Floods Another Chamber by James Brown.
Wellington: VUP (2017).
RRP: $25. Pb, 112pp.
Reviewed by Liz Breslin.
Floods Another Chamber is James Brown’s sixth collection of poems, weighing in at a meaty hundred and twelve pages. The first poem, “Opening”, is a short provocation,
There is too much
poetry in the world
here you are.
It’s a bold move, maybe. Or an in-joke. Or flippantly befitting for a poetry tutor (Brown teaches the Poetry Workshop at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters).
Split into three numbered sections, Brown’s poems play overtly with forms and language. Found poems are to be found, of course, in the first section, The “A to Z of Cycling” takes first lines from a biking anthology and “Come on Lance” is transcribed from the words of Lance Armstrong’s coach. It’s clever and certainly not subtle, the sort of poem that you think might work well in performance but actually works well on the page, jarring the repetitive language into sound and shape.
There is also a strong vein of poems working with Brown’s own repetitions; “Soft return” (pp 102-103) is scripted sideways so you can read, as it were, down the double page) starts,
The broken man. The broken skin. The broken cover. The broken cry.
The broken ice. The broken curse. The broken voice. The broken sign.
Brown sustains this pattern over thirteen more couplets, ending with
The broken up. The broken down. The broken in. The broken in two.
The broken off. The broken out. The broken even. The broken through.
Following on from this, “Demarcations” (pp 104-107) gives us four seasons all riffing on the start note ‘It is not …’ from “Autumn Testament”, (p 106),
It is not the Gaza strip, but Gazza whipping his shirt off.
It is not talking with your feet, but footing it with your mouth.
It is not the parting shot, but the passing shot.
It is not that all the poems in this collection are formulated and formulaic. There are quite a few poems that take a stab at the very nature of poem-ing in this way, such as “Unstressed/Stressed” (p 84):
Herd iambic meter to the slaughter.
Regular rhyme should also be destroyed.
Hold Shakespeare’s head under the water.
And let his verses slip into the void.
“Walk on David Beach” (p 93) and “Letter to Hugo” (p 94) hold the same mixture of satire, and “Janet and John go to the Book Launch” (p 78) keeps this tone.
… The poet reads one last short poem.
That short poem was quite long, thinks John …
It’s funny but it’s also not funny, and a tad confusing. Is it poking fun about Brown or his peers or his students or the people who line up to buy his books or who? Also not funny is the throwaway admission in the Notes – ‘I think I stole the first line of ‘Dancefloor’ from another poet, but I can’t remember whom.’ It’s one thing to deride the whole ‘circus’, but quite another to ape and not attribute individual monkeys.
There is memorable monkey business of the coupling kind in many of the poems in the second section. The urban legend of the glitter-cloth smear-test gets a going-over in “Erotic Snowdome” (p 69):
… She was puzzled when the doctor said
‘You needn’t have gone to so much trouble’,
before discovering, later, that her kids
had used the flannel to mop up glitter.
By this stage we’re sitting apart
blinking sparkles from our eyes
like an old Midas couple, our twinkling
assets brilliantly untouchable.
It is in this middle section as well, among the ‘jolly silly jelly willy joke’ (“The Awkward Apologies”, p 64) and the jocular poetics of “White Hart Lane”, (p 54):
That Katherine Mansfield liked
‘the Tottenham Hotspurs’ makes perfect sense,
She was, after all, a modern, progressive girl
much interested in tactical intricacies …
that you can take a breath and revel in the moments of straight-felt heart:
… It sounds impossible,
but that’s what people pay to see:
an ordinary man
plunging from depth
Really, it’s not that hard.
Everyone has one miracle
in them, the real trick
is being able to repeat it.
Take my hands.
Your fingers must be
placed on my pulses
and mine on yours,
life to life.
Close your eyes.
On the count of three. “Miracles” (p 72).
Liz Breslin writes poems, plays, stories and a column for the Otago Daily Times. Her first collection of poems, Alzheimer’s and a spoon, was published by Otago University Press in 2017. www.lizbreslin.com