Andrea Brady: Cut from the Rushes, etc

by Michael Peverett


Cut from the Rushes (Reality Street Editions, 2013)

"The Rushes", I think, is Andrea Brady's name for her occasional poems: speedy here-and-now one-off poems which don't belong to a larger project such as the extended verse-essay Wildfire.

What's cut from the rushes here, then, are two swathes: Embrace (previously published separately in 2005), and Presenting, which consists of more recent poems. The implication, maybe, is that there's a whole fenland of other uncollected poems out there. Which is quite an impressive thought, because Cut from the Rushes is an exhausting reading experience. Not because of the number of poems, but because of the demands made by each one.

The title might mean a bit more. At any rate, "cut" is a word that turns up very frequently in Brady's texts (as it does, also, in Prynne's). In one word it concentrates the themes of physical violence and cultural manipulation. (As Brady noted in "Grief Work in a War Economy", her Quid essay about post-9/11 grief, public opinion is a manufactured product.)

You might entertain the hope that the occasions of the poems would be obvious, and in some cases this is true. E.g the much-discussed "Saw Fit" (Lynndie England, Abu Ghraib) or "The Gloucester, The Illustrious" (Operation Highbrow, evacuation of British citizens from Beirut in 2006) or "Vision in Neutrals" (sub-titled A Coalition Pastoral). Reading the reviews, which naturally favour what the reviewer can talk about, you sometimes get the impression that the poems are all like this. But they're not. Most of the poems are highly oblique about their occasions. Most often the poem-titles are riddling puns ("Sight Unseen") or just riddles ("In Album Men") or personal notes ("To Castellina").

A poem like "In Album Men" has an occasion, all right, but not really a public occasion: more about holidaying in Turkey. The locations include Uçhisar in Cappadocia, Olympos in Lycia, and maybe the Lydian aqueducts.

 Mevsimlik sailors cut the Eurovision frigate in to hove 

(See, I told you the word "cut" was a regular.) "Mevsimlik" is Turkish for Etesian - the summer northerly of the Aegean, considered "a good steady sailing wind preferred by many leisure sailors" (Wikipedia). There's a sneer lurking here, about the leisure sailors. In the poem the sneer (and the leisure) becomes applied to the cultural tourists who file through Turkey like Xenophon's mercenaries. I.e Brady herself.

While Mutability was very specifically domestic in its concerns, this was nothing new. Brady has always uncaringly done things that are supposed to typify mainstream poets: for example, writing about herself, family, relationships, the domestic and quotidian, and holidays. Of course the way she does it is distinctive. But the point is, she doesn't need to demonstrate where she stands in the poetry world.

This is surely a strength. After all, there are reasons why these subjects are so popular among the poets and audiences of today. They are itches we need to scratch. They are politically sensitive and much-cut-up battlegrounds. They are the place where we play out a dialogue of feeling and forgetting our complicity. They are where the money gets spent. They are the site of desire and of such values, visions and ideals as still remain to us.

Brady's poetry stands out from the mass of post-avant writing in a few other respects, too.



Much post-avant writing disdains the similes and metaphors that mainstream authors cherish. Brady is willing and able to deploy brilliant similes.

                                       Flock of friendly parables catch
the air like whiffle balls. Hard to loft, they are harder to gather.   

("Paradise Gardens 1 and 2")

(This reminds me that Brady is an American poet as well as a London poet and a Cambridge poet. "Precinct" comes easier when the word is interpreted in a US way. "Child Stars on Trial" is totally Brady, but the passing hint of Arielle Greenberg isn't simply a coincidence)

will you recognize the innumerable frosted branches, the field used like a scratch-card, as your park?

(Mutability, p. 109)

smoke unbundled like measuring tape

("Hymn On The Nativity")

grenades, built to appeal to the hand
like an American football

("Thrown Fire", in Wildfire)

Most post-avant poems avoid a resonant ending: not open-field enough: they cultivate a muted fade. But many of Brady's poems end with a knockout.

                   so gorgeous
a hush falls down
the fault of language.
("To Be Continued")

Or this, a clincher that is also a brilliant simile.

Because you are righteous you open your
head every day, joy cut-in like a kite mark. 

("Commercial In Confidence")



Nevertheless, the poems in Cut from the Rushes are difficult. They never resolve into simple or single meanings. And yet the urgency of the poem we're reading challenges us to find meaning, and not just any meaning either.

