Piquant, frank, open wistful, tender, funny … this poetic narrative by Diane Brown is deftly ‘marbled’ throughout with social history. From carefully chosen anecdotes it slowly unfolds a vivid and compelling sense of character and psychological dynamics within a family.
Many readers will recognise the New Zealand so vividly portrayed here, as Brown marshals deeply personal events and childhood memories in a delightfully astute, understated poetic narrative.
Gosh I was hugely impressed and moved by this astonishing poetic achievement by Diane Brown. Essentially a 116 page memoir written entirely in verse Brown tells us of her family life and at the same time paints a thoughtful picture of domestic life in New Zealand post Word War Two. I was so captivated that I read it in one long sitting lasting several hours.And how wonderful that Otago University Press published it in hardcover – a bargain at $29.95. – Graham Beattie
Sarah Jane Barnett
Taking My Mother to the Opera, by Diane Brown (Otago University Press, 2015), 116 pp., $29.95; Excerpts from a Natural History, by Holly Painter (Titus Books, 2016), 68 pp., $28; The Burnt Hotel, by Olivia Macassey (Titus Books, 2015), 74 pp., $28
Taking My Mother to the Opera by Diane Brown hooked me from its opening pages. This straightforward and clear-eyed poetic memoir explores the relationship between Brown’s parents, Joyce and Sydney Brown, and Brown’s relationship to them both. The book consists of a series of long poems written solely in three-line stanzas, each poem acting like a chapter in the narrative. The collection is so accessible, funny and tender, that I read all 115 pages in a single sitting.
Brown has already published extensively and in a variety of forms. Her debut collection of poetry Before the Divorce We Go to Disneyland (Tandem) won the NZSA Best First Book of Poetry at the Montana Book Awards in 1997. She published her second collection Learning to Lie Together (Godwit) in 2004. She has also published two novels, a travel memoir and a prose/poetic work. She won the Janet Frame Memorial Award in 2012, the Beatson Fellowship in 2014, and was named a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2013 New Year’s Honours List.
With such accolades, I was unsurprised by the polish and craft of Taking My Mother to the Opera. The poems capture the simultaneous intimacy and distance that exists between parents and their children, and how the relationships change over time. As a child Brown wanted to believe in the simple and romantic story of her parents’ relationship, but as an adult she needs more. She looks through boxes of photographs taken of her parents before she was born, and revisits her memories of childhood in order to discover the people they were. Through her poetic vignettes, Brown pieces together a more complex story of her parents.
One of the strengths of these poems is the way Brown creates a sense of time and place, while also resisting sentimentality. While Brown’s ‘Granddad / hands out aniseed balls’ and the family drives around in a ‘Vee-dub’, there are many moments of hardship and violence. Brown’s brothers push her down a bank so her legs are ‘scratched and bleeding’; her father, a returned soldier, wakes up each night crying ‘Where’s his head?’; when her brothers misbehave ‘Dad gives them both the strap’. In an unsettling section Brown describes her near sexual abuse by a teacher at school, before her mother intervenes.
From the distance of adulthood Brown can see the way her parents’ experiences influenced how they could care for her. She portrays her mother as guarded about her emotions – ‘she allows no smile, no twist’ – and later we find out that her mother was harnessed to a yoke as a child and made to plough fields. Brown also explores the way women such as her mother responded to their husbands coming home from war. They wouldn’t ‘push their heroes / returned from battle too far,’ which meant that women often lacked agency in their lives. Of her father, Brown admits that ‘imagination / is insufficient’ to write about his experiences in the Second World War. Both parents, therefore, feel inaccessible to Brown, but she still feels their love:
That’s terrible, my friends say
when I tell them Mum has never
said I love you to me. Strangely,
I can’t get worked up about it,
paint myself as victim. Maybe
it’s not so strange; she’s a natural
at show don’t tell, and I’ve no doubt
love is simply too dangerous
a word for her to speak.
