Review 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.