For me this unassuming book, described only as "her fifth book of poems", is the stark centre of her work as it stands right now.

In the rest of this essay I'll naturally try to convey the impression that I have total command of the poetry. But it won't do. I must reluctantly admit that e.g. of the first seven poems in Presenting, beginning with the highly elusive "Sight Unseen", there aren't more than a couple that I really feel I've got a sort of comprehensive handle on.  As for the other ones: stray lines, sometimes several lines together; stray ideas, sometimes interconnected; awestruck but loose aesthetic admiration. But the specific concerns that, as I thoroughly believe, occasion every one of these poems and that Brady never sets hand to keyboard without: no, not really; they remain for others to grasp at.    

The poems are difficult. That's less true of Mutability, a book that many will be able to read with simple happiness. In a different way it's also less true of Wildfire, because at least you know what the poem is about. That happens in Cut from the Rushes too, but not often.



Work from home encased in plastic.

This is how "Ergon" begins. The poem is about work. The words carry two meanings straight away.

One is a general comment on that cliché of the workplace, "working from home". The poem is naturally concerned with the modern idea (presented as paradisal) of taking your work anywhere, of work infiltrating the homeplace, of jumping on planes between pressing Ctrl-S to save your document. (Behind that, again, looms another phrase with rather different social connotations: the "home workers", that quintessentially modern addition to the army of the exploited, lured by delusive promises of £££ in adverts on lamp-posts and on Gumtree.)

The second meaning is more specific and autobiographical: the author looking at a plastic binder of the work she brought from home: student marking, maybe, or photocopies of funerary elegies. It's concise: we know we are talking about papers though papers are not mentioned. (Compare the passage in "Table Talk" where a sheep must have "plunged onto the strand from the pasture": we are aware of the unmentioned sea-cliff.)

Here's the whole of the first paragraph.

Work from home encased in plastic. Is it
born or learned gentleness, can
ungreased applications be worked in
no sweating   Work for
cardiac health, go past dinner for broke
go throat backed up with morals
not to do anything different but keep
go   And backed against the lists
scare easily. 

A kind of meditation begins, still on the two potentially conflicting topics of work in general and of Brady's unusual line of work in particular. For example, the nature-or-nurture question of the second line: "learned gentleness" uneasily combines the instilled tractability of the workforce, and the "learnèd" exercise of a gentle profession.

The poem asks another question: "can ungreased applications be worked in no sweating". At one level the question is about the viability of the concept of  a kind of work that rises above money ("ungreased" - unbribed). Work that, even when you've stripped it of its self-delusions, doesn't merely instantiate the sweatshop.

The poem is open inasmuch as it already comprehends a wide spectrum of work: from literally unpaid poetry to rewarding, self-realising, professionalism to any type of work that is conceived or presented as not merely labour; work that aspires to be something that can be enjoyed or be good for the worker or with a quasi-moral value in itself.

Somewhat unexpectedly, though not for Brady fans, the poem refuses easy contrasts between academic noodling and factory floors. Instead it recognizes a community of work, though it may be a community of illusion. It is certainly, as that last sentence indicates, a community of shared insecurities and fears.

"Backed against the lists scare easily": Brady's poems stretch so widely for multi-valency, and withal so freely combine the personal with the general, that I half-suspect a glance at those academic "lists" (closed internet forums) that are the regular pabulum of innovative poets and renaissance scholars alike. But the principal image comes from jousting. The workers are not the knights but their horses (work-horses, obviously), backed against the lists (barriers) and, like any cornered animal, prone to panic.

("Ergon" and "Table Talk" are in Cut from the Rushes)



London covered in, debilitated by, joying in snow: seven inches or more, Siberian airs, North Sea waters. You're oblivious, stuck inside with a running cold and laughing all through your dinner: it's surprise which evokes you, you delight at the simple plosives that come from a resting face, eyes thrown upward to indicate 'wait for it'. Or you cough, I say 'exCUSE me' in highest camp, and you give your bawdy laugh: this is conversation. But also nothing surprises you, so will you recognize the innumerable frosted branches, the field used like a scratch-card, as your park? 

 This is from Mutability: Scripts for Infancy. "You" is Brady's daughter Ayla, eight months old in Feb 2009 when this was written.

