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From Alexandria to Auckland

Skin Hunger by David Lyndon Brown
Titus Books, Auckland, 2009. Reviewed By SCOTT HAMILTON

Late last year I attended the premiere of a short film called Skin Hunger at David Lyndon Brown’s small but stylish apartment in Auckland’s inner city. I sat in the dark with a crowd of Brown’s friends and watched as a series of words – I remember adjectives like ‘sublime’ and abstract nouns like ‘beauty’ – floated across a naked male torso wrapped in blue light. Music fluttered in the background, and a voice – deep and calm, and yet passionate – read fragments of poetry filled with words like ‘sublime’ and ‘beauty’.

The light, the music, and David Lyndon Brown’s language all suggested that Skin Hunger was supposed to be a celebration of otherworldly loveliness, like the early paintings of Rossetti or the poetry of Stefan George. Yet the body that was the focus of the film did not resemble the youthful, perfectly-proportioned beauties that Rossetti and George had immortalised in paint and words. In fact, the star of Skin Hunger was a bit of a slob. A gut hung over his waist, pimples grew between the hairs on his back, and his skin looked dirty in places. As the film went on, and the camera zeroed in on its subject’s grime-encrusted nipples, I noticed that words like ‘mucous’, ‘stain’, and ‘piss’ were slipping into the poet’s litany of praise.

The star of Skin Hunger was no Adonis, but David Lyndon Brown has never been interested in idealised beauty. Brown has taken the title of his first, long-awaited collection of poetry from his short movie, and stills of his star’s torso adorn the book’s front and back covers. ‘Cavafy’s Shoes’, the second poem in Brown’s book, can be read as an elaboration of the images that flickered across the wall of Brown’s apartment last year. Brown wrote ‘Cavafy’s Shoes’ after learning that a number of tiles taken from the floors of old houses in Alexandria had turned up at an Onehunga warehouse where his friend and fellow poet Bob Orr worked. Brown has a fascination with Alexandria and with the writers it has sheltered, and he was horrified when Orr told him how one of the tiles was being prepared for resale:

When you said you’d taken to the tile with hydrochloric acid,
I flinched. I feared
that you might dilute
the essences of Alexandria,
the vital fluids –
sweat, tears, semen, spilt perfume, blood.
I feared that you might erase
the footprints of Forster, Cavafy, and Durrell.

Brown didn’t want the tiles of Alexandria cleaned up for the same reason that he didn’t want the star of Skin Hunger to take a shower. He sees the marks that time and chance leave on objects and people as records and reminders, however cryptic, of experiences and feelings that might otherwise be lost. The poet’s job is to interpret the stains and other small details that life leaves behind. Ideals of beauty and perfection should be resisted because, like hydrochloric acid, they erase what is particular and meaningful. Imagining the tiles that Bob Orr has been cleaning, Brown conjures a series of images of the decadent, doomed Bohemian world that made Alexandria famous in the first half of the twentieth century:

Justine stalks the terrace on imperious heels,
chain smoking…
at the end of the bar, as always,
the Poet of the City,
slipshod in scuffed orthopaedics
sips absinthe
and tenderly observes the handsome waiter.

‘The Poet of the City’ is Constantine P Cavafy, the Greek civil servant who lived almost his whole life in Alexandria, scribbling irascible messages on bureaucratic memos and composing exquisite poems about lost love, passing pleasures, and the way of all flesh. David Lyndon Brown shares Cavafy’s themes, and he has also learnt from the man’s style. Like the poems Cavafy circulated surreptitiously amongst friends, the pieces in Skin Hunger are usually short, concrete, clearly constructed, and fiercely attentive to detail. Nothing is too ordinary to elude Brown’s gaze:

The eyes open.
The fingers unfurl.
I marvel at the magnitude of these events.

