Tamryn Bennett reviews “Autoethnographic” by Michael Brennan
by Michael Brennan
Reviewed by TAMRYN BENNETT
‘The world was already the world and we were looking for ourselves’
~ Michael Brennan
It is possible to comb Michael Brennan’s most recent collection for clues connecting it to the triptych the author alluded to in notes on Unanimous Night. Or to search the pages for traces of introspective revelations of self, other and culture suggested by the title Autoethnographic. However, it seems that in his third collection, Brennan uses the mirror as a means to observe the self-refracted in the murky Petri dish of modernity.
Regardless of the ‘selves’ we read through, Autoethnographic holds a lens to human fault lines, inviting us to view fissures and failings in fluorescent detail. Entwining peripheral narratives and a scientific precision not encountered in Brennan’s previous collections, Autoethnographic presents emptiness, longing and memory loss under a microscope. From Alibi Wednesday’s arrival to ‘The Great Forgetting’, these poems examine the difficulties of authenticity in the ‘ready-made’ age of ruin and capital.
Brennan’s opening quote, borrowed from Edward Sapir, elucidates the importance of language in shaping social interactions; ‘Human beings do not live in the objective world alone […] but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society’. Through language we are labelled, recorded, lied to, studied and lost. Simultaneously escapist and sensitive, Brennan’s language exquisitely renders the flux, cracks and decaying states of language in an inflated world of indexed happiness, HTML, and coded collapse. Re-contextualised and dismantled, the words that linger on the ‘Chinese fortune-teller’s wet lips’ in Brennan’s ‘After the circus’ are the same as those that fall like crumbs from the sweet old fool’s mouth in ‘Symbiosis’. Beneath the thin shell of social constructs, Brennan exposes the bones upon which our narratives are built. The same bones we veil with syntax and fragmentary sketches of drifters, desperados and circus tents.
Enter Autoethnograpic’s cast of transient characters: the fugitive Alibi Wednesday, Georgia on the run, ‘Noah in love’, and the hapless Jumbo hammering his way into the sky. These figures are connected by a continual search and inarticulate sense of loss. They represent the spectrum of existent possibilities, albeit a localised and somewhat suburban gamut, with each of their episodes offering a window into life after the ‘Great Forgetting’. Introduced in the poem ‘Team spirit’, the ‘Great Forgetting’ is a recurring metaphor for unfathomable acts of war, corruption and injustice that have been bled from consciousness by a kind of collective amnesia.
Before the Great Forgetting set in,
I’m sure I was happy and all of this was different,
but soon the money-lenders will be at the door
again, and we don’t even have a biscuit to bribe
their baboons. Oh Lord, Lord, I’m so afraid.’
This poem, like many within the collection is part confession, part social portrait. Comparing the scene to the ashen piles of Pompeii, it recalls a time before the propaganda confetti settled and the reality of ‘the grand scale’ turned grey. Beneath the self-reflexive front, ‘Team spirit’ exposes mass concerns of confusion. After the hope and hysteria, the past and present are hyperlinked in a continual loop of uncertainty. Again in ‘Unwilling’, the black-market aftermath of the ‘Great Forgetting’ unfolds in a subtle commentary on uncritical compliance.
After the Great Forgetting, the city fell. All the
political prisoners were released as no one knew
who they were, let alone whose. The trade in
organs and body parts abounded, not all of it
The same historical haze and deep sleep that fuels the ‘Great Forgetting’ in ‘Unwilling’ also pervades ‘Sidereal days’, ‘Wilful blindness’, ‘A philosophy of freedom’ and the title poem ‘Autoethnographic’. In each of these, and indeed throughout the collection, the sounds of sirens, static and six-car pile-ups provoke a sense of hallucinatory, lucid dreaming. It is a dream shared by Brennan’s characters as they salvage memories, speak with the dead, and piece together past lives and future selves. An unending dream or series of episodes that glimpse what’s to come and what can never be again. These observational ‘meta-sodes’ reveal that even before the Great Forgetting, the collective conscious was divided and distracted by hedonistic headlines.
To date, reviews of Autoethnographic have often focused on Brennan’s dystopian requiems and the contemporary resignation to cultural collapse (Kenneally, 2012). Yet it is precisely this climate of dysfunction that enables his crew of deviant escapists and the surreal scenes of ‘After the circus’, ‘The Milonguero’, ‘Last exit to human’ or ‘Jumbo and the happy abyss’ that are arguably the strength of this collection.
Jumbo and the happy abyss
He’s ripped-up the roof tiles and lays them
out, each one a step, a little red chipped tongue,
he tiptoes up. He’s pulling himself up by his
bootstraps. Impossible dancer. I wonder when
the council will get here and tell him to pull it down,
with their ordinance and physics and if he’ll get
finished before then, and clamber into the sky like
Jumbo’s improbable staircase is the eternal symbol of hope. As unstable as the Kenneally twins’ dreams ‘built out of horse glue, some piping and slippers’, the staircase is an escape, an attempt to defy the rules of reality and of gravity. In this way, Brennan’s poems open portals into possibility, scaffolding delusions of the grandest scale in the wake of loss. Towards the end of the collection, in ‘World already’, escape is finally realised with the line ‘an uncle ascending into cirrus’. This ontological description of dispersion hints at the essential transformation we all undertake in returning to matter.
If pressed to find fault with Autoethnographic, it is that the poignancy Brennan’s observations are, at times, undercut by predicable lineation and prosaic page composition. Still, his observations are acutely detailed, engaging and sanguine. From solar flares to snowflake details, desert expanses or the renaming of everything in ‘Countless times’, Autoethnographic showcases the voice and vision of a poet who has surely hit his stride, a poet examining existence as a means of understanding our place within it.
References: Peter Kenneally, 2012, ‘Michael Brennan: Autoethnographic’, Australian Book Review.
DR TAMRYN BENNETT is a writer and visual artist. Since 2004 she has exhibited artists books, illustrations and comics poetry in Sydney, Melbourne, Switzerland and Mexico. Her poetry, illustrations and essays have appeared in Five Bells, Nth Degree, Mascara Literary Review, THEthe Poetry, and English in Australia. She currently works as Education Manager for The Red Room Company. tamrynbennett.com