"innumerable" gently ushers in Tennyson's "Come Down, O Maid":

the children call, and I
Thy shepherd pipe, and sweet is every sound,
Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro' the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

In this final post of Mutability the poet celebrates the quiescent and fertile before turning to head back up to the "dusky doors" of greed, exploitation, complicity and violence. (Brady's more usual topics)

The child learns to be surprised. There must be a playing-field of the unsurprising before surprise can occur. In learning what to be surprised by, one becomes who one is: "surprise evokes you". Or, we are most vividly ourselves when sprung alert by surprise.

"This is conversation". While fondly pretending to self-mock the inanities of baby-time and to contrast them with the fiercely intellectual colloquies of the day-job, yet it's also a recognition that much that we call conversation, once you strip off the apparent topic under discussion. consists of just such childish rocking and play and fidgets.



The simple happiness of the writing of Mutability is, if a compulsion, yet grasped with a full will and consciousness. It is not over-thought (the thought is intrinsic to it), but of course it is meditated.

But what if the note -- record of zeal overflowing -- sponges off your initiate life? ... the troubled line between domesticity and action, home and writing.... The chronic absenteeism of a political critique must have its letter. ... But not to dwell in you, on it, would be an act of penance, of asceticism. ... Is love ever progressive, if all happiness is just a fragment of the entire happiness people are denied? ... I miss a humane account of the household, of friendship, paracosms that prevent our utter ruination. 

(sentences from Mutability, pp. 11-13)

The absent critique is moving forward in those very questions. And the nursery is a foundry of society.

                    We cook you up,
knowing the chemistry is irreversible
and the past evaporates under any sky:
harming you into being, survivably indifferent. 

(Mutability, p. 11)



Now bring forth the beast that ruled the world with's beck,
And tear his flesh and set your feet on's neck;
And make his filthy den so desolate,
To th' 'stonishment of all that knew his state.

(quoted in "Cultural Affairs in Boston")

"Cultural Affairs in Boston" is itself a quoted title (from John Wieners) and the poem appears at first glance a mass of Bostonian references. This quotation is marked out from the rest by the italics. It's from Anne Bradstreet's poem "A Dialogue Between Old England and New", which is usually celebrated as evincing a woman and an American having the temerity to criticize and bewail the corrupt state of Old England, then embroiled in civil war (this was in 1642).

But Brady's quotation comes from a part of the poem that is quietly dropped from the Norton Anthology. Old England laments the civil war, but New England is, on the contrary, highly enthusiastic about it. She (New England) urges the Parliamentarians to drive Papism out of Old England with all the bloodiness necessary to righteousness, and to make full use of the machinery of justice.

Let Gaols be fill'd with th' remnant of that pack
And sturdy Tyburn loaded till it crack.

But why stop at the English Channel? Why not destroy Rome for good and all? (That's what Brady's quotation is talking about specifically.) Indeed, why not lay waste to Turkey, too? (Bradstreet, who learnt from John Foxe, associated Turkey's expansionism in Europe and Palestine with the Antichrist and hence with Ezekiel's Gog.)

As an image of long-distance bellicosity Bradstreet's narrowly Puritan poem, burning with indignation over the slaughter of Protestants in Ireland and La Rochelle, could hardly be bettered. But in Bradstreet's time New England was not a seat of power, its opinions on international affairs didn't count for much; they do now.

The presence of Bradstreet's poem in "Cultural Affairs in Boston" (in this quotation, and in more covert references elsewhere) completely transforms the social comedy of its account of the Cambridge poets' visit to this cultural capitol on April 13th, 2007.

the regular army training in sculls
points us up the Charles towards Winthrop
and guacamole from Grendel's kitchen,
Robin tears his Reuben limb from limb. 
The comic violence of Robin Purves' struggle with his sandwich underlies a structure that is admittedly based on cultural stereotypes of the US and its momentary Brit invaders ("are you some kind of invading army?"). But underlying that, is the fact of the two nations partnering in foreign wars against their perceived Gogs.  

The violence is queasily combined with a certain cartoonish unreality: American religiosity of "cartoon cloudlands" and "disney wings", and British animations in the "YouTube ornithocheirus" (presumably they're watching episode 4 of the Beeb's Walking With Dinosaurs, about the pterosaur Ornithocheirus, another translatlantic migrant fossilized in the Cambridge greensand.) In different ways the monster-battles of Beowulf and the unrealistic incitements of Bradstreet's poem partake of that cartoonish unreality. Yet, somewhere far off from Harvard, the violence is being made real.

