An Incredible Sense of Trust: Nathan Curnow and
Kevin Brophy's Radar

Posted on February 19, 2013 by in Verity La Reviews

An Incredible Sense of Trust: Nathan Curnow and <br />Kevin Brophy's Radar

Radar coverReview by Lucy Alexander

Imagine you’re browsing the bookshop and you pick up the slim volume of Radar, with its cover the colour of vellum and the concentric circle pattern around the title the first clue that there is more in your hand than one book of poems.  There is one title, but two authors – ‘Poetry by Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow’  – and just there, for a moment, you might imagine two heads bent over the one column of words.  Poets working together?  Would that make the poems better – two minds bent to the same task of meaning making? Or would it be more like poetry by committee, flattening out the oblique angles of expression?

In reality Radar is – as the back cover makes clear, once you turn the volume over – two complimentary collections of poetry sewn together into one book.  Perhaps the reason for this is financial, for Walleah Press to spend less on the print-run and pack more poems into the $25 volume.  Perhaps it also has something to do with the way these two voices balance one another:  Nathan Curnow’s ‘conscious confessions’ as he calls them, attaching lifelines to Kevin Brophy’s already rescued ‘unconscious waking dreams’.

In this back-cover paradox lies something at the centre of these two collections: the poets have worked together, but also apart, as their subject matter and technique show.  The poems of Radar call and answer one another.  The poets know and like one another and are excited, happy even, to have their poems displayed together – as it were.  Like visual artists in a gallery.  Yet somehow the book is a more permanent arrangement. The two collections in Radar will be bound up together well into the future.  Will the names Brophy and Curnow come to be associated, even when the poets are tired of the comparisons?

The title Radar also suggests the other; radar is an object detection system, technology that seeks out the unknown, or tracks the otherwise inscrutable.  So somehow, before we’ve even opened the book or tasted one poem, we see that the poems are blips on the horizons of one another.  That Brophy’s ‘radar’ picks up Curnow’s, and vice versa.  The two poets’ works sit finely balanced on some fulcrum just before page 60.

Curnow’s collection appears first.  The impulse here is over-archingly autobiographical, often tongue in cheek, venturing from family poems to flights of fancy that spark and crack with incisive originality.  Brophy’s is more academic in flavor; the poems often have at their core some research, some moment in time that illuminated Brophy’s imagination and set his mind slithering though the laneways of possibility.  While Curnow seems to sing, perhaps Brophy whispers – when someone whispers you are more likely to believe what they say.

Curnow’s Radar also displays a wit and cheek.  ‘The Telepathy Poem’ – should I spoil it? No, look for yourself on page 35. ‘Norman Lindsay upon Visiting the Ballarat Art Gallery’ and ‘The Midwife’.  But he also displays a more thoughtful and almost prayer-like mood in ‘Blessing’, ‘The Curtain’, and ‘Gently Against the Grain’These latter poems are complex, musical, textured and require the reader’s considered attention.   And yet, they are also highly accessible, their secrets and wonders wrapped up in the imagery that Curnow does so well.  Like here, in ‘Blessing’, which opens:

It came rushing towards me across the paddocks
all I had to do was stand – the moment roaring
silent and ancient, collapsing into bloom.

And for that image the silence can roar and the mysterious ‘it’ can remain just as it is, because all at once it is the poem, the gift to the poet, it is the realisation, it is that ‘blessing of existence’, the thing that we will not name ‘God’ or ‘Death’.  And here, it seems, Curnow really stretches his poetic wings.

Curnow’s work together reads somewhat like a musician’s album; there’s even a ‘Bonus Track’ (a prose poem ‘Made from the Matter of the Stars’ that charts the unfortunate quest of a young man to know why there aren’t more aliens in the Bible, family violence, isolation and broken promises).  Curnow’s collection has that shape, and its reference points, when they are not personal (many of the poems are dedicated to friends and family, for instance: for my bee keeper father, Rev. E. A. Curnow  for ‘Hives’, even: for Kevin Brophy, ‘I Shoot You At The Pond’,) they are musical: After Earth Dance flute and piano by Ross Edwards  for ‘Toward the Harbour and Out’ and the dedication is a quote from ‘Elvis Presley Blues’. So Curnow’s collection is framed by these music-related parenthesis; they invite not simply reading but also listening.

Brophy’s Radar is longer – his collection is 68 pages to Curnow’s 46 – and each poem is knotted and complex.  Here, the poems are longer, the words more often stretching to the margins and settling to the edges of the pages.  But they are a delight to read, as they untangle from what might at first seem intractable knots and open to reveal intricacies of learning and humour and shapes leaning against one another in perfect balance.  As you read your own knotted brow of concentration is rewarded by a smile of realisation.

