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So Many Registers: Rediscovering Paul Brown’s A Cabin in the Mountains

By Harriet Staff


Michael Peverett reviews Paul Brown’s A Cabin in the Mountains (Reality Street, 2012) for Intercapillary Space. Now if you are unfamiliar with Brown, that’s not uncommon. As Peverett explains:

Brown was a part of the scene back in the 70s and 80s, generally active in the backwash of the British Poetry Revival, London chapter. He ran important presses (Transgravity, Actual Size), he translated Benjamin Péret, he taught at Goldsmiths’, and then, in the early 90s, he disappeared. He didn’t really disappear; he just went to run an art bookshop in Brighton. But his name had stopped being mentioned by the time the Internet got into gear, so a Google search doesn’t bring up very much material. He had published two poetry collections: Meetings and Pursuits (1978) – a book recently uncovered and praised by Colin Herd – and Masker (1982). He had also published, in earlier versions and fugitive locations, all six of the sequences that make up A Cabin in the Mountains. This is a new release but all the poetry was, allegedly, written about a quarter of a century ago. (If I was Paul Brown, I can’t think but I’d have seized the opportunity to do a little gardening.) Back then, probably, these sequences didn’t reach or detain many readers before they made their disheartening way to the stacks at Stanford Uni. Collected together, they make a body of work that is not so easy to ignore.

While admitting that he is not the reviewer longly knowething of Brown’s work, Peverett is still a good one, writing that “twenty years after Brown’s disappearance, A Cabin in the Mountains bobs up like a coelacanth (if that’s what coelacanths do): shiny, vigorous, a sample of a great era of past poetry but still with all its oily freshness.” Here’s another example of good reviewing meeting what looks like seriously int. writing:

When I first wrote this paragraph, a long time ago, I hastened to say that Brown’s poetry is not about quotidian detail and that these period references are very few and far between. Now I know the poems better, I begin to see that there’s quite a lot of them – “the budget”, “vending machine coffee / tea and oxtail”, “the clatter of the keys”,… It is still a small feature of the book as a whole, but this poetry is dense with feature. Its density doesn’t give an impression of richness, though. I’ll say a bit more about that later.


breadcrumbs cling to
                 her beauty

This line (dug out of the first bit of “Nude Descending”) seems like a place to start. The image is of something more complex than perfection, impurity of a kind, and that seems to be an important part of Brown’s aesthetic. He is not just talking about the woman in this poem, but about any ripple of human energy, including art:

all species of trash
               not only rocks and sand
stick to the sides
              of our craft

the limits of most devices

being well-defined.
The final speck of static
on the lens that
cannot be removed.

(This line of thinking, I imagine, might run from Freud via Kristeva.) Brown’s six sequences are impure, ramshackle, lazy; artfully lazy, I think, though I’m not completely certain. There is always a breadcrumb too much going on, you’re trying to read quietly while there’s a washing machine going through its spin cycle, at the same time (in fact, because of this) a blurred quality to the form that you’re trying to negotiate. Whether or not Brown did any 21st-century gardening, it’s clear that each of the sequences was developed over a considerable period of time, and that (so I imagine) accounts to some extent for the text being so detailed and unpredictable, a web of so many registers.

More on Brown’s use of/understanding of Duchamp, Sappho, Olson, and many other threads (his “several preoccupations [the abuse suffered by women in the world and in art, the oppressions of capital, art in a compromised world, the author's effort to write the poem, the relation of language to reality, and even - as I've sometimes fancied, but perhaps mainly because of the single exclamation "Check!" - Marcel Duchamp's career]“), read this. You can buy the book, too.

Posted in Poetry News on Friday, December 14th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.