- Publisher: Random House (NZ)
- ISBN: 1869621190
- Published: September 8, 2006
Reviewed by Michael Harlow, Christchurch Press, 5 November 2006.
A brilliant title: in itself a kind of micro-poem of invitation. And all the more so those “moments” of brilliance at this “party of words…of new identities”. Some party, some invitation–not to be missed–because Diane Brown is able to show what happens when we’re alert to those “moments of recognition” that arrive as moments of truth to the experience of being in the world, and knowing it. And how it is and what does it mean to be so mysterious to ourselves and others? That archetypal question that is at the heart of what we used to call Literature–especially when it arrives so thoughtfully and provocatively as in Here Comes Another Vital Moment. Some samples of which, some “vital ingredients”, and such good sentences and poetry that make this personal “story”‘ more than a report-back on an overseas journey: “Sometimes such a moment is recognised instantly…an ephipany, a shimmer of light which transforms the ordinary into the radiant…a door to a private room inside your body…A place where you know they will always let you in…A small girl plucked out of a box…A river of light to open up the sky…This deep rhythm of laughing…A poem to knock ten years off your sentence…”
If travel is one way of returning you to yourself, and memoir a looking backwards to meet yourself coming the other way, and the song of poetry a way of making the invisible, visible then: Here Comes Another Vital Moment is not only a triumph of intention, but a good example of a writer working at the fine edges of the imagination, at the same time able to artfully exploit the inherent fascinations of the ordinary. Brown is very good at adding-in the “extra” that the ordinary keeps looking for; a way of animating or breathing life into the “facts-of-the-matter” that any personal history, or in this case, any relationship desires in order to survive. There are some quite splendid touches of the surreal here that can and do lift into humour and wit and quiet laughter–usually the kind that wants to “turn-the-tables”, play devil’s advocate to the storyteller herself. It is always a reading pleasure to be in the literary company of a subversive.
One of the things that distinguishes Brown as a poet and prose writer, and that makes Here Comes Another Vital Moment more than just a “good read” (although that’s always recommendation in itself) is the fact that she is willing and bold enough to write against prediction and the boundaries of the neat-and-tidy, the postures of easy charm, and the comfortable scruple of discretion. As a writer who is “a toucher, a feeler, a stroker”, she knows the mirror-value of indiscretion; she knows how to be “indiscreet” in the service of deflating and unmasking the pretensions of the narrative voice. In what amounts to a signature of style, the particular idiosyncratic shape of a writerly imagination, Brown is quite masterful at questioning and thinking out loud: What is it then about the inevitable waywardness of our own words that can tell us so much about who we imagine ourselves to be, or have failed to become?
There is much in Here Comes Another Vital Moment that explores such important matters; and with a good deal of a “lightness of touch” that reads well and carries the pleasures of the “story”–so aptly and deftly expressed in this poem: Perhaps this is why we travel, to discover we are someone else entirely. See over there a woman of mystery pulling behind her a suitcase stuffed full of multiple storylines.
Here Comes Another Vital moment
Here Comes Another Vital Moment: a Writer on the Road Diane Brown (Godwit, 2006). ISBN 1-8692-119-0. 173 pp. RRP $24.99.
Karen Peterson Butterworth
This book is written in Diane Brown’s trademark mixture of poetry and prose, and is about the journey she undertook with her partner, Philip Temple, when he was awarded a six-months’ writer’s residency in Berlin. The title arose, she tells us, from a sign painted in English on an old fruit box outside the Berlin apartment where she and Philip stayed. Brown has doubts about going but Philip is persuasive, and ‘who can resist the I love you madly imperative,’ she muses as she packs.
As the story unfolds her doubts seem well-founded. Philip has been to Germany before, speaks the language, and has friends and an ex-lover there. His award gives him an identity and status within the Berlin literary community. Brown has none of these assets, and so exposes herself full-on to a maximum of culture shock and dislocation. She faces her challenges in true writerly spirit – by making a book out of them. The journey places strain on her relationship with Philip and often takes her out of her comfort zone.
“Memoir, poetry and travel intertwine…” begins the blurb on the back cover. There is travel, plenty of it, but it is travel through time, relationships, and feelings as much as through geography. For instance there is an episode about the couple’s cleaning lady, aged 79 and from Weimar, where “…after the war the remaining local women were forced to walk through Buchenwald… I could trace no residue of horror on her face.” The poem that follows begins, “Of course we see what we expect to see,” and plucks an illustration from her New Zealand life.
The book is divided into a Prologue and six Parts, and takes us from Dunedin to England, Germany, the Czech Republic, Rome, and home again. Many of the Part and section headings are like lines from poems – ‘How did I come to be here anyway?’ ‘I would tell them how if they asked,’ ‘Relationships break up here,’ ‘The beast within,’ ‘And now for my own ghosts,’ ‘The cackle starts.’
