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DESPERADO - Contemporary British Literature | There are two major directions in 20th century literature: the stream of consciousness and the Post-stream of consciousness, the latter being known as Postmodernism (including Post-Postmodernism as well)...


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British Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium

Blank Despair of Words -- Alan Brownjohn (born 1931)


Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)

Alan Brownjohn is the ideal representative of Desperado poetry, mainly because he cannot be included in any group, because he is always on his own. His favourite word, used over and over again, is ‘blank’. Everything can be blank, from the soul to the landscape and the lines which convey his moods. In Alan Brownjohn’s poetry there is a certain treacherous monotony, an apparent inertia, which hides cliffs and precipices, deep oceans of water and salt.

Enveloped in hazy clouds of silence, although words do flow from the poet’s pen all the time, Brownjohn’s ideas may seem dulled to the hurried reader, who does not take his time to peep at the words after stripping them naked. When everything is said and done, there is, at the back of Brownjohn’s poetry, a discreet despair that can never be tamed.

The music of his poetry is, more often than not, discreet. Sometimes there are rhymes, there are also in his lines inner rhymes and most effective alliterations, but, in good Eliotian tradition, whenever a rhyme becomes too obvious, it sounds like a peal of laughter. The poet mocks at poetic musicality with the disabused countenance of a man who is both blind and deaf, but whose feelings can rage in a piercing turmoil.

Even when the poet wilfully uses rhyme on a regular basis, we are tempted to push it aside, as if it prevented our closer contact with the flesh of the words. The words themselves may sound disabused and common, but the general air of melancholy that springs from the whole combination of blankness, musicality, indifference, tenderness – always hidden under seven veils, at least, pervades the mask, and the tears that deface it at the end of a poem are more than real: they become our tears. Brownjohn manages to burden us with all his fears, regrets and bitterness. If this is true, Eliot cannot be far behind:

You, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère...(The Waste Land)

Our life is a meek, mysterious travel into night. We are all lonely travellers, down dissolving streets (Travellers Alone), slipping deeper and deeper into the ‘consoling, half-anaesthetic’ darkness, which is ‘barren.’ Eliot, with his Four Quartets and his contorted sensibility, pops up in lines such as:

Night in the streets we tired of
Hides daylight features in tangible dark,
Seals up, presents as finite, endlessness.
We shall not see the sequel to our journey
That every housetop valley spread for us,
Or suburbs’ prospect of our wandering.
We shall forget the arriving trains, bound
For the town’s heart from stations not our own.

This is what Alan Brownjohn’s poetry sounded like in the 1950’s, when Eliot was still very much alive, and his Waste Land, the much abused ‘sacred cow’ of English poetry (thus called by some critic other than myself) had taken more than its fair share of reprieval. Of hatred, even. Alan Brownjohn is the following generation. Experimentalism is replaced by oversimplification, and Modernism plunges into the whirlpool of the Desperado streak, which completely sucks it in, without any pre-digestion, whole hulks at a time.

Unlike the leader of Modernism, T.S. Eliot, the Desperadoes avoid biting their sensibility to the quick. On the contrary, they hide it under a thick coat of commonplace, and that is the reason why the poems look blank, dispassionate. Whenever they strike upon a resourceful image or a shocking suggestion, they scurry into immobility, and send us blank messages out of boiling grottos.

While a beginner in poetry, Brownjohn had his generous share of Eliot, as well as his right to reject him. In spite of his effort to sound devitalized, the very opposite of Eliot, his reticence to confess is pierced everywhere by the feelings pushed down, into the inferno of denial. Small flames, like the Devil’s horns, sprout here and there, where we least expect it.

From Eliot’s peers, we turn into ‘our minor beings,’ though the land we tread is still waste and all environments are dry and barren. Love is no longer exquisitely painful, it is frustrated, wasted in isolation, deeply doubted. The poem evolves within a hidden self besieged with ‘pestering shames’ and ‘deserved disgraces’, ‘crippling horror’, ‘doubt’, ‘guilt’. If Eliot howled and whispered at the same time, Brownjohn seems to have been struck dumb. His lines are absent-minded at first sight, because emotion withdraws and leaves the text crystal clear. Too clear to make sense.

