Missing shadows reported to the police: Paul Brown
view of the 70s poet Paul Brown (b.1949)
The release (in 2012) of Paul Brown’s A Cabin in the Mountains (work which “spans [his] poetry from the 1980s to the early 1990s”, so written some 20-30 years earlier) faced us with some problems. First, why hadn’t we chronicled Brown’s work and placed it in a pantheon many years earlier. Secondly, what in fact was its place in that landscape and how could we describe its peculiar excellence without obvious distortions and assumptive overlays. The work includes Meetings and Pursuits (63 pp.), Masker (80 pp.), and now Cabin (105 pp.). The first poem in Meetings and Pursuits (1978) is ‘Memorandum to all field-staff’ and runs:
At the near-point painted interiors
sometimes gardens representing
a corner of a room
Sometimes the prospect of distant
an invitation to a single glance
The incompleteness is seductive. Careful handling and objective detail do not disguise what is surely a longing for a world captured in an image - a vista of endless time. The “near-point” is I suppose the point at which a flat picture comes closest to the spectator outside it. The picture is described as if it were merely a picture, but it is surely a state of longing. The idea of a garden representing a corner of a room is genuinely original - a deft inversion of a room, perhaps in Pompeii, where the corner of a room includes a painting of a garden. Typical of Roman domestic wall-painting, we think. The idea of plants imitating a building is intriguing, but nature is full of mimicry. The question is, still: why are some lines selected, not others.
One poem from Masker(1982) is called ’May 22nd’ and goes:
A tribe of ancient bridges span
the rivers source
two nouns in the workers control
that makes its nest in you
like a duck
on the deck of
a row-boat or
an ear between the eyes
the world screamed when to
No more crap about a coming or a going
the vanity of an Iron Age
rivetted to a land
for its predicate
We have the impression of a postcard from a world which is stealing silently away and is only retained in a few verbal traces. The idea of a greater whole does not mean that something is missing - the poem is in fact complete.
Another way of starting is with a visual piece published in The Second Aeon, 12, of 1970. It is constructed as a grid, like a page from a comic. The first frame is clipped from such a comic, and shows a haggard figure in a raincoat with collar turned up saying “I am the mysterious traveler! In the main, my role is that of the silent witness watching wondrous events motionlessly from the shadows! But there are times when I am empowered to Intervene!” The next frames are a street map of what seems to be High Barnet and Hadley Wood, on the Great North Road. In the middle, a blacked-out frame with some blood-curdling words spilling across it. The last frame has the Traveler telling us to “come closer” - a tale is about to start.
It is fairly obvious that the allover and yet depthless quality of this ‘pop art’ piece resembles the strange completeness and lack of documentation of the ‘May 22nd’ piece we have already quoted. It is as if the visual pieces represented a breach with the discursive world and the later verbal poems continued on from the visual pieces, never declining back into discursivity - or moral accountability, as the Cold War critics demanded of every writer. The groups of poems which Brown favours could be like the frames in the grid of the comic-book page. The title page of Cabin cites only two earlier books by Brown - the booklets of concrete and visual poetry with which he began have been dropped from the record. While I don’t think the reprographic quality was very good, it is irrational to just throw out those early stages.
Information I withheld is that there is an epigraph to "May 22nd ”: ‘Depend upon it, there is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace” - Arthur Conan Doyle; and, a biro note in my copy (from the author, I hope) says that the sequence ‘Log of The Rose’ which includes ‘May 22nd’ is “a week in the 1871 Paris Commune”. So the bridges are ones over the Seine. Expand: ‘span the river’s source/ or is it the estuary/ an academic point’. The part about nesting may be about a mind being colonised by language - the dream of a spiral into our present economic and psychological state and a slit leading to a spiral path out. The idea that two nouns are now in the workers’ control is something which would excite many Seventies poets. The “congress” is literally where the bridges come together with the river (and roads with the bridges) but may also be the congress of a political party, communists perhaps. The “vanity of an Iron Age” is the arrogance of 19th century civilisation, of the Second Empire indeed, with its pomposity, punctured by a revolutionary communist regime, Paris in the summer of 1871. The bridge is iron but it is attached (riveted) to a land which is shifting. The title “Log of The Rose” implies a late 19th century story based on a mysterious ship called The Rose. We are back with the Mysterious Traveler. The novel (novelette?) of that title is not present, it is just a notion on which the poem floats. The bit about ‘this crap about coming and going’ echoes the idea that the difference between source and estuary is “academic“. Brown is saying that there is a directionless flux. This leaves no place for the ego. The ego as duck on the water’s back. Max’s beasts were all canards.
