A review of Autoethnographic by Michael Brennan

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Michael Brennan
Giramondo Publishing
2012, Paperback, ISBN: 9781920882891

Autoethnographic is a difficult read. Though the poems are deceptively prosaic, they don’t yield their messages easily, and are unsettlingly dark, disjointed, and at times, so self-referential that they feel like a chaotic nightmare. But once you let go of the desire for linearity and meaning and instead open up to the linguistic subtleties, to new modes of perception, and to the revelations which are decidedly non-linear, the work becomes quite special.

Some of the poems, like “Who is Alibi Wednesday?” are powerfully political, taking us through the joy of migration coupled with the muteness and pain, graphically symbolized by an executioner with a bowie knife: “When you feel the blade’s tongue/lick your tongue, you are still giddily scratching/surfaces, falling in love with the city.” Other poems are decidedly Lynchian – mingling an almost pastoral sing-song with a darkness that feels malevolent, such as the apocalyptic setting of “After the circus”: “You, slovenly kin of the carnival, watcher, gaper, groper, stay-at-home, malingerer, do you feel the slow snarl of dismay…” The poems read like stories, full of characters, setting, dialogue, and progression, but it’s as if we’re entering in the middle of a fog-filled nightmare. There are layers upon layers – regressions of personae that exist in individual poems and collectively as the characters or situations recur. One family in particular takes us through the collection. Alibi and Jumbo appear to be siblings, whose mother has died. Jumbo talks about his father’s alter-ego as an Alaskan bear hunter in “Alibi considers the suburban line”: “When he got off at Central, he strode the pedestrian tunnel and on to the trailhead that curved its way to the mountainous bear country beyond” (32). There are many conversations, moving in and out of thought and dialogue.  In “Those ox-hearted tomatoes” the conversation seems oddly familiar and is perfectly grammatical, but taken out of context and distorted, so only the emotion – a fraught tension – permeates the piece like a melody. Later Jumbo returns to describe his father working on the roof, attempting to come to grips with grief through a tower-like construction (a stairway to heaven perhaps):

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 he wants, to whisper to his cloud wife, to shout all that unsaid, and give her the kiss he’s been lugging around like a corpse on his back, a weight that might yet take flight and bring her back or set him free. (35)

In “Right people for the job”, the persona could be Alibi, contemplating the surprise return from Burma of a missing uncle, who spends a few days catching up through photo albums, and then disappearing again. Like many of the other poems in this collection, the piece is a little story, with pathos around loss and family, but the denouement, which invokes the title, suggests a whole other interpretation – one about what constitutes living, responsibility, and the demands of convention. Though convention exists here as ‘other’, in the world of these hungry misfits, facing some kind of dystopia, which reaches its peak in the title poem “Autoethnographic”, where “We were stranded, facing each other with only our fear.” The dystopia feels political – a revolution, beheadings, “Big Brother”, global warming, and the aphasia of “Countless Times”, but it might be simply the loss of mother – an almost laconic grief that permeates the pieces, and adds resonance to the chaos of the scenes.

Through the ongoing cognitive dissonance of these different live and perspectives, and an unsettling intensity amidst the matter-of-fact tone, Brennan also manages whimsy. This is sometimes accomplished through the use of anthropomorphism. In “Cast Away”, the reader wakes as a message in a bottle, unknown, unread, suggestive:

It’s true you will never get out and so you’re left to wonder what witness you bear: an accusation, a plea for mercy, a suicide note, perhaps a last ditch love letter. (29)

In a nod to Kubrick, Brennan constructs his own little ode to lost youth in “How I learned to stop worrying and to love the free market economy”: “the fires of hell these days reserved of the faint of heart and feckless.” (70)

Ultimately, there is a beautiful, rhythmic longing that makes these poems very moving, but only after several readings. They take time to open out, and perhaps they take connection too – the pieces work separately but as a collection, they are more powerful. In the end too, there is almost a redemptive quality to the work. It will be alright in the end – we have time:

I know that, eventually, one way or the other, we’ll get back there and Mum will sit with me in the dark watching the years and hours we lost flowering together. She’ll put her mug down and then lean over and peel away my face where she will find earth and time tangled, overgrown and grown rotten, and then digging below that she’ll pull out handfuls of light and send it on its way. (“In the garden”, 77)

Though not easy, Autoethnogaphic is a moving collection that repays the effort of multiple readings.  Subtle, complex and deeply intense, it blurs the lines between the personal and the political and uses language in ways that are both unusual and uncomfortably familiar.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at http://www.magdalenaball.com