The poet’s sensibility seems to have a fatal flaw that we shall never be able to pinpoint because we are offered masks, not the real thing. There is no joy in these lines, and there is no obvious intensity, either. If Eliot raved and proclaimed his torture out loud, in disgusting images which became the aesthetic standard for quite a while, Brownjohn shyly hides his misery, almost coyly. Eliot ended The Waste Land with the whisper ‘shantih’, meaning ‘peace that passeth understanding.’ Brownjohn goes even farther than that on the path of silence: he excludes the very idea of understanding. If Eliot stated that poetry could communicate before it was understood, Brownjohn begs to differ; in his case, poetry must communicate without being understood. He is an extremely cautious poet, whose loveless poems – only apparently loveless, though – are uttered in the reticent monotone of a shy sensibility, coiled like a snail inside the shell.

The poem is always in danger of being overwhelmed by Bad Advice, a ‘path trodden’ which comes dangerously close to the ‘edge of the cliff’. The poet warns us that ‘caution seems best’, we should withdraw before the wind unbalances us, but he does not go back in the least: on the contrary, he peeps bravely over the edge, and asks victoriously, ‘haven’t you nearly/ Lost your old fear of heights?’ Obviously, there is more to these mild lines than meets the eye. Secrecy is a habit with the poet, and a challenge to his readers.

Sometimes Brownjohn himself seems afraid of what he is trying to do, of the abyss of the inarticulate in which he is pushing us, by declaring words insufficient, by mistrusting them, emptying them, using them as shells of meaning. For a Journey asks rhetorically:

Who knows what could become of you where
No one has understood the place with names?

Like a Red Ink Bubble, the universe is an accident, ‘the beautiful can sometimes be accidental.’ In Brownjohn’s state of mind, everything takes him, and us, by surprise, yet the poet conveys to us that he is disabused because he expects the worst. His numbing obsession is that of the end. Right in front of him, he can see death, the ‘blank wastes’ of time, the ‘endless pause’ (If Time’s to Work). Sometimes the tragic burden is alleviated by his imperfect rhymes, which make the text sound like a mock-poem, imperfect and insufficient, consequently not to be taken for granted. It is a feature that the Postmoderns inherit from Modernism: the meaning is mocked at by the limping rhyme.

Considering the blankness of his poems, Alan Brownjohn is an uncomfortable poet, making us contemplate our own disappointment, frustration, even emptiness. Wherever he wanders, wherever he roams, his dispassionate style hides the intensity of his emotions, as it happens in the following concentrated poem:

In this city, perhaps a street.
In this street, perhaps a house.
In this house, perhaps a room
And in this room a woman sitting,
Sitting in the darkness, sitting and crying
For someone who has just gone through the door
And who has just switched off the light
Forgetting she was there.

The lines are short, concise, prosaic statements. The poet does not write poetry, he merely talks to us, telegraphically, somehow wilfully ignoring our great expectations of a show. He discovers – though he may not be the first or the only one – the stating poem, impressing the page like an impartial black and white photograph.

The feeling of impending doom, whether of the world at large or only of the individual’s inner universe, is present in a dystopic poem, ‘We are going to see the rabbit...’. We find in it a future England, with one patch of grass left and only one rabbit, which everyone wants to see, as a curiosity, a memento of the good old days of yore. Even the rabbit ends by taking refuge under the earth, and it seems that the viewers will follow him there, too.

The 1960s bring a change in Brownjohn’s manner. The feeling of emptiness is still there, though: ‘The middle-afternoon is the worst of the blanks,’ and the poet cannot help experiencing ‘ the permanent grief of time.’ An Interlude shyly brushes against lust, in even lines, which offer a semblance of quiet but hide deep earthquakes of anguish. Go Away strikes Eliot’s vein for a very brief moment. A man whose garden is about to be blown up is planting bulbs and narcissi, when someone unknown warns him ruthlessly:

But even if you plant them they won’t grow. They won’t have
Any time to sprout or flower.