"She Cannot Take Any Credit For This One", says the poem's subtitle. The poem is characterized by a certain doubling: Robin with Reuben, Harvard with Cambridge... And the subtitle perhaps just glances at those chiming names, Andrea Brady and Anne Bradstreet, women poets who emigrated to different Englands. As always in Brady's work, the poem cancels the author's "ethical priority" (this phrase comes from the afterword to Wildfire) in favour of a shared complicity. (Commentators who have felt the need to acclaim Brady's supposedly exceptional lack of self-regard are pulling in the opposite direction to her own poems.)



"Chorale" (in Cut from the Rushes) is a prose poem that appears to describe a barbecue but is haunted by suggestions that what is being barbecued is the planet. That's from the opening words ("Around the pole blooms surrogate fire"). It isn't just streamers round a maypole. Later on, hope melts and fizzes "like ice dropped on soda", observers are "griddled with light", and we prepare to sail in "hot fat seas of ruin". The poem ends:

We should draw up a plan with these tongs, sticky with the fleshes, but as hope floats we are too busy. Too busy watching.

That is rather more than the machine for complicity that is any western city. It confesses to being horribly entertained by the slow drama that the oil era has set in train. (Is any drama without oil now in fact imaginable?) And it places the emphasis, perhaps too squarely, on hope being just as manufactured a substance as democratic opinion or public grief.

It's easy, of course, to see the mechanism of complicity in outbursts of media-filtered emotion. But "watching" comprises more than being idly entertained. In another sense, we urgently need to watch; that is, to comprehend the details of what's done in our name. But what we seek to understand we tend to get used to.

And besides, a sense of complicity is necessary to understanding, for example, incendiaries. We need to recognize why we want a world lit up by phosphorus. To write Wildfire Brady had to risk celebrating it. That's why, I think, her afterword begins by claiming that "It" (i.e. the verse-essay) "is trying to persuade us, to recognize that certain catastrophes and felicities are not inevitable" .. .. etc. Why this evasiveness? Why couldn't she say "I am trying to persuade you"? Why is the author sitting in the audience? Apparently because she cannot lay claim to her essay's good intentions.  

Wildfire, sparked by the US troops' use of White Phosphorus in Fallujah, is structured around the history of incendiary devices (the earlier ones are not phosphorus-based). But it aims to place that combustive topic in wider contexts, psychological and social alike. The oil era is also in its sights, as is indeed clear from the epigraph to the whole book, a quotation from Louis Aragon:

Texaco motor oil, Esso, Shell, great inscriptions of human potentiality, soon we shall cross ourselves before your fountains, and the youngest among us will perish from having contemplated their nymphs in naphtha.

That theme returns in the poem titled "Crude".

Wildfire exists in two forms. The paper form contains only the poetic text (plus some interesting photo-images). The online version contains the text too, but with hyperlinks that lead us to the poem's main source-texts. Brady herself has worried (in interviews) that this hyperlinked presentation short-circuited the verse-essay from being read as verse: we get too stuck in to the essay aspect, to a fund of modern news articles, G.H. Schubert's extraordinary speculations, Browning's "Karshish", the Ancrene Wisse, and so forth. And this isn't such a bad way to read Wildfire : the information startles.

But, to take "Crude" as an example, relatively little of its dense pair of pages is fully accounted for by these links; indeed the links tend to narrow its scope, i.e. to the history of one well-attested ingredient of ancient incendiaries such as Greek Fire: "naphtha", the ancient blanket term for crude oil and other naturally occurring combustible hydrocarbons (the distilled substance kerosene was known as "white naphtha").

After one of its pauses for redirection, the poem begins talking about the kerosene heaters (UK: paraffin heaters) used by poor families. Brady means her own childhood: the rayon pyjamas, the Vaseline, and having to keep the window open because of the fumes.

and runs the little heaters in poor homes.
I dried my curls before the soph hop,
came aspiring into the night perfumed like a pick-up;

But the sentimentalism is not hers. This is the language of the enablement argument, routinely used by dirty fuel industries to defend their profit. Recently, a video made by Peabody Coal pointed to the heart-warming example of coal bringing heating to poor villagers in China (this is what lies behind Tony Abbott's claim, that "coal is good for humanity"). Sadly, the Chinese woman who did the voice-over was later identified, not as a grateful villager from the sticks, but as a Monsanto executive. Peabody, of course, aren't alone in promoting the enablement argument. When Shell use the phrase "unlocking energy" to mean extracting dirty fuel, that's the enablement argument in just two words.

