REVIEW by Elsa HammondNWR Issue 98
by Judy Brown
I am trying to settle in this newly numbered world. / My resolutions stretch to six blue pages. / In summary: Be more interesting. Today I have travelled, // not for pleasure, but to resume my destiny.
Judy Brown opens her collection with lines that anticipate the style and content of the poems that follow. Challenging, disjointed and leaping across a giddying range of subjects, they may make casual readers question whether it can really be for ‘pleasure’ that they are working through them. However, a second reading of Loudness
uncovers a deeper sense of coherence, allowing appreciation of the ‘baroque quality’ that is alluded to on the back cover of the book. Still diverse, certain themes and images (Hong Kong, London, regret, a sense of being at the edge of things) nevertheless reappear and play off each other, and the reader is better able to grasp meaning from the poetry. Flashes of insight and unexpected imagery create a collection that is, if not cohesive, certainly worth persevering with.
This is poetry set amid grey concrete, city streets and close rooms, where human contact is often ‘wedged into narrow spaces in our built lives’ (‘While You Drive’). The glints of colour that flicker through the collection become brighter against this grey backdrop. However, Brown seems almost fearful of too much colour saturating her poetry. In ‘The End of the Rainbow (or, What I Learned at the House of Colour)’ the speaker appears washed out, surrounded by vivid colour that is somehow threatening:
With my dyed-red hair hidden like a nurse’s
by a sort of white coif, I found a woman
bleach-faced, pale-mouthed, staring bemused
among monochromes, burgundy, grey.
The speaker remains outside the sphere of the ‘muddy-skinned girls who go out blazing / with colour, drunk with it.’ Her request that they ‘go on without’ her can also be seen as an attempt to banish the overbearing suffusion of colour from the collection as a whole. However, splashes of colour continue to creep in to the poems, like the ‘yellow sluice / of the streetlight’ in ‘When the Clocks Go Back’, that shines out in the ‘dark’, wet morning.
Certain poems, such as ‘The Supertanker’ and ‘Spontaneous Combustion’, demand to be lingered over. In the former, Brown draws the reader into an embracing sense of regret – an inclusion that is both comforting and claustrophobic. Watching the ‘magnificently’ smug Byron swim ‘down the Grand Canal’, his ‘wake / eroding the banks where people like us are always standing,’ the speaker involves us in the regretful sense of being one of those who is always watching someone else do something ‘great’. ‘Spontaneous Combustion’, in contrast, captures something outside the experience of most readers, yet also lingers on in one’s mind. The poem remains, like the phenomenon it portrays, intriguingly unsatisfying. The final lines – a rhetorical question and a call for reassurance – are neither acknowledged nor replied to:
But this – a cool life which heats unnoticed,
which some god’s burning-glass has caught?
When the fire came, tell me he didn’t feel it.
The sense that the poem has somehow been left hanging, forces it also to hang in the mind of the reader long after the first reading. Elsewhere in the poem, another use of italics to indicate an interjection of direct speech and thought also accentuates the graphic nature of the words: ‘In them / I found a metatarsal, loose in the rag of the sock.
’ This is a technique that Brown uses frequently in Loudness
, creating a cacophony of internal and external voices that speak directly to the reader from the page. Although the technique becomes slightly tired by the end of the collection, it is nonetheless effective in many of the poems, such as ‘Two Virgins’ and ‘The Blackmailer’s Wife Reads History and Considers the Nature of Guilt’.
The final poem in the collection, ‘A Woman Assumes Invisibility Aboard HMS Belfast’, picks up the sense of being slightly ‘outside’ that emerged in many of its predecessors. The woman, who ‘assumes invisibility’ during
the poem, also manages to slip out
of the poem unnoticed. Unobserved by anyone else ‘she goes ashore’ and also disappears from the page, unexpectedly leaving the end of the poem to focus on ‘that service station / twelve statute miles up the M1’. This elusive and somewhat impersonal ending is a shrewd finale to Brown’s poems. An uneven collection, Loudness
nonetheless contains moments of real sensitivity and vitality; the discovery of these nuggets is ample recompense for engaging with the challenge that Brown has set.
Buy this book at gwales.com
previous review: You, Me and the Birds
next review: Scars