This poem suggests a more general truth, namely that life with Alan Brownjohn is not safe. It is like this garden which may blow up at any minute, and the owner, the poet, wants to feel and die alone so the reader is not invited but repelled: Go away! Desperado poetry no longer tries to please. Alan Brownjohn in particular means to displease.

At the Time reminds again of Eliot’s Waste Land, with the girl who hums ‘well, now that’s done and I am glad it’s over’, but also with the image of possible love as the ‘awful daring of a moment’s surrender’:

Perhaps the daring made it
Seem all right. Or
The memory of the daring.

The poem exhales an infusion of veiling words:

...all the mere
Ungainliness of limbs:
There was the wanting
To get it done and over,
And to resume a proper,
Acceptable posture.
Only much afterwards, was there
The having done, was there
That person (think of it),
And that place; all the daring
Shame of it. Only afterwards,
That. There was, really,
Nothing at all of this,
Nothing at all, at the time.

This is one of the enigmatical poems which can shamelessly deal with anything, even the very act of love, in the most high-brow, word-diseased manner.

Poems like 1939 describe childhood as another country, too, capturing teenage emotions in grown up, lapidary lines. Farmer’s Point of View reveals Brownjohn as a ‘careful’ poet, careful with his words because he is first of all careful with his sensibility, with labelling emotions, which, frankly speaking, become a lot more poignant when not uttered, when perceived as absences. The poet refuses the spectacular stage of Modernism – raging emotions and despair – taking refuge into silence, void space, blankness. The poem in question is remarkable along those lines. A farmer complains of the strangers who come to hide and have furtive sex in his woodland. It happens in August. The man speaks in the first person, about ‘my land.’ He specifies:

I’ve tried to be careful. I haven’t mentioned ‘love’
Or any idea of passion or consummation;

And I won’t call them ‘lovers’ because I can’t say

If they come from affection, or lust, or blackmail,
Or if what they do has any particular point

For either or both (and who can say what ‘love’ means?)
So what am I saying? I’d like to see people pondering

What unalterable acts they might be committing
When they step down, full of plans, from their trains or cars.

I am not just recording their tragic, or comic, emotions,
Or even the subtler hazards of owning land –

I am honestly concerned. I want to say, politely,
That I worry when I think what they’re about:

I want them to explain themselves before they use my woods.

Somehow, Brownjohn himself would like his readers to explain themselves before they come to him. He is not willing to harbour confessions, pain, poignancy in his lines. He wants to be the witness, and his peace suggests turmoils, but never actually utters the hurricane.

The rhyme Brownjohn uses confuses, dispels the meaning and makes too much noise, as if suggesting it is too good to be true. The poet only uses it as an uncomfortable bell. Underneath it, the lines are misleading, seemingly careless, actually guilty of the utmost precision. Like a surgeon of language, Brownjohn cuts off all the ‘poetry’ (see T.S. Eliot again), creating his own literary genre, which is Desperado poetry.

The poet is the slave of a discreet sensibility, which is unwilling to hurt anyone, yet is hurt all the time, and suffers the blows quietly. This savage attack from everywhere takes place in poems which are sequences of incidents, connected vaguely into a short narrative, an hour, a day – elliptical interior monologues, hiding from any similarity with the stream of consciousness, steeped in deliberately monotonous Desperado defiance of everything.

Brownjohn is in a strange relationship with his words. They are ‘shells of deception, all a lie.’ He lets us know:

I will apologize
With metaphors.

Too much aware of his power over his words, Brownjohn dims them at will, only to make the hidden emotion all the more hideously intense. What is not said is much more effective than what has been named. It could be stated that Alan Brownjohn’s sense of suspense comes from his silences.

Brownjohn plays upon words as well as upon themes in his poetry. He experiments with rhymes, breaking sentences, even words, trying every trick to reach his halo of meaning. His favourite themes are solitude, jealousy, loss of love, vain love, hopelessness. He is not exactly a solar sensibility. There is in him a mild bitterness that gives him the vantage point of aloofness. He can afford to be vague, never explicit, devious, insinuating, incomplete, yet unambiguous.