The acrid pick-up (truck) smell of the poem is hardly dispelled by its uncomfortable reference to another child in nightwear, victim of the Haditha massacre.

"Runs the little heaters"... that innocent-looking little word "runs" encapsulates the issue. On the one hand, kerosene runs heaters in the way that petrol runs motors: it fuels them, it serves them, it enables them: just as coal from the Galilee Basin serves poor Chinese villages. On the other hand, executives run businesses: to manage, to control, to make a human system turn on its cogs. This isn't merely a double meaning. The two aspects always come together, and that's one reason why the oil era is so difficult to get out of.

"Crude" is obsessed by visions of automatic human systems (it uses the concepts of RepRap, of helpless replication). For there's another familiar problem with how the oil era smooths the paths of our thinking. In Wildfire Brady's theme is chiefly explosive: sudden, one-time, catastrophe. There may of course be many such catastrophes: the explosions that "flash along the street like bunting". But in the combustion engine these explosions are, paradoxically, in the service of smoothness, order and regularity. (Like the gas fired peakers that ignite automatically, perhaps only once or twice in a year, so as to maintain the overall stability of supply to end-users.) In the oil era regularity itself, social order itself, is a chain of explosions.

So, in what way is it legitimate, as it certainly must be, to connect oil-as-fuel with battlefield weaponry? (In a more thorough-going way than just asserting that the invasion of Iraq was all about oil.) That, or something like it, is the question that "Crude" revolves; the notorious fumes of those domestic kerosene heaters being merely a jocular glance at an easy answer. Here, on the one hand, are queasy images of smoothness, continuity and social order: the gleaming surfaces of "carpooled naptha", automatic systems, the Nectar (loyalty card), broadcast and trade. Here, on the other hand, are those explosions breaking the street of Haditha, the haughty Medea drone-bombing the Middle East, and the whole ballistic display of "Thrown Fire", the next poem in the sequence.

Tear me in pieces, give me the sword with a ball of wildfire upon it. 

(Zabina, in Tamburlaine Part One, at the only point where its autocratic pentameters break down)

This is "wildfire" in the sense used in Brady's poem: an old term for Greek Fire, something that can be thrown but is adhesive where it lands. Something wild, something for emotive rhetoric to seize on. Is this, perhaps, at the heart of our needs and the social order that manages their satisfaction?

But let's leave "Crude" where we started, in a nightmare of smooth automation.

I love what I hate
and can't stop drinking,
shooing out the windows, pumping it
into my lap. It fills life automatically
and makes that life an odometer.
You know that, it's your mango, radio,
factoid in the siphon, but we are automatic
fire our reps with Nectar, and landscapes.

Peabody's enablement argument is a vile deception, but like all effective deceptions it's close to true.
ISIS depends on oil to survive; so does the Kurdish state; the PLO and OPEC grew up together. We drink dirty fuels. Since in the developed world they sustain our need to give and receive love, they're associated not only with noisy smelly things like forecourts and peakers but our deepest self-realizations; nice things like visiting family and trips into nature (plastic trainers on misty days, a plastic water-bottle glinting in the Mediterranean sun). Reading and writing poems that exercise the sustained attention of warm rooms. Modernist poetry, as much as imported mangos and the cheerful radio, is a petrochemical product.

*The abstruse "factoid in the siphon" is a garbled foretaste of mikroi siphones in the opening lines of  "Thrown Fire". The note explains that these were hand-syringes used to squirt Greek Fire at the enemy.



When Embrace came out in 2005, it was met with a small deluge of acclaim. Two pieces in particular stood out: Marianne Morris's 2006 review in Jacket and (to some extent a rejoinder) John Wilkinson's essay in the Chicago Review vol 53 no 1 Spring 2007 (the British Poetry special), shortly afterwards reprinted as the centrepiece of his book The Lyric Touch (Salt 2007).

(That's partly why, in this essay, I've tried to focus on poems from Presenting rather than Embrace).

Despite some significant disagreements, e.g. about the tightrope trodden in "Saw Fit", there are a number of points of resemblance. Both essays are aware of the grand theme of complicity (or better, a sense of complicity); both choose to notice recurrent patterns of imagery; and both register a sense of Brady's poetry as a breakthrough, a way out of a Cambridge impasse.