The cover of that Second Aeon has a graphic which actually resembles Brown’s ‘visual poem’ in significant aspects - notably in including a figure from a Marvel comic strip and in using an urban landscape as the main image. The cover has an impressively thewed super-heroine diving in man-powered flight over a vast cityscape. The branches of a giant clover-leaf interchange radiate out at the same angle as the flyer’s legs, relative to her body. Second Aeon 12 has prices still in shillings, so it is safe to say that Brown’s visual piece in this is a very early work. Yet the same issue announces a booklet, “The Reason for Leaving Black Daniel”, price 2/-, “prosepoem dada explosions”. Masker picks up one of these early pamphlets, “It ain’t no Sin to Take off Your Skin”. (Opposite the “Work Areas” poem in Second Aeon 12 is a poem by Derek Telling which runs in part “razzmatazz red hot jazz/ come throw off your clothes/ strip right down to your bones,/ dance ‘til it hurts”.) ‘Skin’ was published by X-Press, one of the completely legendary small presses of the era which was impossibly well informed and had an impossibly high strike-rate. Brown was publisher of Transgravity Press and Actual Size. Quite what the difference was I don’t know.
In the early 60s, Lee Harwood travelled to Paris to meet the original Dadaists, who were still there at that time. He edited a magazine called ‘tzarad’. He was presumably the best-known Dada-influenced poet in around 1970. The practice of most interest for Brown is Max Ernst’s collage narratives, of the 1920s onwards, such as “Une semaine de bonté” (1934). By decontextualising the source material, typically prints of realist engravings of the late Victorian era, Ernst released the most opulent and insanely detailed aspects of the originals. Removing realism made the visual objects incomprehensible and miraculous. Also, by superimposing parts of different organisms, Ernst created monster beings, susceptible of the most wondrous adventures. Ernst’s collages have a preference for composites where a bird’s head sits on a human body - or an insect‘s. Since humans find it obvious that different species have the same limbs, reorganised and re-connected, anatomy provides a basis for narrative, as a dissolute practice of substitution and connection. Why cling to those archaic species boundaries? The narratives were there to pass the time - the fundamental need. Ernst was re-creating narrative rather than abolishing it. Those collage-novels seem basic to Brown’s work. He did a folder of collages called le donne di colore. His visual or psychological sensibility is very different from Harwood’s.
Perhaps it is fair to quote a prose piece from Second Aeon 12, not picked up in the books:
Reasons for leaving Black Daniel
“we ate each other and spat it out in a pool on the sand”
Ice Cool Warp
“the light is fading lights, will have to be turned on and missing shadows reported to the police.
The sky only exists in the breaks between the branches
and the leaves, and it is white”
Thank you My Lady in White, East Finchley
“like a necklace of wind, the white lady in the long silver grey tube. Clutching the blueprint of an engineer he entered the cabin”
Estsanatlehi & Ushas
“the woman who changes, and the opening of the gates of the sky leading together the white horse of the sun; a scream torn from the broken jaw before the guillotine”
“later he picked up a dead newspaper from the gutter of the last century, and began to read.”
“eating earth under the motion of the moon. Can you hear me, Tristam? Listen. Listen. the world is full of dead meat”
“deep, below the crystal city i looked in a mirror and was afraid i saw the reality of dreams in every page of water turning in upon itself and in every motion of the hand that is the movement of fear”
“everyway I turn, the world is my shadow”
Tristam is, and is not, Tzara. Ushas (genitive Ushasas) appears in the Rg-Veda and is goddess of the dawn (cognate with Aurora, for those 19th century scholars). A few words in that stanza may well be taken from the Rg-Veda. “Estsanatlehi is a Navaho goddess from the Arizona area” (according to Witchipedia) and is “the woman who changes“. I really like this piece and its structure is quite likely to shed light on how the later work is made. It is the attenuation to which I would draw attention. Speed is crucial and yet the selection of a single frame means that everything is immobilised. Recovering the technique, however, is quite different from defining what the final poems are like. The technique is a kind of “nozzle” or lens which could take anything on. Moreover, if we looked at a dozen other poets (more or less) demonstrably using montage, found materials, decontextualising, their work is extremely different from Brown’s.