The constant halo of sadness, regret, stifled despair and confusion finds an attempted cure in the ‘healing verse’: Alan Brownjohn sees himself as the healer, the mild physician of loneliness, whose cure suggests more and more silence and indifference to oneself. Written in the first person, or the third sometimes, the poems connect in the story of a lifetime, that we peruse avidly from poem to poem, skipping unclear links, hoping for a happy ending, for the advent of light.

There are, here and there, poems of ‘hounding truth’, but the poet teaches us not to interfere:

Close your shutters. Read
Or sleep. Let them alone.

His biting irony is seasoned with painful sympathy, and the result is thoroughly discomfiting. The end of love is ‘our autumn day’. Two lovers part without words, without gestures, without thoughts, almost without parting. The only being alive around them is a dog which menaces to run loose. It makes us view Alan Brownjohn’s poetry like a huge temple, cold and deserted, ready for worship, yet forbidding it.

Sometimes, as in The Victory, the poet is writing to himself about his own desecrated inner world. He remembers ‘sweat-nights groping for metaphors’, but now

The wires are down. My brain can’t ever seem
To stop still enough to think you. My
Bland words talk alone about themselves.
It’s yours, this victory, then.

The mystery of the lines often happens to blur clarity, to drown us in concision, and we suddenly fail to understand the mood, the pain, the memory. What is left to Brownjohn in this waste inner landscape which hides in fact all kinds of deftly veiled treasures is the idea of game: he plays all kinds of games. Some are more obvious than others. Every poem is a game, as a matter of fact. Writing is a game and reading invites, compels rereading – reentering and winning (understanding) the game.

In the act of writing, which is an urge – ‘It’s up to me’, ‘I had to do it’ – the poet gives up almost all responsibility to sense. He writes informally, acts his thoughts without theatrical gift, lives in a comfortable monotone of his imagination. He uses rhyme like an axe, which makes his lines sound ironically final, like a true sentence to poetry-writing. But of course emotion lurks behind blank statements. Even the word love sounds meaningless, like a neon sign blinking irrationally. In spite of this even temper, Affinity manages to provide a beautiful, sensitive analysis of the first revelation and expectation of love – the moment of solitary need and projected fancy. Brownjohn hates love but he does not ignore or reject it. On the contrary, love is needed and craved for, even though the words that evoke it are far from unusual. Love is not a shock, but an everyday burden.

Since both Moderns and Desperadoes are under the spell of the hybridization of literary genres, it might be interesting to notice that Brownjohn’s poetry is flooded by fiction, drama, essay and even a kind of psychotherapy. Each poem is a psychological analysis and a point of view at the same time. The major realm of his poetry is the mind. A poem is ‘The Holy Empire of your consciousness’, and what better spur into poetry than ‘insomniac nostalgia’? Of course, nothing would be farther from the truth than to say that Alan Brownjohn’s poetry equals recollection in tranquillity. The poem is rather a disquieting memory that embitters the present.

It is surprising that the poet can hide so well his inner fireworks behind dispassionately spoken lines, in an even tone, as if there were no more possible surprises in store for the poet – not ever. The poet actually strips his body of all clothes, his face of its countenance, and comes forth as a shadow that utters the innermost truths in the most colourless manner possible – the clash between public and private thus creating a tension that makes a hole in the boat: lyricism drips, drop by drop, in every blank word, until the poem is one huge heap of emotionally soaked, yet ambitiously colourless words.

