In my view this is Andy Brown's most interesting poetry
collection since West of Yesterday, published by Stride in 1998. The book is split
into two sections, part one, 'A Clown in Moonlight', dealing with the idea of
the clown/fool, culturally, in theory and practice, weaving ideas and
insights within the framework of a distinct lyrical voice and utilising a
variety of poetical forms both traditional and modern and often combining the
two. His ability to juxtapose the philosophical with the lyrical in such a
sure-footed manner is rare and one of the things that drew me to his poetry
in the first place. Part two, 'The Fool and the Physician', works with some
of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, an early precursor of surrealism, some
might argue, and while there's a strong sense of the comic in this 'world
turned upside down' there's also a serious engagement with the human
condition which is filtered through a thoroughgoing sense of the absurd. As
Luke Kennard puts it in the back-cover blurb:
These are poems that teach us there is no
in recognising our own ludicrousness; they teach us
to drop our
pretences and relax; then they pie us in the face.
The opening poem, 'Clown in Space', as you might imagine, posits a clown's
eye-view from outer-space and provides the reader with a scintillating
parallel description of the cosmic circus which is both entertaining and
Orion, throwing knives at Venus,
decked with his barbells and furs.
before returning to earth in a manner which is fuelled by verbal pyrotechnics
and a sense of lingering melancholia:
audience of one returns to gravity
jokes, as the ring-master Sun
calls time on
the cirque du soleil.
(from 'Clown in Space')
'A Clown in Moonlight' is prefaced by a chilling line from Lon Chaney - 'There
is nothing funny about a clown
in the moonlight' and unsurprisingly
presents a much darker side of this popular tradition:
How we feel
about the clown
where we see him--
a circus or
party, no problem,
your doorbell at sundown?
That clown is
a psycho killer,
a mirror of
world out of kilter ...
laughter? It shears.
Clown in the Moonlight')
which also hints at Stephen King, The Avengers and a host of half-buried
memories from folk and popular culture, where The Clown is seen as an
ambiguous and often a sinister presence. There's an enigmatic short fiction
in the guise of a prose poem ('Clown Alley') which has all the power of a
parable and finishes with an intriguing last line of advice - 'When you're
out there throwing knives, always aim with/purpose for the heart.'- and
predictably, perhaps, a haiku, which nevertheless hits the mark - 'The clown
sits in the kiosk/sharpening his wit/on tourist dollars.'
In 'The Lord of Misrule' a wonderful rhythmic simplicity is contrasted with a
dark subject and some lovely puns and unexpected rhymes - '.../owns the whole
paraphernalia/of this wild saturnalia', while in 'Fool Street', a longer poem
is generated more by word/idea association than with the tighter Oulipian
methods often used elsewhere:
Street they walk with both hands tied,
Forgiveness Street they throw themselves
upon the ground. Way over there
Street a step extends as far
as a mile,
crossing the horizon to
precisely where. ...
(from 'Fool Street')
In 'The Fool on 'The End of the World'', Brown utilises an Oulipo trope by
substituting one word for another in order to send the narrative elsewhere.
Thus we get 'It's the end of the worm as we know it,/it's the end as the
hungry thrush feeds', a displacement which follows through this four-stanza
poem and concludes with 'It's the ends of its wounds and its worries./It's
the end of the worry beads.' Playful and rhythmically taut, combining the
best elements of the traditional and the experimental, Brown foregrounds the
'artificial' nature of the poem's structure, while also having something
worthwhile to say.
The centrepiece of Part 2 is entitled 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' - from
the Bosch painting - a poem which again takes a framing device (using only
the letters of the title to write the poem) as a foregrounding feature, to
produce an extended tour de force which is skilful, irreverent, libidinally
charged and filled with wordplay - an
elegantly expressed celebration of excess and a plethora of energy.
This is a poem in 9 parts, a mini-epic which builds in intensity, its earthy
pleasures an erotic mix of the modern and the mediaeval:
It is early,
first light. The land glistens.
the grey of
night has lifted, all signs
gone. The earth is gently
idling into its daily goings-on, ...
(from 'The Garden of Earthly Delights'1)
get in a
fling. Doyens of the stage
girls entertain hale goatherds;
enthral daft gents and headstrong sons.
Rather as a
tin of sardines is filled
to the edge,
so they lie in tight layers,
in trios, stirred in desire, a-fire.
After the orgy, are they tinged
and deflation? Does angst arise?
Does anyone fret
that these forays are fragile,
a fad? Does
anyone lose faith in the flesh?
No. None are
denied their needs. None feign
Hearing Andy Brown read this piece recently was quite an experience, he's
come a long way as both a writer and a performer and he's well worth seeing
live if you get the opportunity - highly entertaining as well as
There's also a dark side to these poems as there is in the work of Bosch
itself. In 'Ecce Homo', a meditation on the pre-Crucifixion theme where
Pilate presents his victim to the mob, becomes a more general history of the
methods used by men to execute their fellows throughout the ages. I can
recall once being told by an art history lecturer that the term 'man's
inhumanity to man', which I'd used in an essay, was a ripe clichˇ. Possibly,
but there seems to be a perennial truth here and one which doesn't bear too
much looking at:
Cement Shoes and Columbian Necktie.
To be Crucified, or
Crushed. To die
Decapitation by Axe, Sword or Guillotine.
or by the
firing Squad. To suffer
Pains: removal of the nose, hand, foot,
then severed at the waist.
(from 'Ecce Homo')
'Chimeras' is an absorbing poem which seems to have been constructed from
meshing descriptions of various 'body-types' - the ectomorph and the
endomorph, for example, with comments on the war machines invented by
Leonardo da Vinci. This also ties in with the 'hybrid bodies', half-man,
half-machine, which are evident in Bosch's paintings, so the end result is,
once again, a mix of the modern and the traditional in terms of the
composition of the poem and also relates to the notion of the Chimera in
He has shoulders wider than his hips;
breech-loading cannons arranged around
the rim of
his wheels. As they rotate
he arches and
discharges each radial bow.
There's a range of work in this section which may well take the interested
reader back to the paintings themselves but the poems also stand on their own
feet, not something you could always say about writing which takes painting
as a starting point.
Although it's clear that a lot of research has gone into producing this
collection, Andy Brown wears his learning lightly and presents his poetry in
an easy to consume manner which is never either facile or burdened with an
overt sense of 'background reading'. There is an informative 'Notes on the
Poems' section at the end of the book but the work is so playful and brimming
with vim and libidinal energy that it's an enjoyable read which you can get
through without feeling it's a chore. There is a dark side, for sure, but the
area between the dark and the light is also apparent and this is a feast of
© Steve Spence.