Where Curnow references music, Brophy’s are multiple, academic, wide-ranging reading and travel and phenomenology, aphorisms and other people’s stories – not so much his own. In ‘Report on the Phenomenology of Post-Death Experiences’, Brophy’s tone is convincingly academic – the dry report of the overseers of the ‘transition to eternity’ ending with: ‘We suggest wider questionnaires across a greater sample at a larger number of gates.’  But then, he shows how adept he is at writing the memorable line: In ‘Flicker’: ‘Those fallen branches are the images of sound.’ Or, in ‘Thirty Six Aphorisms and Essays’ (perhaps in reference to Baal Shem Tov?): ‘The shadow, it is avoiding the terrible light.  The light, it fears only the shadow, which is its secret home’. And ‘The Secret of a harmonious life: explain everything to your dog and nothing to your cat.’ These are just a few examples from a collection that has many of these twined and twisted into it.

What Brophy achieves in Radar is an incredible sense of trust between the reader and the poet.  His strength in the many aspects of life and writing he explores is that he never lets the reader down.  Each poem upholds the poet’s intention, and as you read you are held in thrall of this whispering voice that is as convincing as it is poetic, as deft with the words as it is with the concepts it is handling.  At the end of the collection, when poems are called such things as ‘Hamlet at Burham, Boiling Skull and Winding Staithe’ you find yourself reading on entranced, even for ‘Gaudi Gaudi Gaudi’, because you trust Brophy now, he is in full charge of your mind.

So, perhaps now you’ve had a good look at the volume, flicked through the pages and examined the weight and texture of the poems, you should take it home to spend more time with.  Or buy it for the type of friend that you’d like to be collected in a poetry book with, because ‘Each thing can only be explained by referring to something else.  We know that, it doesn’t take a lifetime to know that’ (Brophy, ‘Carrying Things Across the Room’ p103).

Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow
Walleah Press, 2012
130 pages, $25.

ALWAYS KNOWING WHEN TO TURN THE PAGE: an interview with Nathan Curnow and
Kevin Brophy

Posted on October 30, 2012 by in Lighthouse Yarns

ALWAYS KNOWING WHEN TO TURN THE PAGE:  an interview with Nathan Curnow and <br /> Kevin Brophy

Radar coverMore and more it’s being reported that poetry is experiencing a resurgence, primarily due to the form finding a home – or endless homes – on the internet.  Poetry seems to suit blogs, online journals, even in the social-media space (amongst the torrents of Facebook and Twitter drivel it’s always a pleasure to find some carefully crafted words, or tips on how to find some).  Although no one’s yet collected the statistics, an increasing number of people might be experiencing poetry, which can only be a good thing. Long-live the creative wordsmith.

Two poets who should be at the forefront of this resurgence (if they’re not already) are Nathan Curnow, a regular here in Verity La Land, and Kevin Brophy – we can all thank our lucky stars that they’ve recently co-authored Radar (Walleah Press 2012).  Astute readers will remember that we published Brophy’s ‘Flicker‘ and Curnow’s ‘Blessing‘ in August and September 2012 respectively.  Go on, grab yourself a copy – you won’t regret it.

Nathan Curnow is a poet, playwright and performer who has toured Australia and New Zealand and been heard widely on ABC radio. He is the author of The Ghost Poetry Project, a collection of poetry based upon his stays at ten haunted sites across the country and released by Puncher & Wattman (2009). He has also won the prestigious Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize and co-edited the 30th birthday edition of literary journal Going Down Swinging. Kevin Brophy teaches creative writing in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. From 1980 to 1994 he was founding co-editor of Going Down Swinging. In 2005 he was awarded the Martha Richardson Medal for poetry. In 2009 he was co-winner of the Calibre Prize for an outstanding essay.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.


Congratulations on your joint collection Radar – it’s a truly wonderful read. How would you both describe the book?


I like to think it’s an attentive book, from my collection of poetry to Kevin’s collection of prose-poems, two different forms and styles scanning memory, dreams and experience through language. We didn’t set out intending to come at it from different angles, but I’m so pleased that it turned out the way. Perhaps my work monitors the open skies while Kevin’s searches the ocean depths.


The book fits us between its covers because I think we are both poets driven by a lyrical impulse, interested in pursuing narratives-of-feeling, both of us schooled (though in different eras) by Melbourne’s performance scene, and both committed to a poetry of plain speaking. The book is most definitely two books for the reason Nathan suggests: the forms are very different. Free verse has its own modern tradition now, especially in English poetry, and Nathan exploits it, revels in it. He knows how to make a line work, and how to bend a line ending. There’s none of this in the prose-poems, which are visually not-poetry, and work much more as mental swirls, as clouds posing as paragraphs, slightly exotic as a form. Both of us, though, I think, head out into fiction at times…


How did the idea for the book come about?  Was it along the lines of ‘I’ve got some poems, you’ve got some poems – let’s do this’?  Or was there something deeper going on from the very beginning?