Musicality never deserts Brownjohn, he can easily handle it, but does his very best to make it unobtrusive, as unnoticeable as possible. Ballad for a Birthday is the poem of a forsaken girl, who every four lines repeats, ‘I feel the same, but I wouldn’t want to call it love.’ In between, for the space of six stanzas, we have three rhyming lines. Music makes for a monotony of meaning, which only the fourth, maddeningly repeated refrain breaks, conveying the true meaning: love is denied, emotion is doomed to solitude. The gestures described, like all gestures in this literature of Desperadoes for novelty at the turn of the millennium, are small and almost endearing, in a very discreet way. The girl cleans up the house, banishes the telephone, examines her plant, puts the cat outside, arranges her dresses on laundry hooks, looks out of the window, wonders if she has already aged. The poem continues:

What if he phoned, and I heard the bell
With my feet on the bath-tap, and I couldn’t tell...
Well, I heard it... should I answer it as well?
I feel the same, but I wouldn’t want to call it love.

If he wrote a letter, saying Could we meet,
Or if we met by accident, in the street
– When something’s finished, is it always complete?
I feel the same, but I wouldn’t want to call it love.

The psychology behind this hardly audible interior monologue betrays a sensibility as painful to harbour as Eliot’s, only infinitely less noisy. Brownjohn avoids the bang and prefers the whimper, so to say. This is the way the world of all his poems ends, invariably going round the prickly pear, prickly pear, prickly pear, at any time, whether it is morning, noon or night in the soul.

In good Desperado tradition, Alan Brownjohn writes best when he mingles poetry and something else, narrative being his choice more often than not. Whenever he has an incident to retell, he is sure to produce a good poem. There is a movement of his lyricism which makes it inseparable from story-telling. Concentration is still there, but so very different from Eliot’s suppression of verbal explanatory links. Brownjohn concentrates the story, choosing to relate it telegraphically, with missing acts and in remarkably ambiguous words. What is important here is the quality of Brownjohn’s new found ambiguity. It looks like clarity at first sight. An insufficient clarity, which leaves us incredulous: Is that all he had to say? Why bother? It is a blank ambiguity, that plays on the concrete and abstract attributes of the words at the same time. We are not told what actually happens, we are given flashes and, when we try to bring light to the forefront, we realize that all words are treacherous: every line means two things at once. The poet is in the seventh heaven: he has brought us on the threshold of despair, the same despair of words Eliot and Valéry deplored yet revelled in, but this time he has done it behind our backs. We are really taken aback: a decent, empty poem turns out to be an exciting mystery, and we gaze at it agape. How does the poet perform his magic trick of obnubilating us?

The Packet is a perfect example of the above stated reading mood. A woman leaves a man, the man suffers in silence and solitude, no hope is left, tragedy mounts to a pitch and we hardly realize it as we race through the mild words:

In the room,
In the woman’s hand as she turns
Is the packet of salt.
On the packet is a picture of a
Woman turning,
With a packet in her hand.
When the woman in the room
Completes her turning, she
Puts the packet down and leaves.

On the packet in the picture
Is: a picture of a woman
Turning, with a packet in her hand.

On this packet is a picture: of a woman,
Turning, with a packet in her hand.
On this packet is no picture

– It is a tiny blank.
And now the man waits,
And waits: two-thirty, seven-thirty,

At twelve he lays the packet on its side
And draws in the last packet in the last
Picture, a tiny woman turning.
And then he locks the door,
And switches off the bedside lamp,

And among the grains of salt he goes to sleep.

The idea of a picture within a picture is perfect: the turning within the turning away, the leaving within the turning, the man’s subsequent understanding within wait, the solitude within solitude, the core of loneliness is touched. Excruciating pain is to be deftly inferred from the poet’s perfect economy of words. There is not one sound more than necessary for us to be able to follow the argument. By Desperado standards, this should be the perfect poem: concise yet clear to the utmost. In short, as a conclusion, clarity is back, beware of clarity.

Brownjohn’s poems are ‘games of melancholia’, and when the playfulness or the blue mood fail the poet, there is the old Eliotian fear that inspiration may run dry, as we learn in White Night:

I did not dream it, no I was
A t.v. screen left on shining, and
Insensately vibrating, and
Blank, in a shop at night: like a
Flat yet restless pool.
I could picture nothing...

