Filed under: reviews
CONJUROR by Allan Browne (includes Jazzhead CD of new music). extempore publishing, 2012.
On Tuesday, June 6, I was driving down from Sydney to Melbourne, and happened to arrive just in time to attend the media and friends launch of Allan Browne’s Conjuror at Uptown Jazz Café in Fitzroy. Miriam Zolin, extempore’s founder, managing editor, tireless worker and promoter of all things jazz, throws a mean party, and I was primed to hear the poet speak and the drummer play; to hear word and sound collide and collude.
For those unfamiliar with jazz and improvisational music in Australian, Allan Browne has worked as a drummer in bands as diverse as the Red Onion Jazz Band, which he co-founded in 1960, and the Paul Grabowsky Trio in the 1990s; his drumming crosses over from the traditionalist to the avant-garde. As a musician he is a multi-award winner and elder statesman of the form. As a published poet, however, he is a newbie (this first collection covers forty years of writing practice) and a self-confessed autodidact.
In Browne’s realm ‘jazz’ is a form of collaborative writing:
i write in public
our tangled arcs
threaded on grammar, are screeching chalks
or a sea of question marks
That quest for infinitely evolving connections is exactly what jazz and poetry should be about. In Making Your Own Days, Kenneth Koch calls non-traditional rhyming poetry the ‘new music’: ‘a big, fragmentary collection of clearly depicted anecdotes and scenes, held together by invisible connections of sound and emotion . . . in which meaning and music seem to have melted into one another so as to be indistinguishable.’
Supported by Sam Pankhurst (bass) and Marc Hannaford (keyboard) Browne first paid homage to an early exponent of performance poetry. His reading of Vachel Lindsay’s fabulously rhythmic poem ‘The Congo’ (1914) reminded me that jazz is rooted in an oral tradition which goes back to the call-and-response of Afro-American spirituals and field songs, and forward to contemporary rap. Browne’s poems are best read aloud with a drummer’s voice: the beat brings the word to life. If you lack imagination, the CD accompanying the book is an excellent introduction to the music of The Allan Browne Sextet and to Browne’s distinctive Aussie drawl.
Much of the collection, in sections headed ‘Performed with Music’, ‘Muses, Music and Musicians’ and ‘From CDs’, is given over to elucidating the art of jazz: observations of playing, players and their world. Even sections purporting to deal with matters of the body (‘Frail Vessel / Steely Stuff’), the family (‘Heart and Home’) and life in general (‘Mad Mad World’), abound with jazz references. In the title poem ‘Conjuror’, the drummer walks through the crowd hampered by the appurtenances of his trade; he observes himself, the crowd and his progress. The poet and the drummer are both insiders and outsiders; actors and observers. Browne embraces the poetics of reflection and participation. He borrows freely from music and literature, mixing and merging the languages without self-consciousness. In ‘silhouettes ahead’:
the next narrative nags
ripped off, verbatim, empty
and falls a spent flare on a safe sea
Years ago, when I ran a bookstore, Browne would occasionally drop in. His reading was eclectic, a self-education in what might have been the Bloom-ian canon. I remember him buying Stendhal’s Le Rouge et Le Noir (The Red and the Black), which chronicles a provincial young man’s attempts to rise above his modest beginnings with a combination of talent and hard work. It amuses me to equate Browne, the lad from Deni (Deniliquin, NSW), with Stendhal’s hero, Julien Sorel, but a momentary doubt assails: I might be mis-remembering. Perhaps it was not The Red and the Black he bought, but The Charterhouse of Parma; perhaps he bought both on different occasions; perhaps I am making the whole thing up? In any case, though I can detect no direct references to Stendhal in Conjuror, other classics are openly acknowledged. Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’ inspired nine recorded compositions and Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘The Drunken Boat’ inspired both the The Allan Browne Quintet’s eponymous CD (2007) and several poems, including ‘je ne puis plus’:
notes of resignation
into her own misère
the notes are bells
ringing, chastely tuned
pitched to her god
by a human catch
a larynx shrunk
in fearful artistry.
The first verse ends on a tone of awe at the vocalist’s talent: her ability to pitch her voice to heavenly spheres, but to remain fragile, vulnerable, ‘human’. I assume Browne refers here to Stella Browne, who sings on the CD, but the sentiment could apply equally well to any jazz vocalist, who has stood upon a spotlit stage and soothed the audience with the panacea of her voice. The second verse concludes:
a frail nightingale
halo’d in grubby light
lifted the jaded spirit
of an exhausted quintet
thankful for the darkness.