Brown employs a poet’s prose – condensed, layered and allusive. Readers will get the most out of it by treating the whole of it as they would a poetry book (look for it first in the poetry section of your library). For me that meant reading it in short episodes – Brown’s division of it into parts and sections was helpful – and pausing frequently to roll the story past my interior vision.
At first I was slightly embarrassed by Brown’s exposure of her relationships with her partner and son. Some of Philip’s remarks that she quotes suggest a failure on his part to understand her feelings – yet when re-read, many could equally express a baffled attempt to comprehend. The feelings others invoke in the writer are, of course, legitimate and necessary ingredients of a memoir. I found myself hoping the couple’s relationship was ultimately strengthened by her honesty; and felt it most likely, since both are writers.
Apart from her poetic prose there are two main kinds of poetry in the book. Each Part is prefaced with a poem headed ‘Vital ingredients.’ These poems are a feast of contrasting images, concrete and abstract, with glimpses of, and ricochets from, the story to come. From three different poems:
An ancestor’s breath on your skin.
Gaping holes in the roof of your story.
Parkin cake to sustain your romance on the moors.
A dirty story settling in your water bottle.
Gloves for your children to inherit.
Duckling and rain to save the day.
Pink roses and an all too brief life.
A voice knotted up and matted.
A bathroom flooding with the unsaid.
I love that bathroom, and have one in my own life.
The other kind of poem serves the same purpose as a haiku does within a haibun; it crystallizes the preceding prose episode with clarity and specificity. In Rome, for example, in a prose passage:
“…the suspicious men who inhabit the local bar. Mafia, we’re told, and we believe it.”
Then in the poem that follows:
their breasts bouncing
are laughing loudly.
A man is standing feet
apart in front of the woman
who runs the Mafia bar
his fist opening
and closing in her face.
This passage is typical of the liveliness of Brown’s sensory images: ‘vital moments’ indeed, which constantly punctuate her more thoughtful and somber passages.
Poetry Society members will comprise Brown’s most appreciative readers. We are pre-conditioned by poetry to disengage our frontal lobes from ‘What will I cook for dinner?’ preoccupations, and take her words into deeper layers of our minds. We can perhaps more easily bridge her frequent lacunae and read the message suspended between them. That is not to say that other discriminating readers won’t equally appreciate this book. It is not a facile read, but I found it a rewarding one.
Review NZ Listener by David Hill 14 October 2006
That an obvious approach: a travel collection – geographic, intellectual, emotional travel – that mixes verse, narrative and reflective prose, visual images. And what a satisfying result from Diane Brown, whose work is characteristically unpretentious, adroit, subversive.
She and Philip Temple spent several months in Berlin a while back. In Temple’s case, it moved his big, grave novel I Am Always with You towards publication. In Brown’s, it led to this collection, this journal, this essay-cum-album, Here Comes Another Vital Moment.
The title? Serendipitous and slightly surreal graffiti outside their Berlin flat. If it suggests the self-congratulatory cosiness of Bill Bryson, be reassured. There are indeed passages of amusement and delight, but there’s much more passion, honesty, edginess and emotion recollected in turmoil as well as in tranquillity.
There’s a lot about belonging or not belonging – to people and places: “I will be his accessory, handbag, companion, cohort, adjunct, but will I be his significant other?” And about finding bits of oneself while worrying over losing bits of others.
The events themselves deserve several mentions. Brown starts in Yorkshire, feeling cold air that could be imagination or an ancestor’s breath. Then it’s via industrial-chic London art to Germany, where an unimpressed Berlin viewer of Whale Rider grumbles that “the girl should have drowned”. Brown goes to heaps of festivals and performances, a number of which made me feel glad I live in the provinces. She takes note and takes no bullshit.
In the Czech Republic, she registers the loathsome flesh trade in women and kids, and tries the laxative waters. Here and elsewhere, Temple is present, saying sensible things, being professional and sociable, being in a rush, being forgiven – sometimes. Brown’s own work has its trough times: her “writing cramped, my voice packed up, gone home without me”.
She meets a fair number of expats, and is clear-eyed about their bitchiness or happiness. In Rome, she sees the funeral of 19 policemen killed in Iraq, plus beggars in uniform and “beautiful naked young men cavorting” (on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, sorry). She goes back to the UK and a gigglingly grotesque family Xmas, to Barcelona, to the plane home.
It ain’t just what she sees, it’s the ways she sees it – shrewdly, uncertainly, vividly. It’s also the ways she says it, especially through the poems. They’re quiet, pared, straight without being straightforward. There’s a splendid 4.00am owl; a bursting bladder amid Berlin roller-bladers; a good tense evocation of meeting an ex-lover; a structurally effective “Vital Ingredients” sequence. The prose is packed, the b&w photos expressive and/or enigmatic, but the poetry really punches above its weight.
“These fragments I have shor’d,” wrote Eliot in a different context. Or shared, in Diane Brown’s case. Very successfully.