As an instinctive precaution against barrenness, the poems are dry, avoiding picturesque landscapes, touching issues; they prefer to impoverish all images to the utmost limit, and debunk emotions until the skeleton of naked poetry dangles before our eyes. Had Eliot not dreamt about a poetry with bare bones? Here is Alan Brownjohn kindly obliging, both Eliot and posteliotian readers.

The voices in Brownjohn’s poems are amalgamated: first, second, third person, ‘readers’, letters, a man, a woman, a remembered child. An inventory of his words would revolve mainly around sad, blank, alone. Although the poet does have a definite sense of humour, he takes great pains to rebuke it. He tries hard to be equally blank both to comedy and tragedy. Consequently, a poem like The End evinces no cosmic calling, no apocalyptic thrill, no awareness of the inconceivable, no metaphysical thought. The poet sulks when too much seriousness and professed profundity are expected of him. He prefers everything to be matter-of-fact and pitiable. Here is the end of the universe in the words of this miser of the imagination:

Not simply human, but all,
But all matter dying there,
Dwindling and tottering away to
A much-more-than-cosmic pit,
An ultimate dark,
An inconceivable collapse...

Yeats lavished rhymes, alliterations, adornments and grandiose ideas on his Byzantium world of the beyond. Eliot conjured up frenzied fits of apprehension, of helplessness. Brownjohn, who almost quotes Eliot with his poems on cats, with The Waste Land, goes a step further: he deprives lyricism of its life, whatever that is. If Eliot used to say, ‘Leavisitism finds literature living and leaves it dead,’ Brownjohnism – it is becoming a trend in itself, so why not give it a name, after all – finds poetry exhibitionistic and leaves it a prude.

Grey Ground is a kind of both Eliot and memories revisited. The beginning is strikingly reminiscent of the celebrated end to The Waste Land:

In the Cornwall wind
I stood with the mine-shaft behind me.
Something said, a toneless kind-of-voice said, ‘Don’t
Walk on that ground.’

Which the poet did not do when he was ten, he says. What The Waste Land deliberately avoided – for purposes of ambiguity – and Brownjohn makes peace with, is punctuation. He is befittingly correct and punctiliously clear. Maddeningly clear, most of the time. In an uneventful sort of English, he describes a painful memory, a perpetuated interdiction, which, because of the poet’s not taking sides with any of his words, does not sound terrifying but supremely matter-of-fact. Descriptions of nature are anything but romantic. They sound casual, antagonistic to lyricism, to the poetic blood that runs in the deeply hidden veins of the poem. They are completely colourless because they avoid all tenderness or cajoling. Thirty years later, a lifetime and a love-time away, end of human time almost, the poet is still on the Eliotian shore, with the arid plain behind him, but he does not choose to vent his despair. Quite the reverse, we read and wonder, not in the old way, ‘Do I dare? and Do I dare?’, but, Am I there? Am I anywhere?

The sun is out. A woman touches my arm.
We are standing with the mine-shaft behind us swallowing
Echoes of thirty years ago, of a minute ago,
Pebbles we have both thrown, smiling.

If Eliot revelled in his literary memories and praised them by misquoting as often as he could, Brownjohn takes the next step: why bother to argue with old contexts and contradict old sentences? Why remember them at all? He often grumbles about the way knowledge is passed on. There is irony in all his poems about teaching, encyclopaedias, textbooks. There is mockery, too, in his long speeches that squeeze the commonplace out of every faintly interesting gesture. He feeds on the unimportant, even feasts on it. Intensity, obvious intensity, is avoided as if it were a plague, liable to infest poetry and take it back to old fashioned, before-Desperado literature.

A Letter to America is addressed to the poet’s lover:

I take a long lick of this envelope,
Getting an unsweet, unAmerican taste:
The glue of England, which does not pretend. (...)

... One day, we parked outside
A backstreet house in Wandsworth, kissing
In just that way, not thinking of social class,
And this in broad daylight, very visibly,

When an aproned lady came out quite displeased,
And motioned to us, literally shaking
Her hand with her wrist as if her hand
Were shaking a duster, wanting us to move on.

