of its limitations.
going through, beyond. Graceful, gracious, gracile, words that
multiply and spread like flowering vine. Grace notes of
unbelief that still restore the faith.
In ‘Gloom off to the west’, Emery’s meticulous account of the interplay of mind and body experience while cycling into an approaching storm, reaches an unusual crescendo of exhalation not unlike Plath’s ‘Ariel’ as body propulsion collides with an intense encounter with the elements and the landscape. It takes him beyond the spectating self who follows fast behind. Unlike Plath, the urgency of here is created with reference to there:
it’s possible to see rain stiffen into spears and, more fancifully,
coalesce into a solid-seeming wall.
I race towards it expecting in some unlikely way to escape the
unrelenting clutch of earth. I’m mad, you say?
How so? Light splits the clouds in silver streaks, trees leap to cheer
me on, clap their soft green hands in wild excitement,
and the future is an endlessness of blue. On the road behind me, a
ghost bike takes up the chase. It’s closing fast.
This poem is balanced by others where body experience conveys states of psychic unease such as the pain of being out of tune with oneself that is found in ‘It comes from over there’:
Speak. Get it off your chest. The three blankets too warm
throughout the night, the dry bed of your mouth when you
got up to pee. This is not what you wanted to say. What
was the something else?
A movement towards and away from intimacy seems propelled by a legacy of pain in ‘Contested ground, this strange persistent beauty’:
co-incidental thing, skin my border, coming into contact
with other skin which touches and retreats,
touches and retreats, flinches at the little slights,
the acts of spite and meanness, the ancient sin of pride,
guilt which eats way. Imagine my love,
an outbreak of silence, and how the respite of ‘now’
would be hounded by ‘once’, ‘soon’, ‘again’.
When lovers do consummate desire in the surreal, filmic poem
‘In the background there is the music’ it is stalked by the menace
of its consequences:
…We turn and run to where we’ve been
but dark-suited men step round a corner and advance towards us.
We stop again. Look for a passageway to the left, the damaged door
we can shoulder open. This time it won’t budge. This time…
Poems which celebrate the movement of mind are often the most confident, playful, the most saturated in light or colour, the most inhabited by the natural world and least likely to reach into the overly discursive. However, in typical Emery fashion these poems are not only celebration of mind; they concisely articulate the metaphysical.
For example, in ‘Dear K, it’s light that makes the river flow’, the enquiry into how we know what we know has a propulsion and ease because uncertainty and flux are embraced as process with tantalising potential. The welcome possibility that mind and that which it observes could commune with each other in pre-thought seems to kindle energy and optimism: ‘I like the / dancing light, / the scattered cloud, the river that lies potentially between its banks, / the speeding train. I reach for them. They reach for me’.
Yet, the rational mind’s subverting of potential and spontaneity is seen as a kind of curse in ‘The half-awake world in the half-light’:
A curse on dithering, weighing up and second-guessing,
ordering the accounts, the sad debilitating song, what if,
In the poem, ‘It’s when the plane takes off’, the intellectual investigation into memory, especially memory of the poet’s past inexplicable actions, seems weakened by too many discursive lines. The potential of this poem seems to lie in the power and feeling of the personal narratives. The poem carries the seed of several myths about fathers and their children. For example, as a consequence of a decision to take his young twins into the surf, a father confronts how to keep them safe when they are separate from each other and in danger. The act of holding on and letting go, is deftly reprised in the holding and letting go of breath and waves:
When my son popped up from beneath tight-fisted foam
his first words were, ‘I’m alive, I’m alive.’ His twin sister
whom I’d pushed into the face of an earlier wave before I turned
and failed to grab my son – I couldn’t hold him – was paddling now
with a group of surfers three times her size and trying not to cry.
In the moving penultimate poem, ‘…we’re not so unalike’, the possibility of exchange is reached for and envisioned as a connection across a wide distance:
We may slip, misstep, or, not as likely, soar
but let’s maintain this firm, divergent grip:
I can be the tide; you must be the moon.
In the final poem, ‘Rain as it is only brighter’, water’s flow seems more shadowed than the lighter, faster currents of the first poem. The darkness of suffering, the unknown, mortality and the multiple ways the mind can look at what it sees, offers no certainty except process itself. Most of all, rain seems a blessing in its particularity because the poet is alive in the moment to receive it. And so profound simplicity colludes with complexity in a way that is distinctively Emery.
SUSAN FEALY is a Melbourne poet whose work has appeared in Antipodes, Meanjin and Best Australian Poems 2009 and 2010.