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will handle multiple posts in a single day. (Not something that's likely to happen very often, but hey.)
CUT FROM THE RUSHES (REALITY STREET EDITIONS, 2013)
"The Rushes", I think, is Andrea Brady's name for her occasional poems: speedy here-and-now one-off poems which don't belong to a larger project such as the extended verse-essay Wildfire (
What's cut from the rushes here, then, are two swathes: Embrace
(previously published separately in 2005), and Presenting
, which consists of more recent poems. The implication, maybe, is that there's a whole marshland of other uncollected poems out there. Which is quite an impressive thought, because Cut from the Rushes
is an exhausting reading experience. Not for the number of poems , but for the demands made by each one.
The title might mean a bit more. At any rate, "cut" is a word that turns up very frequently in Brady's texts (as it does, also, in Prynne's). In one word it concentrates the grand themes of physical violence and cultural manipulation; public opinion is manufactured; - as Brady noted in her Quid essay about post 9/11 grief.
You might entertain the hope that the occasions of the poems would be obvious, and in some cases this is true. E.g the much-discussed "Saw Fit" (Lynndie England, Abu Ghraib) or "The Gloucester, The Illustrious" (Operation Highbrow, evacuation of British citizens from Beirut in 2006) or "Vision in Neutrals" (sub-titled A Coalition Pastoral). Reading the reviews, which naturally favour what the reviewer can talk about, you sometimes get the impression that the poems are all like this. But they're not. Most of the poems are highly oblique about their occasions. Most often the poem-titles are riddling puns ("Sight Unseen") or just riddles ("In Album Men") or personal notes ("To Castellina").
A poem like "In Album Men" has an occasion, all right, but not really a public occasion: more about holidaying in Turkey. The locations include Uçhisar in Cappadocia, Olympos in Lycia, and maybe the Lydian aqueducts.
Mevsimlik sailors cut the Eurovision frigate in to hove
See, I told you the word "cut" was a regular. "Mevsimlik" is Turkish for Etesian - the summer northerly of the Aegean, considered "a good steady sailing wind preferred by many leisure sailors" (Wikipedia). There's a sneer lurking here, about the leisure sailors. In the poem the sneer (and the leisure) becomes applied to the cultural tourists who file through Turkey like Xenophon's mercenaries. I.e Brady herself.
was very specifically domestic in its concerns, this was nothing new. Brady has always uncaringly done things that are supposed to typify mainstream poets: for example, writing about herself, family, relationships, the domestic and quotidian, and holidays. Of course the way she does it is distinctive. But the point is, she doesn't need to demonstrate where she stands in the poetry world.
This is surely a strength. After all, there are reasons why these subjects are so popular among the poets and audiences of today. They are itches we need to scratch. They are politically sensitive and much-cut-up battlegrounds. They are the place where we play out a dialogue of feeling and forgetting our complicity. They are where the money gets spent. They are the site of desire and of such values, visions and ideals as still remain to us.
In some other respects, too, Brady stands out from the mass of post-avant writing.
SIMILE AND METAPHOR
Much post-avant writing disdains the similes and metaphors that mainstream authors cherish. Brady is willing and able to deploy brilliant similes.
Flock of friendly parables catch
the air like whiffle balls. Hard to loft, they are harder to gather.
("Paradise Gardens 1 and 2")
(This reminds me that Brady is an American poet as well as a London poet and a Cambridge poet. "Precinct"
comes easier when the word is interpreted in a US way. "Child Stars on Trial" is totally Brady, but the passing hint of Arielle Greenberg isn't simply a coincidence)
will you recognize the innumerable frosted branches, the field used like a scratch-card, as your park?
, p. 109)
smoke unbundled like measuring tape
("Hymn On The Nativity")
grenades, built to appeal to the hand
like an American football
("Thrown Fire", in Wildfire
Most post-avant poems avoid a resonant ending: not open-field enough: they cultivate a muted fade. But many of Brady's poems end with a knockout.
a hush falls down
the fault of language.
("To Be Continued")
Or this, a clincher that is also a brilliant simile.
Because you are righteous you open your
head every day, joy cut-in like a kite mark.
("Commercial In Confidence")
Nevertheless, the poems in Cut from the Rushes
are difficult. They never resolve into simple or single meanings. And yet the urgency of the poem challenges us to find meaning, and not just any meaning either.