The moral disapproval was very clear.
And the point is, do you remember this at all,
Which came to me as I began to lick
Your envelope?

The poet seems to be reciting his thoughts like a bad actor, a monotonous mask. Because Alan Brownjohn is the masked poet, the opera ghost, who sometimes smiles, sometimes howls, sliding indiscriminately back and forth between comedy and tragedy. He feels he must always be artificial, hide real personal feelings, run away at all times, from the true, living face of retold emotion. This is far from being emotion recollected in tranquillity; it is war on emotion, death to sympathy (good old Eliot must be turning in his grave), it is long-live-assumed-inexpressivity, protective blankness. One thing is obvious by now, though: Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf? We are certainly not fooled at all.

Brownjohn operates with a dulled sensibility, terrified of any outburst, of any display of friendliness with the reader, of any invasion of privacy. Poetry has become the public place of a very private soul, a Desperado that does not want to be found out. Consequently, he hardens everything he feels into stone wall-like lines. He mocks at everything, from solitude to love and growing old, until nothing is left to cherish. He does a very exhaustive job of it, too. We have here a mistrustful poet, who debunks all feelings and desecrates the heart.

In many cases, Brownjohn tells elliptical stories, which we have to piece up out of understatements of incidents: a fake decency prevents the poet from calling things their true name. This is a withdrawal from the position Eliot devised. Eliot clamoured the daring of the moment’s surrender, the courage of the timid. Brownjohn could not care less about his dead master’s drama. He writes a conversational poetry, in which everything is uttered with omissions of meaning that make the text highly enigmatical, yet perfectly clear. Alan Brownjohn is a late Eliotian dissenter: he was influenced by Eliot in his training and then spent all his energy outsmarting him, begging to differ, so to say.

There is however one theme which brings Brownjohn close to Eliot again, and that is the sadness of ageing. Growing old is always unwanted and deplored in Eliotian self-pity, rather than with Yeatsian courage. A Night in the Gazebo is a good example. There is in it a peculiar mixture of bitterness and disgust, displeasure and enjoyment, life and slowly proceeding death. Nothing in life seems to console the living for the pain of their death-to-come. Being alive is a punishment that not only saddens, but also angers Alan Brownjohn beyond all decision or determination to be peaceful.

Ruse is an inspired image of quickly lost ages. A child plays hide-and-seek and finds himself forty years later. Good idea, good poetic trick, unhampered by musicality of the lines or anything that might distract our attention from the idea to the poetry. The child hides, the others are supposed to find him, but

I ran
And left them there, I ran back home
And left them.
Turning today
A tower-block corner, I saw them
In the gathering dark, bemused
And middle-aged, in tattered
Relics of children’s clothes, still
Searching even now in the glittering
Scrubland of my Precinct, for
What had deserted them, what had
Cast them there; blank-eyed, and
Never to tell what I had built,
What I had left them with in forty years.

What the poet built was the poem, which steals time away ruthlessly and can make no amends. The Leap steals the feeling of safety and pushes life back into cave-existence, the insecurity of below-civilization. The lights go out and a couple in a cheap restaurant suddenly forget all human feelings, their own love included. All these poems turn out in the end to be just prosaic garments for a very nostalgic poet.

Most poems are long haiku: they are longish descriptions of rough sketches, repeated odes on Grecian urns. Brownjohn includes images within images, until the infinite ‘nearly’ hurts. In Entering My Fifty-third Year, the poet describes himself as ‘lightheartedly serious’, and his life is, just like his poetry, ‘both profound and easy.’ Somehow, Brownjohn is a kind of Yeats in reverse: he would rather be the poet of no age, because all ages actually terrify him. Eliot’s lesson has been well learnt and is now taken further into Brownjohnism: we stealthily learn from these blankly despairing poems how to be ashamed of our own sensibility. Which is highly uncomfortable and piercingly effective, one must say. Only a Desperado of poetry at the turn of the millennium could be so determined to hide his fear that the end of the world is near.



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LIDIA VIANU | Desperado - Contemporary British Literature


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