Close to the Edge


Exurbia
, Andy Brown (67pp, 10, Worple)
 

When I first met Andy Brown he was a militant experimental writer, recently moved to Exeter. He, along with Tony Lopez, my MA tutor at the time, were in the main responsible for me grappling with ideas of language, content and confession and coming to terms with the result of that. Twenty years on, I find myself writing post-confessional narratives, whilst Andy is busy bringing process and form to the lyric, having edited an anthology of new lyric poetry (The Allotment, Stride, 2006)  and collaborated with John Burnside along the way.
 
Exurbia
is full of nature, description and music, which the narrators of Brown's poems face head on, embracing complexity, poetic and natural forms, and beauty. Brown's vocabulary is diverse and  intriguing, wide-ranging and often unexpected without being the slightest bit awkward or affected. Interestingly the 'I' in these poems is often absent altogether, or for the majority of the poem; the focus is on what is seen, not who is describing or engaging with the subject of the poem. This is refreshing in lyric poetry, and gets one away from the idea that the poet or the narrator knows more than we the readers do and will share his epiphany and knowledge with us; here, the narrator is sidelined and the subject foregrounded.
 
Brown has not abandoned experimental forms either, but they are now subservient and used by him, as compositional tool and/or formal device. 'The Last Geese' reflects the last words of each line back from its centre, just as geese fly in formation, but also helps with the idea of the geese honking and 'echoing back'; elsewhere there are villanelles, prose poems, sonnets and translations. The latter, gathered as a sequence entitled 'The  Outskirts', also indulge in a kind of directional sleight-of-hand, for not only are these versions rather than translations, they are also as much about Brown's father, and his mourning for him, as the original subjects of Borges' poems.
 
Exurbia means the very edge of suburbia, and whilst these poems come from there and then move out into the actual countryside beyond, they are also on the edge of lyric poetry whilst remaing strongly rooted and firmly anchored in it. Brown is quietly renewing and subverting the lyric and pastoral, through importing Oulipian and other word-games and forms, by changing the expected contents and points-of-view, by the disappearance of the self from many of the poems. It feels a long way from the excitement and buzz of twenty years ago, but this is warm, confident, assertive and human poetry that may not have shock value, but does have plenty of longevity and gravitas, not to mention serious poetic impulse.
 
    Rupert Loydell 2014