Wilkinson's essay, indeed, is structured as a kind of brief history of the political lyric in Cambridge. This is hugely engaging, and it's perhaps ungenerous of me to feel that at its heart there remains a mysterious vacuum. If the project of a worthwhile political poetry is so challenging as to enforce the incredibly costly strategies of J.H. Prynne's poems, or the radical scepticism that Wilkinson attributes to Drew Milne (I don't think this adequately sums up what Milne says about the critical poem, by the way), then I still don't quite see how it comes about that we possess in Brady's books a body of work so naturally and intrinsically political that it's scarcely necessary to distinguish it by the word "political": reading, enjoying, appreciating these poems is, indistinguishably, to be jolted into urgent critique of our own political beliefs.

Probably some of that vacuum is down to Wilkinson modestly excluding himself from his survey; his, surely, are the Cambridge poems that Brady's most obviously recall. But such local literary history can't in any case fully account for Brady's writing: she is, after all, an American poet (though a very UnAmerican one).

Morris's review hazarded a different explanation: "Her evacuation is made partly through the medium of desire, the element of the book that I most charmed and bothered by... I do feel, sometimes a little awkwardly, that these poems wish to be desired." This insight, which Morris herself seems to apologise for and which others, including Wilkinson, were too quick to hush up, has seemed to me a valuable one, especially when it's linked to what Morris rightly says elsewhere about the recurrently personal material that drives the poetry. Where I differ from Morris is in thinking that it's some sort of criticism. It's impossible that such brilliance of technique as these poems display should be unaware of its attractions, nor should it be. On the contrary, the need to be loved, the need to present oneself: these are natural needs and, for exactly that reason, crucial elements in the complicit systems against which, but also within which, we struggle to sense and to reach at something better. Both the problem and the aspiration are deeply inflected by our needs. Accordingly desire, and the satisfaction of desire (or dissatisfaction, or both at the same time), play a large part in the content of the poems. But in Brady's radically complicit view of the world ("fully cognisant", as Wilkinson puts it), the author cannot be exculpated from the implications of her material. Do poems have wishes? Most certainly. Bury them? Be complicit in the familiar patterns of deception? No and no!

 (I would add that desire of one sort or another hugely underlies both the later books, Mutability and Wildfire.)



Showing the slit across the thigh, she anchors
the erotic by which burundi girls buy un
hcr relief. Is that enough milk
foaming venus blood shot through narrow arteries
sewn up with grass and thorn. Exotic
                 imports unsold sweating
bushmeat, a race for extinction won at the starting
gun. Every tactic is neurotic, down to the wire

("Export Zone", lines 1-8)

"Export Zone" (a poem in Presenting, the second part of Cut from the Rushes)  also appeared in the Forward Book of Poetry 2015. It had been Highly Commended for the 2014 Forward prize, perhaps (as Ken Edwards mused) by Jeremy Paxman, or it may have been Vahni Capildeo.[Intercapillary readers might like to know that also Highly Commended were poems by S.J. Fowler, Lee Harwood, Colin Herd, and Marianne Morris. Denise Riley went one better and got on to the Shortlist. In the past the Forward anthologies have been regarded as typifying the most mainstream of the mainstream but evidently it is not quite as straightforward as that now.]

I feel like there's a wry appropriateness in its being this Brady poem, in particular, that flickered before the eyes of poetry's larger readership. Maybe that's because Costa Coffee ("Is that enough milk") sponsor a major literary prize of their own. Maybe it's because the ingredients of the poem, salted and whipped, the plight of Burundi refugees, violence and abuse of women, free trade deregulation and smug enjoyment of exported coffee, inadequacy of corporate charity, dubious value of writing poetry, seem at first to compose an argument that's rather too easily digestible; already pre-digested in fact.  In a miserable, grisly kind of way, We know all this. So far as the opening of the poem is concerned, you can say that it shadows forth a sort of Political Poetry Lite.

But that's where the poem begins, not where it ends.

