Phil Brown’s poetry is the kind of work you should give to people who think poetry is ‘elitist’, or simply too hard to be bothered with.
His is the inspiration that comes while you are waiting for that pizza, hitching a ride to a country town on a misty morning, or watching a Chuck Norris video. It’s a conversational style that hooks you like the opening lines of a good journalistic piece — no surprise here, since Brown is a journalist in his workaday world for Brisbane News, which helps him keep a finger on the artistic pulse of his hometown.
In one breath a speaker describes for his shrink how he got taken for $2000 on a health farm water diet, then in the next he compares himself to Eliot's Prufrock, who ‘wept and fasted, / wept and prayed—/ though not at the same time.’ There is substance and wit here for those willing to spend time with these poems.
Nor is he limited to Australia. In “Mr Lai” he remarks on the staying power of the past — in his case, a memorable character from his childhood in Hong Kong: ‘the memory of that survives: / a bitter-sweet image of an era and / an unrecoverable past’.
This is poetry from inside the real world of a jaded, happy, metropolitan man. Phil Brown is a welcome addition to Interactive Press’ Emerging Authors’ Series.
Phil Brown was born in Maitland, New South Wales, in 1956 but moved with his family to Hong Kong in 1963. Returning to Australia in 1970 the Browns settled on the Gold Coast where the young poet learnt to surf to survive the local subculture. He began writing poetry at school but more seriously while studying literature with Bruce Dawe at the University of Southern Queensland, where he majored in journalism.
ISBN 1 876819 09 X (PB, 88pp)
|AUD $22||USD $18||NZD $24||GBP £12||EUR €14|
This collection is hip, wry, interesting, often very moving and extremely funny, with some scathing comments about the behaviour and beliefs of modern society. It is straightforward, up-front poetry that says what it means in simple language – a refreshing antidote to up-itself poetry with a capital P. That is not to say that Phil Brown doesn’t run to sophisticated imagery and investigation of the dynamics of language and meaning – ‘Strange Poem,’ for example, looks directly into the meaning void of common utterances – it is more that he immediately undercuts the bulk of his ‘poetic’ imagery so that the romantic is juxtaposed with the banal, the sentimental with the detached, constandy creating oppositions with a heavy vernacular that ensures that his poetry is in no danger of escaping into the rarefied ether of elitism: “the full moon:/a celestial button/caught on chiffon clouds/amazing, I thought /holy shit” (‘satori at seven-thirty’). The effect is of somewhat self--deprecating irony, relying more on a subversive association of ideas than any linguistic pyrotechnics, but this is where much of his charm – and cheek – lies: “Between naps/I could conquer continents,/help unite people,/put out garbage” (‘On Sunday’).
The journalist’s nose for a good story and his ability to find an interesting angle on the everyday, along with a little hard-nosed journo cynicism, the copywriter’s sense of word play that can’t resist a good throw-away punch-line/twist, and the poet’s yearning to make sense of the world are all evident in this collection. The poems range from musings such as ‘In a day/in a dream/in a bed... /I have been/in all three. . .,’ affectionate Zen subversions such as ‘Not Haiku’ and ‘(Un)consciousness’ (“under the big tree/talking crap,”) to scathing social satire such as ‘The Dinner Party.’ Religion and philosophy take a beating in ‘On that Day’ and ‘Talk about Nihilism,’ but if Brown seems bitterly cynical in these poems and others like ‘Job Interview Blues,’ ‘Super, Man’ and ‘Briefing the Quack,’ his sense of humour wins out, offering itself as a possible solution to the problem of modern life. And if he is sometimes glib and sarcastic, he is also capable of sensitivity and depth, clearly having a soft spot for old ladies. ‘The House Next Door,’ ‘Woman on a Sidewalk – New Farm, Brisbane’ and ‘An Old Woman Falls in a Crowd’ all offer a tender sympathy that society does not, as well as a kind of dread in the inevitability of old age, recognising ‘something familiar/in [their] fall.’