For me this unassuming book, described only as "her fifth book of poems", is the stark centre of her work as it stands right now.
The poems are difficult. That's less true of Mutability
, a book that many will be able to read with simple happiness. In a different way it's also less true of Wildfire
, because at least you know what the poem is about.
Work from home encased in plastic.
This is how "Ergon" begins. The poem is about work. The words carry two meanings straight away. One is a general comment on that cliché of the workplace, "working from home". The poem is naturally concerned with the modern idea (presented as paradisal) of taking your work anywhere, of work infiltrating the homeplace, of jumping on planes between pressing Ctrl-S to save your document. Behind that, again, looms another phrase with rather different social connotations: the "home workers", that quintessentially modern addition to the army of the exploited, lured by delusive promises of £££ in adverts on lamp-posts and Gumtree.
The second meaning is more specific and autobiographical: the author looking at a plastic binder of the work she brought from home: student marking, maybe, or photocopies of funerary elegies. It's concise: we know we are talking about papers though papers are not mentioned. (Compare the passage in "Table Talk" where a sheep must have "plunged onto the strand from the pasture": we are aware of the unmentioned sea-cliff.)
Here's the whole of the first paragraph.
Work from home encased in plastic. Is it
born or learned gentleness, can
ungreased applications be worked in
no sweating Work for
cardiac health, go past dinner for broke
go throat backed up with morals
not to do anything different but keep
go And backed against the lists
A kind of meditation begins, still on the two potentially conflicting topics of work in general and of Brady's unusual line of work in particular. For example, the nature-or-nurture question of the second line:
"learned gentleness" uneasily combines the instilled tractability of the workforce, and the "learnèd" exercise of a gentle profession.
The poem asks another question: "can ungreased applications be worked in no sweating". At one level the question is about the viability of the concept of a kind of work that rises above money ("ungreased" - unbribed). Work that, even when you've stripped it of its self-delusions, doesn't merely instantiate the sweatshop.
The poem is open inasmuch as it already comprehends a wide spectrum of work: from literally unpaid poetry to rewarding, self-realising, professionalism to any type of work that is conceived or presented as not merely labour; work that aspires to be something that can be enjoyed or be good for the worker or with a quasi-moral value in itself.
Somewhat unexpectedly, though not for Brady fans, the poem refuses easy contrasts between academic noodling and factory floors. Instead it recognizes a community of work, though it may be a community of illusion. It is certainly, as the last sentence indicates, a community of shared insecurities and fears.
"Backed against the lists scare easily": Brady's poems stretch so widely for multi-valency, and withal so freely combine the personal with the general, that I half-suspect a glance at those academic "lists" (closed internet forums) that are the regular pabulum of innovative poets and renaissance scholars alike. But the principal image comes from jousting. The workers are not the knights but their horses (work-horses, obviously), backed against the lists (barriers) and, like any cornered animal, prone to panic.
and "Table Talk" are in Cut from the Rushes
MUTABILITY: SCRIPTS FOR INFANCY
London covered in, debilitated by, joying in snow: seven inches or more, Siberian airs, North Sea waters. You're oblivious, stuck inside with a running cold and laughing all through your dinner: it's surprise which evokes you, you delight at the simple plosives that come from a resting face, eyes thrown upward to indicate 'wait for it'. Or you cough, I say 'exCUSE me' in highest camp, and you give your bawdy laugh: this is conversation. But also nothing surprises you, so will you recognize the innumerable frosted branches, the field used like a scratch-card, as your park?
from Mutability: Scripts for Infancy -
"You" is Brady's daughter Ayla, eight months old in Feb 2009 when this was written.
"innumerable" gently ushers in Tennyson's "Come Down, O Maid":
the children call, and I
Thy shepherd pipe, and sweet is every sound,
Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro' the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.
In this final post of Mutability
the poet celebrates the quiescent and fertile before turning to head back up to the "dusky doors" of greed, exploitation, complicity and violence. (Brady's more usual topics)
The child learns to be surprised. There must be a playing-field of the unsurprising before surprise can occur. In learning what to be surprised by, one becomes who one is: "surprise evokes you". Or, we are most vividly ourselves when sprung alert by surprise.
"This is conversation". While fondly pretending to self-mock the inanities of baby-time and to contrast them with the fiercely intellectual colloquies of the day-job, yet it's also a recognition that much that we call conversation, once you strip off the apparent topic under discussion. consists of just such childish rocking and play and fidgets.