                                   Before the noon bulletin
I’ve sucked off two enemies and crossed
my arms over my mouth

("Export Zone", lines 9-11)

It's reasonable to suppose that "I" is the Burundi girl refugee of line 2.  Reasonable, yes. But then that provokes a further question, what kind of voice is this? It's neither mimetic of a personal spoken narrative of horrible experience, nor is it gravely impersonal in the way that an emblem may be given a speech-bubble in which to announce its significance. It's emotionally neutral, but not in a traumatized way, but rather in a totally inappropriate mundanely-chatty way. (The present perfect tense has a lot to do with conveying this impression.) As if somehow the cafe had merged with the refugee camp and the lines were only saying "Boy, I've had a really busy morning and gotten a whole lot done."

I guess we can associate that flattened presentation with the buffoonish "camp catastrophics" in line 14-15. This is self-destruct territory. Brady usually uses the word "catastrophe" with the utmost seriousness and specificity.

Pronouns here are, of course, unstably connected to dramatis personae. Even in the opening line (see above), is "she" in fact a Burundi girl? Maybe, but maybe not: the syntax allows both interpretations.

What about this?

I sat in front of the terminal bowed by
happy news. He's coming, down the basra
              highway the eastern mainline toppling regime

Another mini-narrative is shadowed forth, but it seems to have a new cast-list. And once more, we're aware of a vague inappropriateness, this time in the connection of happiness with Iraq's highway to hell.

To generalize, the poem seems reluctant to maintain the firm separation between the coffeed-up westerner and the abused refugee upon which the irony inherent in the hypothetical Lite poem seems to depend.

What's going on here? The ending of the poem supplies a kind of commentary.

Doctors refuse to look at a local sample, even these
lines sucked tight as zippers betray
their sex with pink flapping. How to feel
pleasure when writing is a work of repressive
sympathy, how do you celebrate time?

These lines have so many possible interpretations that they should be taken more as mapping out the territory of the meditation than supplying its conclusions.  For example, "Betray": 1. act treacherously; 2. disclose. "Their sex": 1. the author's feminity; 2. women in general; 3. female genitalia. "Pink flapping": 1. labia; 2. expressed emotion. Construing that sentence entails perming any three of seven. And the composite question that follows is fully as open to multiple interpretations.

But whichever way you go, it's clear that layered onto the familiar scenario of bad things happening elsewhere is a meditation on the emotions.

As Brady insists, the lines in the poem are "sucked tight as zippers"; they attempt to repress, so far as they can, an inappropriate emotional soundtrack. And at any rate, they seem to repress the negative emotions; nothing much is said about violence or horror. But at the same time, there's a marked presence of positively emotive words such as "happy", "relief", "coming", "intimacy", "pleasure", "celebrate" and "sympathy".

Emotion cannot contain itself, the poem flows with it. Not only sexual emotion, not only happiness and pleasure, but the religious emotions around sacrifice and Easter, the emotion of natural wonder at the labial crocuses flourishing beneath the leafless apple trees.

A luxury of personal emotion that's pointedly denied to the refugee woman compelled to trade blow-jobs for food and even survival.

But that final question, then. What is the place of emotion, or is there one at all, in relation to awareness of a larger suffering, a political life that isn't entirely bankrupt, a political writing that isn't just pissing in the wind? And Brady sort of sets it up as if to provoke a great big NO: Like, who cares about the author's feelings of pleasure? And why would anyone want to celebrate these times? etc etc

Her question risks, you might almost say it courts, the accusations of shallowness, solipsism, inappropriateness, bad taste and mindless latte-drinking.

The poem's not really there to provide its own answer. But to my eyes the set of its tide is much more in the direction of YES than NO. If we are not to be swung like a mob (which would be a bit atavistic) yet we nevertheless need a bit of the mob's power to make change, which means we need to take responsibility ourselves for our emotional life.  Emotion is the driver of what we call free will, of intention, of determination.  Emotion is the driver of any action that isn't merely enforced.  The emotional space is where capitalism attempts (with great success) to control our actions: so the corrective must also work in that space. At any rate emotion is what we won't be without.

Besides, what is written without pleasure is in general read without effort.

So I think "Export Zone" goes to a very pragmatic place.


Obsessional readers can OD on the following blog-posts, in which some of these ideas were laboriously worked out.

Cut from the Rushes, Reality Street Editions, 2013 (ISBN: 978-1-874400-63-9)
Mutability: Scripts for Infancy, Seagull Books, 2013 (ISBN: 978-0-857420-90-9)
Wildfire: A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination, Krupskaya, 2010 (ISBN: 978-1-928650-31-7)

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