new zealand electronic poetry centre


Alan Brunton




Slow Passes. By Alan Brunton. Auckland University Press, 1991. $24.95. 

Tom Weston, Christchurch Press, 29 February 1992 

Alan Brunton’s poem ‘Introductions All Round’ is subtitled ‘of poetry’. It is peopled by a cast of thousands (Ben Hur is a realistic comparison) and stars Apollo who descends from a white aeroplane waving a white umbrella – although this Apollo is more likely to drive an Impala than preside over the battle for Troy.           

On the sixth page of the poem, the narrator ejects the temptress La Dama Sin Mancha from his chamber. She endeavours to maintain face: ‘she flounces down the stairs a crude forgery of a radiant original.’           

And that marvellous exit provides a point of entry to Brunton’s writing. Characters indeed flounce, perhaps as string puppets might do. The verb catches the theatricality of the poems. Forgery has connotations of corruption or decay: Brunton speaks of germ warfare, trespass, ruins. All of these are states opposite to that of paradise, the Holy Grail for which the poet (in his various guises) seeks. And it is this care, the radiant original, that makes his poetry so compelling. 

But what, after all, is Slow Passes? Is it revealed in the poem of the same name? This piece sets the scene for the search motif that is the essential theme of the whole collection – ‘I wanted to find where paradise could be’. The poem (of which more later) is a helpful signpost, but is not the key to unlock the palace. 

Moving on then. Slow Passes might be a revisiting of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy is now a male – the poet’s alter ego in fact. The Tin Man is variously the King of Ethiopia or the Terminal Human (or some other inventive name). The Emerald City has become Zero City. But, then, The Wizard of Oz is itself an amalgam of types; but an answer of sorts. 

Another view of it would have Slow Passes as the poetic equivalent to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Cartoon (and television) characters play out their doomed fantasies on dirty poetic streets. Real-life characters only get the bit roles. They duck and feint in dutiful response to their cut-out counterparts. 

Yet again, Slow Passes might be some eccentric detective story (and this is another version of the quest motif), a Bogart growl doing the voice over. This probably has to be a gritty black-and-white movie with indistinct edges. Professor Wittgenstein would have approved. An example (from the poem ‘Their Diet Consists of Carrion’): 

Little Paco was executed
by the Leadership for his peculations,
struck down at my front door.

I was entertaining a distinguished visitor 

from the Antipodes,
a detective rang the bell,
flipped his wallet: ‘Homicide!’

Or, perhaps, and this might sum it all up, Slow Passes is a feast of gigantic proportion, a creation as uncommon as the flower of the Century plant, and just as extraordinary. Its abundance of riches runs like quicksilver. The sybarite would be excused for wanting to wallow in it all. The images are complex and huge, the writing electric, the adrenalin levels right up in the red. 

In the midst of all of this extravagance there are some dud notes and inaccuracies, places where the hysteria seems shrill rather than urgent. But like a South American carnival you measure success other than by counting the corpses on the last day. 

Let us go back to that title poem and its announcement of the main programme of the poems. In his introduction, Peter Simpson identifies the paradise that is sought as (poet) Baudelaire’s paradis artificiel – a less high-minded version of paradise than the motif suggests. That observation is probably correct, but I also see an echo of Ezra Pound’s Canto 120 where he says, ‘I have tried to write paradise’ – the conclusion of his work rather than the beginning. Pound despairs; Brunton boldly steps out. 

And yet, in Canto 76, Pound says: ‘Le Paradis n’est pas artificiel’. 

The Pound echo gains in volume in other ways. There is a counterpart to Canto 83 (‘and we read no more of the book that day’ as against ‘and that day I wrote no further’). The last lines in the collection seem to allude to the Chinese translations of Pound: 

            you abandon the old man of your skin
and dance
in a dress
with the yellow

Pound’s successor was American poet Charles Olson. His seminal poem ‘The Kingfishers’ finds an echo here (and not just in the Mexican setting). Other poets rate a mention in Brunton’s dispatches: Antonin Artaud, Samuel Coleridge, Edgar Poe.  

Although Brunton is an accomplished writer it is his inventiveness that is most striking. The same inventiveness would come as no surprise to those who know the work of Red Mole, the anarchic theatrical troupe associated with Brunton. The poems in this collection often serve as miniature scripts, narratives of weird fantasies featuring unusual characters (the Co-ordinator of Rapid Rupture is one such). 

Although he has lived overseas for many years, Brunton can be regarded as a contemporary of poets such as Ian Wedde and Murray Edmond. All three were closely allied with Freed, a magazine spanning the late 60s and early 70s. Brunton edited the first two of the five publications. Freed included a manifesto reminiscent of Wyndham Lewis’s Blast’ of 50 years earlier. The poem ‘Transformed Urbs/The Days Of’ is a coda to this time: 

            We opened windows whistled at girls in torn bandeaux
leaning against the air lived bodies of a dream
love goddesses with beauty to declare
there were divas everywhere.

The cover of Slow Passes is rather drab – but do not let that deter you. This is one of the most significant books to be published in this country in recent years.


Tom Weston 


Last updated 29 November, 2002