I guess the deepest thing going on is that we’re mates and have liked each other’s writing, and approach to writing, for some time. I had been sitting on a number of poems when Ralph Wessmann from Walleah Press approached me with an offer of publication. What I had amounted to about half a collection so I made the suggestion of a 2-in-1 book. Thankfully Kevin jumped at the opportunity, which was a real thrill seeing that he’s been instrumental to my development over the years. I don’t even think he had anything written at the time, and we didn’t look over each other’s work until the latter stages. All I knew was that he was heading to Europe and had promised to write, which was enough for me. It’s kind of like if the film director Terence Malick says he’s happy to work with you. The only answer is ‘Wow, let’s do it!’ and then you figure it out as you goPerhaps Kevin could speak about the process from his end, because I think he was exploring a different approach to how he usually works.


I believe that Ralph and Nathan were looking for a female Tasmanian poet to partner Nathan with the book. And somehow they stumbled across me. I liked the idea because I did want to try writing a book in a creative frenzy, over about six months, and knowing Nathan’s work I knew he would be both professional and lively. I was relieved when I read his first draft, to see that he had taken an autobiographical approach to his collection, while I had taken a more ‘fictional’ and speculative approach to my little paragraphs. I was pleased to see that the two halves would be different enough, and both hopefully engaging for their own reasons. Of course there was something deeper going on and that might make the reading of the book a little more interesting and unsettling than many poetry collections.


Radar certainly is more interesting and unsettling than many poetry collections. Two themes that have emerged so far in our interview are the notion of autobiography and the slip to and from fiction.  I wonder if you could expand on these elements of the work.


One of the great twentieth century poet-eccentrics (later adopted by the Language poetry movement), Louis Zukofsky, wrote that ‘the test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection.’ That’s ok, and as poets we want to ‘afford’ our readers those pleasures. But they are not the full range of pleasures. The critic Kenneth Cox, an admirer of Zukofsky, finally decided that with Zukofsky ‘What is lacking is afflatus’. He meant ‘the breath of life that sends a thrill down the spine and gets engraved on memory’. Whether it is autobiography or fiction does not really matter; what matters is whether the body and its breath are in the work, along with those other pleasures poetry can afford its readers. Nathan’s work heaves with afflatus. One of the reasons I pushed out of the line into the paragraph was to get at that part of me that brings the world and its afflatus into the words. I would be pleased if our poetry looks unsettled, and even more pleased if the poetry is unsettling.


As Kevin says, the line between autobiography and fiction doesn’t really matter, what matters is the strength of the piece, how it works and conveys. Although much of my work uses autobiography as a launching off point, I don’t primarily write to tell people about my life, because I know that writing can never give the whole picture. Poems are inadequate frames and writing demands twists and turns which askew everything. Still, much of my work in Radar presents as autobiography which I’m not particularly comfortable with at times, and it’s the reason I’ve included the poem ‘To the Google Earth Tracking Vehicle’, kind of warning the reader that while I’m trying to be honest, it’s also just a pose and can’t escape being that. So the line is hazy and complex, and what matters most is the ‘full range of pleasures’ for the reader that Kevin refers to. This is why I’m so excited about the direction he takes in Radar, because he’s still showing me how to write about life in new ways. His pieces are full of strong images and a deceptively simple tone that presents characters we can all relate to, ones with obvious failings. They are portraits that speak honestly and intimately about others, about all of us, and so therefore, indirectly, about what Kevin does (and perhaps doesn’t) know about himself. I like that you refer to it as ‘the slip to and from fiction’, Nigel. It’s so slippery that it almost becomes a non-issue.


What hopes do you have for Radar?


This is the toughest question. I hope that Radar grows up into a fine classic book without feeling it has a split personality or a repressed side of itself that won’t stay repressed. I hope Radar has a large extended family of readers who get together once a year to talk about it. I hope Radar gets to talk with critics and other books along the way, and that in its retirement, when it is hopelessly out of copyright and looks like something left over from the era of ink and paper, it can hold its own at the bar and sink a few with those old-timers who are still on their feet. I hope that it doesn’t get too garrulous with age, and always knows when to turn the other page.


All of the above from Kevin. I hope the book is returned to over and over. I hope its owners read it to people that they love and that it inspires them to write. Plus I sent a copy to Missy Higgins, who I’ve never met, so I hope she likes it too.


Radar can be purchased by visiting Walleah Press.

Flicker (Kevin Brophy)

Posted on August 28, 2012 by in Heightened Talk

Flicker (Kevin Brophy)

The last shadow left quietly, almost without personality, flickering as it left like a movement from a horse at the far end of a paddock caught in the corner of your eye, far away under the gigantic pine trees that ring the property, trees so old now that their limbs are tearing loose from their trunks and collapsing hundreds of feet at a time, tearing away at the tree itself as they fall. Those fallen branches are images of sound. Above is a sky that the trees can never fill, though with all their vegetable guile they try to fill that sky with pine. The horse will come up despite all this and stand in the dusk in the paddock, like the beginning of something.