It looks as if Brown found Second Aeon, the Cardiff magazine, a sympathetic outlet. Matthew Jarvis’ talk “Visual Poetics in Wales: A Note on Previous Engagements” excitingly recovered a burst of visual poetry in Wales in five years around 1970, linked quite probably to Second Aeon and to Peter Finch’s enthusiasm. Second Aeon Inc put out two booklets by Brown (Reasons for Leaving Black Daniel, 1971, and Venus in Black Light, 1973) and also Midnight on the Diamond Air by Will Parfitt, one of the visualists whom Jarvis recovered for us (at an event in Hay on Wye). Jarvis even found Parfitt, 45 years on. Quite apart from the brilliance of the visual poems (some of which I had to re-create for a Welsh retrospective), that was a moment which expressed a distrust of the taught system for recording speech and its rigidity in relation to speech (and para-speech). The split from the legacy was a moment which radically affected the way people wrote - even when they stuck to the alphabet. Brown may have redefined his work in terms of three volumes which don’t include any visual work, but all the same he belongs to a whole class of “post visual” poets. The relationship between foreground and background was one of the things which shifted. Generally, Brown seems to imagine the poem in terms of a plane, so of overall relations, rather than as a sequence of unique moments, each one present briefly, moving forward (with a ‘before’ and ’after). This is more like pictorial organisation than like a passage of speech. Because the foreground had involved the speaker of the poem, a disruption of the foreground also means a shift of the ego - a different limb design, perhaps the wing of a bat. The difficulties of description arise partly because the firmest plane is the most inexplicit and the evocative quality is revealed in manipulating the undifferentiated level of dream or drug trance. These novels cannot finish and yet they freeze on movement. Finding plane edges allows the narrative to hover on a wispy surface between disappearance and revelation. A strip you only find by luck and retain by a curious predatory immobility.
The surviving words are like flakes floating on a sea. Just as the flakes are flimsy so the underlying plane must be firm - a gestalt. We could look at the deletions rather than the surviving text. The implicit is different from the deleted.
Brown’s poem is a sparse surface but the underlying pattern is not necessarily sparse. The breaking down of the foreground allows the background to become more dominant even though it is not verbal. It is a fertile fragmentation, animated fragments. The plane could in fact be the source narrative from which the scraps of language emerge – the holograph log of The Rose, or The 39 Steps. The poem arrives from the destruction of the original narrative but not of the “canvas” on which it was painted. The unifying plane is not in fact the original. It is genuinely the undifferentiated, all-containing. “By the Miskatonic River”, a nostalgic slice of a Lovecraft story, is closest to a straight re-enactment, but surrounded by poems which are anything but. The poems based on The 39 Steps (‘False Denouements’) are not regressing back to 39 Steps but driving on through. The Navajo quote in ‘Work Areas’ has non-integrity: the wisp about a goddess is not leading back to a documentary about the Navajo, it is pointing to a gestalt that isn’t there yet. This is why it was split out. This is very clear in ‘Work Areas’ but it may persist in the very different structures of Meetings.