The simple happiness of the writing of Mutability
is, if a compulsion, yet grasped with a full will and consciousness. It is not over-thought; the thought is intrinsic to it; but of course it is meditated.
But what if the note -- record of zeal overflowing -- sponges off your initiate life? ... the troubled line between domesticity and action, home and writing.... The chronic absenteeism of a political critique must have its letter. ... But not to dwell in you, on it, would be an act of penance, of asceticism. ... Is love ever progressive, if all happiness is just a fragment of the entire happiness people are denied? ... I miss a humane account of the household, of friendship, paracosms that prevent our utter ruination.
(sentences from Mutability
, pp. 11-13)
The absent critique is moving forward in those very questions. And the nursery is a foundry of society.
We cook you up,
knowing the chemistry is irreversible
and the past evaporates under any sky:
harming you into being, survivably indifferent.
, p. 11)
Now bring forth the beast that ruled the world with's beck,And tear his flesh and set your feet on's neck;And make his filthy den so desolate,To th' 'stonishment of all that knew his state.
(quoted in "Cultural Affairs in Boston")
"Cultural Affairs in Boston" is itself a quoted title (from John Wieners) and the poem appears at first glance a mass of Bostonian references. This quotation is marked out from the rest by the italics. It's from Anne Bradstreet's poem "A Dialogue Between Old England and New". The poem is usually mentioned in celebratory terms as evincing a woman and an American having the temerity to criticize and bewail the corrupt state of Old England, then embroiled in civil war (this was in 1642).
But Brady's quotation comes from a part of the poem that is quietly dropped from the Norton Anthology. Old England laments the civil war, but New England is, on the contrary, highly enthusiastic about it. She urges the Parliamentarians to drive Papism out of Old England with all the bloodiness necessary to righteousness, and to make full use of the machinery of justice.
Let Gaols be fill'd with th' remnant of that pack
And sturdy Tyburn loaded till it crack.
But why stop at the English Channel? Why not destroy Rome for good and all? (That's what Brady's quotation is talking about specifically.) Indeed, why not lay waste to Turkey, too? (Bradstreet, who learnt from John Foxe, associated Turkey's expansionism in Europe and Palestine with the Antichrist and hence with Ezekiel's Gog.)
As an image of long-range bellicosity Bradstreet's narrowly Puritan poem, burning with indignation over the slaughter of Protestants in Ireland and La Rochelle, could hardly be bettered. But in Bradstreet's time New England was not a seat of power, its opinions on international affairs didn't count for much; they do now.
The presence of Bradstreet's poem in "Cultural Affairs in Boston" (in this quotation, and in more covert references elsewhere) completely transforms the social comedy of its account of the Cambridge poets' visit to this cultural capitol on April 13th, 2007.
the regular army training in sculls
points us up the Charles towards Winthrop
and guacamole from Grendel's kitchen,
Robin tears his Reuben limb from limb.
The comic violence of Robin Purves' struggle with his sandwich underlies a structure that is admittedly based on cultural stereotypes of the US and its momentary Brit invaders ("are you some kind of invading army?"). But underlying that, is the fact of the nations partnering in foreign wars against their perceived Gogs.
The violence is queasily combined with a certain cartoonish unreality: American religiosity of "cartoon cloudlands" and "disney wings", and British animations in the "YouTube ornithocheirus" (presumably they're watching episode 4 of the Beeb's Walking With Dinosaurs
) - the pterosaur Ornithocheirus, another translatlantic migrant fosillized in the Cambridge greensand. In different ways the monster-battles of Beowulf
and the unrealistic incitements of Bradstreet's poem partake of that cartoonish unreality. Yet, somewhere far off from Harvard, the violence is being made real.
"She Cannot Take Any Credit For This One", says the poem's subtitle. The poem is characterized by a certain doubling: Robin with Reuben, Harvard with Cambridge... And the subtitle perhaps just glances at those chiming names, Andrea Brady and Anne Bradstreet, women poets who emigrated to different Englands. As always in Brady's work, the poem cancels the author's "ethical priority" (the phrase comes from the afterword to Wildfire
) in favour of a shared complicity. (Commentators who have felt the need to acclaim Brady's supposedly exceptional lack of self-regard are pulling in the opposite direction to her own poems.)
Labels: Andrea Brady