Quite an Experience

the fool and the physician, Andy Brown (96pp, £12.99, Salt)

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
     dignity but 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 otherworldly:

     Here is Orion, throwing knives at Venus,
     and Hercules 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:

     and this audience of one returns to gravity
     and stumbling 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
     depends on where we see him--
     a circus or party, no problem,
     but ringing your doorbell at sundown?

     That clown is a psycho killer,
     a mirror of your fears,
     knocking the world out of kilter ...
     and his laughter? It shears.
           ('A 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:

     On Marriage Street they walk with both hands tied,
     whilst on Forgiveness Street they throw themselves
     prostrate upon the ground. Way over there
     on Future Street a step extends as far
     as a mile, crossing the horizon to
     no-one knows 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
     of hoarfrost gone. The earth is gently
     heating, idling into its daily goings-on, ...
              (from 'The Garden of Earthly Delights'1)

                                      Heroes and heroines
     get in a fling. Doyens of the stage
     and dairy girls entertain hale goatherds;
     dainty gals enthral daft gents and headstrong sons.
          (from 5)

     Rather as a tin of sardines is filled
     to the edge, so they lie in tight layers,
     in tangles, in trios, stirred in desire, a-fire.
             (from 7)

                           After the orgy, are they tinged
     in sadness 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
     their heights. .....
               (from 9)

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 thought-provoking.

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:

     To wear Cement Shoes and Columbian Necktie.
    To be Crucified, or Crushed. To die
      by Decapitation by Axe, Sword or Guillotine.

     or by the firing Squad. To suffer
     the Five Pains: removal of the nose, hand, foot,
     castration, 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 Greek myth.

     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.
             (from 'Chimeras')

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 many varieties.

         © Steve Spence. 2012