This description of the “background plane” is subjective. The vocabulary for this area is undeveloped. All the same figuring out the context of a poem, or a TV programme, or a film, is something we have had a lot of practice at doing. That is, it is a highly developed skill. To go on, describing a poem as “minimal” or “pared down” is unproductive- we want to know how the whole spatial frame of which the poem is a fragment is being manipulated. The term “minimal” is not a good classifier. The ‘Mysterious traveler’ thing is minimal. Changing the subject, At a certain point in my childhood, Marvel changed its corporate name to Marvel Pop Art productions. How do we get from “bold – immediate – pop art” to “sparse – cryptic – Underground weird”? I am not sure the poetry changed all that much – it was more the framing. Underground methods are populist because they are spontaneous and anti-authoritarian. It is only by great effort that the world pretends they aren’t populist. Peter Finch actually is populist and Brown was frequently published in Finch’s magazine. Just possibly the “framing” sheds light on the “context manipulation” which is basic to Brown’s poems. As in, I can’t actually demonstrate either one. Did poetry become difficult as part of exploring its boundless new realm, or was it that the departure of the editors of the two large-circulation “modern” magazines (Second Aeon and Poetry Review) in a three-year period withdrew it from the marketplace and nothing else advanced to bring it back? I am unclear about this. It’s not a subjective question but the facts are not easy to recover.
The method of acquiring external material allows a modality of greedy and even manic accumulation, in which the poet stacks up assets like some Pharaoh assembling status objects in the chambers of a Pyramid. Brown has a much quieter, even melancholic, approach. The acquisition is somehow to do with a small, vulnerable, ego rather than with a royal size one. It is as if there were a negative eye, which sheds images just as the receptive eye acquires them. His behaviour towards this found material is austere even if fascinated. Non-documentary, non egoistic: we are in open waters.
Masker includes several photographs of people wearing masks and sitting in a café alongside people who are not dressed up and just look like rather tired people grabbing some food. Was this part of a performance piece? I don’t know. To be literal, one of the faces is wearing stylised mask-like make-up (rather like Marcel Marceau) and not a mask. Maskers is a word for mummers, in some parts of the country. The word mask occurs in a poem, in the sequence ‘Oyster Bay’ -
The earth was young then - focus on that
still no lightning but always hope to wake up
hell to think the pump should ever stop
(first it's a playground, then it's a cage -out)
So much for so little she said and set the sparrow trap
a chestnut bay cantered in on the wind
lime lay on the field gently digesting
i had thought all this but a temporary disorder
an afternoon in early April if you like that kind of thing
At the lake I witnessed only myself shot through
with light and facing the new mask with the barest
of smiles he stepped in - and in no time at all
was up to my image - and beyond
This is a good moment to point out how unconvincing any description of a poem like this is. A good paraphrase for “At the lake I witnessed only myself shot through/with light “ would be “This line actually means that at the lake I witnessed only myself shot through with light”. The ‘myself’ is presumably reflected in the lake which the other person steps into. The last four lines contain a compressed story - about the exchange of identity. This may possibly explain why masker was a book title. It also offers a possibility that each poem is there as a mask which a reader puts on to enter a role - the phrases of the poem are minimal but robust props to enclose the imagination in its role. Or even - as poster for a film which was never made. You can spend time gazing at the poster. This is not a universal formula – it works for some of the poems. We still wonder, why were some tags selected and others not. It is not a satirical principle – more one of aesthetic preference. Brown is not being sarcastic about Richard Hannay.
Brown’s work is minimal and inexplicit; is there any reason to think I can give a description of the poems which is visibly correct and also makes them recognisable, as resembling the descriptions? Or: what is the value of inserting something into a cultural context when the fabric of which it is made is decontextualising? This issue is especially cogent with Meetings and Pursuits, where the fabric is utterly minimal and the implied narrative strange and unrecoverable. The melody is of profound dissociation but in terms of breaking out into dream, into the infinity of narratives which surrealism wanted to dissolve the barriers of, that dissociation may be effective.
It is tempting to connect Brown with poets, such as Ulli Freer, Phil Jenkins, Paul Gogarty, Peter Finch, Ralph Hawkins, who are roughly of the same generation and who had some of the same values. But the problem is that there were so many poets in the “70s generation” that the phenomenon of “crowd-out” had affected everything and in fact placing Brown within, partly behind, a crowd of poets was the reason why his work is not celebrated at this date. The publishing of Cabin makes life better and allows a feeling of ease, on the lines of “we have now got the Seventies taped and in only another 30 years we will have the Eighties taped as well”. It coincided with better information becoming available about Paul Evans and Paul Green - surely signs of progress even if, arguably, not quite the end of “getting with“ the Seventies. Anyway, Paul Brown’s work is evidently significant and composes a world in itself.