The best poems in this collection evoke similarly atmospheric scenes. They also display the same irritating quirk of punctuation: a full-stop at the end of every verse. Why, I wonder, use this emphatic point when the tone of the verse would be better served by remaining open ended; when neither the line breaks nor the rest of the poem’s punctuation warrants a full-stop? I wonder whether this is not some residue of musical composition (of which I know nothing). I would have expected a looser structure, something closer to the notations made for improvisation, from this jazz master.
Drummers are traditionally regarded as a somewhat diffident species, but Browne is not of that type. I have seen him flirt shamelessly across the footlights, pluck a rant out of the ether at random and pump out a set of controlled rolls, all at the same time. He is a raconteur who should be allowed to speak for himself:
oh yeah, but no
just family diffidence
no, but yes
the old hum hah
to the final no or yes whatever
Filed under: reviews
Let me begin with a provocation (Javant will appreciate this): Javant Biarujia and I are twins,Doppelgänger. Back in the 1980s, when I was still writing under my Lithuanian name, Jurate, a collection of my prose poems came out with Javant’s small press, Nosukumo. Some people thought I was another Javant Biarujia invention; his pseudonym. Perhaps I am a fiction and this review a shameless piece of self-promotion. How much more interesting to live the life of a figment.
Javant is the inventor of a private language, Taneraic; he is his own invention, self-named from the Taneraic language; a re-invention of the lad from Koo Wee Rup. The town is real, but I might be inventing Javant’s antecedents. Some one out there must know the truth. Javant Biarujia’s original name is one of the best kept secrets of Australian letters, even though Javant himself delights in gossip and anecdote. He is a terrific raconteur, but an inventor above all else.
John Jenkins launched Resinations in May this year at Collected Works Bookshop (see:http://www.johnjenkins.com.au/essays-a-articles/poetry-a-writing/134-launch-speech-for-javant-biarujias-resinations-may-2012.html). I won’t repeat his cogent words. Suffice to say that all the poems in Resinations are named after resinous gums of some kind, or refer to the production of resinous gums, or to the sources of resinous gums. All the poems are variations on the pantoum, a form with repeating lines derived from the pantun of Malay verse; a sign of Javant’s abiding connection with South-East Asia and Indonesia.
John gave an inspired introduction and a brilliant/crazy close reading of the first poem in the collection, ‘Animé’. He delved into each word and line, extrapolated and swam a perfect freestyle, careful and exact. I don’t want to do that. I take John’s final exhortation to heart – go, read, ‘make of it what you will’ – and waft in Javant’s wide sea, waiting to see which way the tide flows, waiting to see how his words connect with me. I become the inventor and make Resinations over in my own image.
Resinations: easy to see resin and nations here, but I also find sin and a wicked sense of humour; I hear resignations and read signs, redesign, resign. I find fragments of myself: shards of amber dreams; a fly caught in a millennial web; a fly caught in the ever multiplying and abundant possibilities conjured by Javant’s dense and sticky text. I think he must have written ‘Amber’ for me.
forever amber along those death valley days
clear your mind of Kant! reaganonmics flummoxed
syndrome comparati defectus immunitatis
“Never heard of it! – Just say no Nancy-boy.”
that two bit b-grade blackballing el Presidente
says who Gorby: tyro thru the pyrrhics with me!
nuntius fulminans: PUPPET OR PEOPLES MAN?
no early bedtime for Bonzo it s the holidays!
I find Jūratė, who was the goddess of the sea in Lithuanian mythology; whose amber palace accounts for the shards of amber washed up on Baltic shores. I find my misspent youth: too many hours in front of the telly; too many movies hosted by Bill Collins. I know ‘Bonzo’ refers to Ronald Reagan’s film Bedtime for Bonzo. I know ‘Nancy-boy’ refers to both Nancy Reagan and homosexuals (it’s always about sex, really). I can hear Tiny Tim’s ‘tiptoe through the tulips with me.’ I don’t have to know Latin to get the drift of ‘syndrome comparati defectus immunitatis’: a reference to AIDS. The odd thing was that when I googled the phrase, the Latin-Navajo Dictionary came up top of the list! But of course! Thus ‘death valley’ and, I suspect, a mutual love of the Serge Leoni western. Am I reading too much connection?
Javant’s poetic experiments can be traced back to the Modernists, Dada, Oulipo, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E School, the secret language of Polari, even Wittgenstein’s private language arguments. But I am reminded of the Denkbilder (thought-images) of the Frankfurt School, especially Walter Benjamin’s One-way Street. His snapshots-in-prose do not attempt to clarify a single thought, but are intended to open thoughts to the hidden meanings fabricated by the mind. The poems in Resinations work the same way.