Like Brown’s book of short stories Calling The Fish and his novel Marked Men, Skin Hunger explores a seedy but loveable Auckland of crumbling Bohemian villas, underfurnished apartments, twenty-four hour bars, and dodgy nightclubs. The poems set amidst Auckland’s gay community have considerable sociological and historical value, despite the fact that they eschew generalisation and political rhetoric. ‘The Virus’ says more about the impact of AIDS on members of the gay community than any table of statistics or patronising health campaign:

When he sleeps
it plays
making his limbs dance.

It juggles his thoughts.
He forgets.
He loses things.
It has uncurled his hair.

Brown’s uncomplicated technique and relatively limited range of subjects do not restrict the resonance of his poems. Like Cavafy, he is able to communicate complex meanings through simple means. In ‘Neighbourhood Watch’, for instance, Brown brings together themes of voyeurism, social isolation, sexual deprivation, and violence through a simple if ingenious rendering of an experience which is commonplace in Auckland’s badly designed inner city:

Your smoke signals
lure me
to the balcony.
Reflected in the glass balustrade
I see your hand,
cigarette poised,
I see your stomach,
I see the nipples of your chest.
Your head is cut off…

I move slightly
to maximise my view.
You light up.
I light up,
feasting on your headless body.

‘Neighbourhood Watch’ is all the more provocative because its author refrains from either defending or apologising for his voyeurism. He also refrains from speculating about the character and motivations of the ‘headless body’ he feasts upon. It is up to readers to interrogate ‘Neighbourhood Watch’. Have voyeur and exhibitionist met their match, or is the narrator of the poem guilty of somehow exploiting his neighbour? Is the narrator simply a lonely pervert indulging in a cheap thrill? Is the sort of objectification of a stranger’s body that the poem records a natural part of human life, or is it a consequence of the alienation that a big city like Auckland can breed? Does ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ make us uncomfortable because David Lyndon Brown has been brave enough to describe what all of us like secretly to do, in one social context or another?
Not all of Brown’s poems are as free of authorial comment as ‘Neighbourhood Watch’. In ‘Law and Order’, for instance, the poet offers a judgement of the whole of the natural world:

Don’t be deceived by the roses in that prim vase.
The nuzzling buds, the sluttish petals unfurling –
anther, stamen, pistil erect,
twitching for a fuck.

Outside in the hot dark, the sap simmers.
The grass shoots up green blades.
Pods burst.
The oleander thrashes at the glass.
Tendrils reach and grasp.

In the Serengeti a predator is tearing something apart.

Brown is hardly the first person to tell us that nature is red in tooth and claw, but he makes us appreciate the idea anew by finding such unusual images to illustrate it. His poem has a casual tone and uncomplicated syntax, but it has been carefully designed. Brown has made sure, in particular, that the shape and sound of his lines reinforce the meanings that they carry. The slow, almost languorous rhythm of his second line, for instance, embodies the unfurling of petals that it describes. The first three lines of his second stanza become progressively faster and shorter, until the alliterated plosives of ‘Pods burst’ announce the violence that is germane to nature, a violence that can only be temporarily disguised by a ‘prim vase’ of roses. The poem’s final line throws the reader halfway around the world, and makes the extent of Brown’s vision dizzyingly apparent.
The great strength of Skin Hunger is also one of the book’s few weaknesses. David Lyndon Brown’s intense response to the world around him and impassioned recall of past experiences can lead him to become overexcited and sentimental, and to succumb to the sort of clichés that give lyric poetry a bad name. Deep and meaningless phrases like ‘the ravenous moon’, ‘I shudder at your impact’, and ‘You are the sailor of my mysterious ocean’ mar half a dozen of the poems in Skin Hunger. Titus deserves applause for publishing this book, but a good editor should have made sure that all its poems had the concreteness and clarity of ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ and ‘Law and Order’.
Titus Books will be launching David Lyndon Brown’s Skin Hunger along with Ted Jenner’s Writers in Residence and other captive fauna on May the first, at Fordes Bar, 122 Anzac Avenue Auckland, from seven o’clock.