Some of the most evocative imagery is in Brown’s recollections of his childhood in Hong Kong as “a boy/in an orient of wonder.” These poems are coloured not just by their exoticism, but by the obvious fondness of the poet’s memories. Brown employs more overtly ‘poetic’ language in these poems than anywhere else in the collection, without the almost apologetic undercutting that characterises the rest of his work. Interestingly, it is the first stanza of one of these uncharacteristic poems, ‘In a Kowloon Garden,’ that is printed on the back cover of the book:
At dusk, in the monsoon months
In a collection as varied as this one it would be impossible to choose something truly representative, especially as most of the poems lack quotable lines such as these, their effect being achieved in the whole rather than in particular imagery. So if these lines entice readers to open an Accident in the Evening, good; it is worth opening. I found it satisfying and engaging, “a lush forest/of ordinary things” that made the reviewer’s unnatural task of reading a book of poetry from cover to cover an unusually enjoyable one.
— EA Horne, New England Review
With the greatest respect to poet John Keats, an in-depth analysis of ‘Ode on a Grecian Um’ at high school just about killed any interest I ever had in poetry. Sure the verse was beautiful, but I was never completely sure what the hell was going on.
How refreshing, then, to find myself recently immersed in a new book of poetry, An Accident in the Evening, by Brisbane News’ senior writer Phil Brown, whose in-your-face, humorous and wry style had me eagerly turning the pages in search of more gems.
Phil, 44, is a poet who has an eye for the ordinary while all the time making it sound deliciously interesting. His skill shines through with his unique take on life’s simple pleasures and its pitfalls. How many poets have ever dared to tackle a night in watching a Chuck Norris video? “He has laid waste / to battalions of baddies. / Now it’s Saturday night / and he’s at it again.” Or that night-time stroll to pick up food from the local Thai restaurant? “The air was frangipani: / the trees of my street / heads of dark coral / floating in the air.”
This is material we can all relate to, even if we may be loath to admit it. It’s obvious that Phil’s life is very much affected by his childhood adventures growing up in Hong Kong.
There’s a dream-like quality to many of his poems. He’s also not afraid to tackle issues of complexity. Phil lays his soul bare on the dangers of modern living (the scars of failed job interviews are there for all to see) and the frustrations we all feel trying to conform to society’s pressures. There’s real pain there but Phil’s ability to laugh at himseif is never far away. He is sure to win over a legion of new fans with his inspired and highly original poetry, although I doubt the neighbours depicted in ‘The Dinner Party’ will be among them. I won’t give the game away here, but something decidedly nasty is served up for the main course.
If you enjoyed Phil’s last book, Plastic Parables, you’re sure to love this latest effort. You’ll never stand in a pizza shop the same way again.
— Ben Robertson, Brisbane News
Phil Brown’s new collection deals with a range of themes in a characteristically bemused and wry manner. At times these poems draw upon subversions of Zen; at other times the poet is satirizing popular expectations including those associated with the Second Coming and the likely role of Jesus. There are also moving poems dealing with those for whom society has little sympathy: the elderly, the unemployed, old Diggers. As well, there are deft sketches of encounters with figures such as a timber-worker, a truckie and the socially smug. A number of sharply defined memories of Brown’s Hong Kong childhood are also notable, especially the portrayal in Mr Lai. This is an engaging collection.
— Bruce Dawe
satori at seven-thirty
I had just gone out
the full moon:
amazing, I thought
I noticed other stuff too
recent rain showers
the air was frangipani:
even cars seemed nice
unreal / lovely
that’s just how it was
that’s just how it was
In a Kowloon Garden
At dusk, in the monsoon months,
the clouds above us
behind the high walls
at night the typhoon wind
through the barred panes
each Friday our gardener,
a wiry, ancient man,
wearing his customary straw hat,
tediously, moving up and down,
On Reading William Carlos Williams’
to reduce everything
it is beautiful
and I choose
Thoughts While Waiting for a Pizza in New Farm
Sometimes you wonder: what used to be here?
Or was it grassland over undulating hills
Sometimes you wonder:
And what was here before
How fresh the air must have been
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