The collection follows Brown’s life from childhood, her young marriage to ‘Fred’, their subsequent divorce, and through to her parents’ old age. The poems show Brown’s deep sense of gratitude towards her parents, especially as she sees them, in turn, sicken and become hospitalised. As an adult she deals with the sad reality of a father in a resthome and a mother with dementia. Just as she values and accepts the imperfections in her parents, Brown also accepts herself. The writing shows an incredible amount of self-awareness on Brown’s part. In a conversation with her father she reflects on her choices:
But you’ve had an interesting life, Dad says.
I consider the poems that wrote themselves
after Fred’s affair; of my life since:
lovers, husbands, sons, and my heart
still beating, though at the time
I thought it would surely stop.
While the collection is about secrets and the stories that are hidden to us, it is also about how a person can look back and appreciate those that have loved them. The passing of childhood often means a revision of the simple and childlike view of your parents. At her father’s funeral Brown states, ‘After all, I do not possess the only truth.’ The truth Brown has reached for is one of compassion and acceptance. Taking My Mother to the Opera is a truly remarkable collection.
here’s a link to review in the wonderful ODT Jan 30th.
A link to a review in the Booksellers Blog: https://booksellersnz.wordpress.com/2016/04/01/book-review-taking-my-mother-to-the-opera-by-diane-brown/
Here is a link to a radio interview with Vanda Symon who has the wonderful ability to make people feel at ease. The second half is Emma Emma Neale talking about her stunning book, Tender Machines.
Here’s what Emma said about the interview. There is a link below to a radio interview with Vanda Symon – the first half is between Vanda and Diane Brown, about Diane’s absorbing, funny-dark, wry-sad new poetic memoir Taking my Mother to the Opera; the second half is about Tender Machines.
It’s such a strange experience saying aloud some of the things that flicker in and out of thought. Lots of stops and starts as the mind tries to remember the dance steps it’s taken so many times on its own…But the radio seems like one of our more tender machines under Vanda’s supervision.
Standing Room Only interview:http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/standing-room-only/audio/201788396/taking-my-mother-to-the-opera
Radio Interview with Ruth Todd; http://plainsfm.org.nz/on-demand/diane-brown-and-j-barry-ferguson/
Paula Green pays wonderful good attention on her NZ Poetry Shelf site: http://nzpoetryshelf.com/2015/12/07/poetry-shelf-review-diane-browns-taking-my-mother-to-the-opera-a-rollercoasting-thought-provoking-detail-clinging-self-catapulting-beautiful-read/
Below is a link To Reid’s Reader, a roundup of poetry reviews and a review of Taking My Mother to the Opera. With such a personal book it feels a little uncomfortable to have one’s relationship with one’s parents analysed and discussed especially when you see things differently. Interpretation however, is always up to the reader. I should add I always intended this book to be strongly narrative based, albeit with the economy and comprehension of poetry. But a bouquet to Nicholas Reid for caring about poetry to pay attention.
And from Unity Books Summer Reads
SOMETHING THAT SINGS LIKE AN ARIA Taking My Mother to the Opera — Diane Brown $30, hb, Otago University Press
Diane Brown has brought memoir and poetry together in this new collection. A story of individual and family experience, at the same time presenting vignettes of childhood that will conjure up a collective sense of Kiwi nostalgia. Beautifully put together and beautiful to read, this is a guaranteed compelling read.
Diane Brown is a Dunedin-based poet, novelist, memoirist, and creative writing teacher. Her new book is a personal memoir in verse. It’s about her own life, and that of her parents, told through a series of deeply personal vignettes taking in social history of the 1950s and 60s, old age and dementia, marriage and divorce, the delusions of youth. It’s searingly honest, very moving and very funny. This would not have been an easy book to write. It’s very easy to read, however, but it continues to resonate long after it’s finished.
A Link To Jack Ross’s blogspot: http://jackrossopinions.blogspot.co.nz/2015/11/taking-my-mother-to-opera-2015.html
And this is just a good picture of my book sandwiched between all these wonderful books.
Faves & Raves 2015
This is the pile of books that needs to be beside your bed