The 91st in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is a double-decker from the September 1996 issue: Diane Brown’s review of a poetry collection by Auckland University law professor Bernard Brown (no relation), and an interview with him by Janet Tyler who, I think, was a former student of Bernard’s. As I was. And as were David Lange (see below) and Winston Peters. Richard Prebble too, I’m pretty sure. Can’t blame Bernard for any of what any of his former students did.
It was hard to find a photo of Bernard that didn’t include a wine glass. Impossible, actually. So the photo above is of Bernard with a wine glass, at lunch in Auckland’s Mai Thai restaurant with Kevin Ireland, Graeme Lay, Peter Bland and others. The shirt and arm to the left is mine. [Photo credit: Graeme Lay.]
SURPRISING THE SLUG
Cape Catley, $17.95, ISBN 0908561504
Reading the poem “Sufficient Pussy” from Surprising The Slug to my creative writing class in Paremoremo Prison could perhaps be described as a provocative act. There was a sharp intake of breath and then delighted laughter (from the non-cat lovers anyway) as they got the joke. “All cats can go to hell/ and save me worry;/ the only cat I ever loved/ was one in Bradford in a curry.” Compared to most of the poems here, “Sufﬁcient Pussy” is slightly throwaway, but has the same irreverent, sly quality.
Brown takes a keen interest in animals, usually unfavourably comparing the behaviour of humans as in “Who’s Who”, where a monkey observes a scratching man and asks, “I wonder if/ I am my keeper’s brother.”
“Best Friend” tells of the day that the narrator’s dog Frederika, spoke. He claims to have been so shocked that he couldn’t remember the words spoken: “It was like/ tuming on the tele/ and ﬁnding a former lover on it/ growling.” Like all the best comedians, Brown reserves the best lines to the end. It would be unfair to quote too many, because for all their apparent casualness these poems have been carefully set up with verbal agility to catch a laugh.
Essentially Bernard Brown is a storyteller. There are some lyric poems, but most of the collection is narrative-based. Some poets maintain that the narrative no longer has a place in contemporary poetry, but this stance ignores potential readers who crave meaning and accessibility. In our busy lives what could be better than a well-crafted story read in less than a minute? And when the writer has led such an interesting life as Brown’s, it’s a real bonus. There are narratives telling of the discovery of the drowned Mrs Soam’s legs sticking out of a rain-drum, arrow wounds in New Guinea and eating “one of our number” in North Borneo.
Childhood poems skilfully reveal a rich fantasy life. In “Canal Knowledge” the local kids ﬁght the Jewish refugees (“When I was Gary Cooper,/ way back West of Ipswich”; “Love Suite Love” explores sexual awakening, “Like someone in a movie/ (R6 l)/ scored by Tchaikovsky,/ starring me”.
Some hint of Brown’s inﬂuences are found in “Waterways”. A small boy walking along the Ipswich canal with a grandfather telling of “crocodiles, palpitating drums and things/ unspeakable befalling whites (a dark/ and oily swan once bit his boot)”. The family poems are poignant and moving and all the more so for the wry humour: “Aunt Maud,/ who’d acquired him straight/ from the trenches (and preferred him/ shell-shocked)”.
The poems cover a wide geographical space and time from 16th-century Suffolk to Moruroa 1995, but Brown has grouped them into three heads, “Solitary Trails”, “Supping in Quiet Company” and “Later Perils, which tie in neatly with the title. Overall cohesion is in the voice, which is learned and articulate but never takes itself too seriously. Puns feature often. The last poem, “To Light Applause”, advises aging comedians and others, “so be/ your age before/ they shut you down.”
In a country where poetry publishing is dominated by the academic presses and a lack of humour, Surprising the Slug is wonderfully refreshing. I do hope Bernard Brown defies his own advice and returns with more witty acts.
Bernard Brown wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He didn’t need one — he was born instead with a pun upon his tongue and his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek. “Partly hit and partly myth,” he says of the poems in his third poetry collection, Surprising The Slug. Not that he would describe himself as a poet. “I really am a versiﬁer,” he says, casting himself with the likes of Pam Ayres, only without the accent and royalties. “I really want to record and entertain, rather than convert anybody to anything. A poet is a message carrier to society. If I do say something, it’s incidental. I’m the kind of versiﬁer who sees himself as carrying the bad news and getting his head cut off.” Nor does he consider himself a performer, at least, not in the Hunt or Eggleton sense: “For God’s sake, they remember their poetry.” He writes poetry and claims promptly to forget it. A reticent performer, he will only read his poetry if thrashed to do so.
By profession, Brown is a legal academic. As a rustic lad far away from his Suffolk village he joined the shortest queue on enrolment day at Leeds University, only to discover he had signed on for law instead of English. The move to academia was inevitable after, as a reluctant RAF ofﬁcer in Singapore, he defended 37 accused in court, attaining 37 convictions. He moved smoothly into the newly created Singapore University law faculty. It was an exciting time, he says, mixing with mostly literary people like D] Enright, settling into a bar for two or three days, talking great talk and not getting inebriated. Eventually he was cabled a job offer for a lectureship at Auckland University where he has remained, teaching the likes of Jim McLay and Doug Graham. He also taught David Lange, who can recite from memory his favourite poem, “Requiem. North Borneo Coast. December 1947”, included in Surprising the Slug.
Brown has few ambitions for his “evacuees”: “I write a lot of poems, but I reach a point where I need, every decade, to evacuate them.” He sums up his mission as merely to provide the spark for some other artist to create a more memorable piece of work — as Fiona Samuels did from his poem “Best Friend”. She phoned him at work one morning, “the only morning I’d been to work at a respectable hour”, said she’d seen the poem in Quote Unquote and asked if he would mind her basing a short ﬁlm on it (Bitch, in which the principal character’s Airedale reveals the name of the woman her partner is sleeping with: “Ruth! Ruth!”) The moment was “bloody exciting”.
His wildly understated manner is encapsulated in a speech he gave at a Bar Dinner given in his honour by the Auckland District Law Society and Criminal Bar Association. “The very nice things said about me tonight put me in mind of the much-vaunted Olympic. [She] was launched in 1910, and paid off in 1934. In l911 she almost sank a tug on arrival at New York and went on to hit a naval cruiser. She lost a propeller blade in 1912, accidentally rammed a U-boat in 1919 — wrong year! — got infected with the plague two or three years later and then crushed the Nantucket Lightship, killing its crew of seven. . . No one was quite sure how she came by her nickname, ‘Old Reliable’. Tonight I face a similar problem.”