Q: What is the difference between and dratchell and a drazel?
there were these three travellers yeah – a magician
a pearly king and a wiseguy see?
Larry Curley and Moe
the mouse ran up the clock – three blind mice
three blind mice an baby jesus in the cradle
the shmok s the one wiped his dick on her Dralon drapes
A: The same as between a shlemiel and a shlemazel!
‘Frankincense’ asks, what’s the difference between a slattern and a slut? Answer: nothing! A Moe is a shmo is a shlemiel is a shlemazel is a jerk is a fumbler (my nod to Gertrude Stein, Javant’s ‘Gert by Stone’). The three wise kings are blind, as is organized religion, Javant seems to say. Beneath the hokey humour and infinite elaborations, there is serious intent: a commentary on the precarious state of world affairs. Jerusalem, ‘I-rack’, the ‘rataplan’ sound of machine-gun fire, the corpse of Yasser Arafat, and our credulity and stupidity appear in various guises.
Javant is nothing if not eclectic. High culture and popular culture sit happily side by side: Dorothy Lamour and Donizetti’s opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, together in ‘Guaiac’; ‘Lana [Turner] turns a tonal trick’ here too. Film, I’ve already mentioned, but in ‘Mastich’ we find ‘The Servant, Le Chien Andalou,/ Blow-Up . . .’ Think about it. The mind boggles! References to art, literature and music abound. In ‘Benjamin’ (not Walter, I imagine, but the ‘righteous child’ of The Old Testament, and a resin, of course) we find Salinger, Freud, Dickens, Proust, Moravia, Byron, El Greco, Zurbarán and Banksy! Even if you don’t know the work of all or each intimately, you get the picture; the names resonate. We hear from everyone; from Reg Varney (‘Butea Gum’) to the New York Dolls (‘Gum Arabic’). I could go on! I can’t go on.
My advice for reading Resinations is to try it aloud. Even if your pronunciation is wrong or off, it matters not, Javant Biarujia’s words will pounce on you, wreak havoc and make you laugh out loud. As he says in ‘Dhak’, ‘“Sod em today Gomorrah tomorrah!”’
PS My only question is, is ‘Euprorbium’ meant to ‘Euphorbium’?
Filed under: reviews
Published February, 2013
Filed under: à la
see how the light hits
shadow flits on a clear day,
figure how the eight runs
a dog chasing tail,
a snake collapsing into myth,
a sluice over the Keys
and the beats, breathe an oval
champagne-shaped and breast-sized
fit your lips to my glass,
slide down my throat
the sound and taste of love
don’t blow it, baby,
play it—oh behave!
track it, crack it,
put me on the rack
I’ve never been
in love before
french-fry me, italicise me,
my wound’s still fresh
Cole and Porter me, to be precise,
every note you write supports me
your silence haunts me,
as if I could forget
your fingers on the clef
Filed under: à la
young drums make a round young sound
the go-between sax and keys——
beats me how spacious the world becomes
the light on trees: branches trace a calligraphy
ink flicks darting leaves, breezes rifle
this makes me happy she sighs, she smiles
through the ever-distant haze which falls
between meaning and erasure: as soon as
notes alight they disappear, less than thoughts
the shadows of thoughts, ghosts
without name or home, clouds made of cotton
the flow of time reflected in a silent pool
she is cast adrift on the sea of memory
on an island emerging, a haven safe
from the annihilation of past present future
the hum of song just audible below the surface
the end of time just visible over the next horizon
death makes us immortal someone said
or memory, I add
for Kim Newone
Filed under: à la
The dove has a sad mouth.
The cross is stitched (in Celtic mode).
The triumvirate is gold.
Clouds paste over the sky.
The light grows dim.
Pluck the strings of my heart
rotgut over steel. I mean catgut,
of course, or horsehair,
fabric of a pre-industrial age.
Pat the girl and make her groan,
pick at the scab and make her yelp
(moan?) twist and writhe.
What fresh cross is this? What bliss!
Knees upon the wooden floor.
Back against the wooden door.
Bar across the wooden neck.
San Francesco gasps
face pressed against the bars
thin enough to push his way
through. He stays
in praise of the dove / the cross / the trine
a coo / a stripe / a herald
ear to the bars
more felt than heard.
The vibration of elongated fingers
plucking the dove
picking the cross
slapping the triangle——
O my she cries.
after Barre Phillips