review by Charlotte Clutterbuck
A chapbook of fifteen poems, Kevin Brophy’s Misericordia is part of a multi-form artistic response to the Jubilee of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis in 2016. The accompanying DVD records a performance of music, text, Brophy’s poems, and The Faces of Mercy, a tryptych by painter Niké Arrighi Borghese. Michael Campbell’s performance text provides a context for Brophy’s poems by selecting phrases from the Psalms and Pope Francis, the whole set to music by composer George Palmer, and performed by St Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney. The performance is divided into three segments: Despair, Desolation; Pardon, Hope; Mercy, Love.
Matching the wateriness of Arrighi Borghese’s paintings, Campbell’s text chooses some of the wateriest psalms – tears, groans, overwhelming floods. In speaking some of these phrases, soprano Amelia Farrugia’s dramatic projection of a self-pitying psalmist at his most melodramatic sounds somewhat shrill. Where his complaints were sung, her clear high notes are well-suited to Palmer’s ethereal music.
In contrast, Brophy’s measured and natural reading of his poems allows his words to be absorbed and savoured. In the chapbook too, Brophy’s poems benefit from a slow and thoughtful reading.
Apart from one ekphrastic poem, ‘On The flight into Egypt’, Brophy avoids retelling time-worn stories, images and injunctions from the Gospels, preferring a more allusive approach. Thus in ‘Our Human Hands’, both Resurrection and Crucifixion are lightly suggested:
A sensual honouring of the experience of baking, eating, and sharing, ‘All Bread’, uses the sacredness of the mundane loaf of bread to suggest the sharing and physicality of the Eucharist.
For Brophy, mercy isn’t a thing but a process consisting of merciful actions – someone shows mercy to someone else. The ‘someone’ in these poems is various: ‘In the Presence of the Lion’ implores God to ‘Put in our hands’ a responsiveness that ‘we’ must in turn give attentively to ‘each person’, ‘this planet’, each ‘new name’ for a child, and even ‘our poor minds’. ‘From the Book of Examples’ accuses a society that fails in mercy, denying refugees safety, hope, freedom, and thus fails to become the Kingdom of God’s love and mercy, remaining only ‘a kingdom of ends’. In ‘Everything About to Happen’ the speaker opens the door to a stranger, prepared to offer ‘food and warmth’ despite the attendant dangers:
Opening the door means openness to ‘what mischief, what love, what sorrow’ and is the means whereby the speaker receives
Brophy constructs varied voices and styles to speak each poem, from the ruminating, complex syntax of ‘Our Human Hands’ to the direct prayer of ‘In the Presence of the Lion’ or the accusations of ‘From the Book of Examples’ where the repeated complaint ‘You have made an example of me’ recalls the outrage of Zola’s ‘J’accuse’.
His syntax uses remarkably varied and complex sentence structures, sometimes making considerable demands on the reader. In ‘Our Human Hands’ a string of subordinate clauses of time (‘when… when… when…) and condition (if… if…if…) interspersed with the repeated question ‘what are the lessons for’ construct a page-long sentence where musical couplets with delicate rhymes and half-rhymes build to the climax of the single last line, closing emphatically at the only full stop in the poem:
This approach requires and repays a slow rereading. Writing courses often advise writers to prefer positive expressions because small negative markers can be missed on a hasty reading, resulting in an interpretation the opposite of intended. Double that for the quadruple negations and reversals (almost / nothing / but / not) of ‘There will be almost nothing / but what has not been plundered’ (‘Elena!’). Rereading the poem, I could appreciate its shifting from a destructive present tense in which ‘We are building the ruins’ to a future time when the concrete specifics of the past can only be imagined:
The poem builds to the conclusion that we are building a world where ‘Dusk will eat each day’ and
While Brophy’s allusive and varied approaches work well in many individual poems, the structure of the whole collection is less persuasive. It is a hard task to write, more or less on commission, a set of poems on a subject so often canvassed by the Bible, Shakespeare, Paradise Lost, and so on. Egocentric and self-pitying the Psalmist may be, but the stable persona and passionate build up of his pleas give the Psalms an emotional force that Brophy’s poems don’t match. For example, in the opening section ‘Despair, Desolation’ the sense of despair is reduced by the different and generalised voices: a nonspecific ‘we’ in ‘Our Human Hands’ and ‘Elena!’; a representative refugee in ‘From the Book of Examples’. Tone too mitigates the desolation: gentle and accepting in ‘Our Human Hands’; elegiac in ‘Elena!’; angry and accusing in ‘From the Book of Examples’.
Similarly, the poems in the section ‘Mercy, Love’ don’t fully bear the weight of the subject. Sometimes their examples seem time-worn: St Joseph or St Francis in ‘On The Flight into Egypt’ and ‘His Dear Prison’. Sometimes, as with the doorknocking woman in ‘Waiting and its Surprises’ the connection to mercy seems very tangential. The adult talking to a child in ‘Merciful’ is seen as it were through the wrong end of a telescope, far away, the words unheard, the context unknown. Yet this is also a demonstration of Brophy’s humility in the face of a topic that could easily have become pretentious or precious. His poems pay attention to the ordinary, displaying a dedication to the small and unremarked. Unlike the Psalmist, he avoids melodrama and self-pity.
Well filmed and edited, the DVD provides an excellent record of the performance of The Faces of Mercy. It is heartening to see that the Church which paid for so many artistic, literary and musical jewels of Western civilisation is still a patron of the arts.
It is perhaps fitting that a work sponsored by the Church and inspired by the Pope’s message should draw heavily on the words of Pope Francis. Nevertheless, given our multicultural modern world, I am disappointed that The Faces of Mercy is so solidly Catholic. Arrighi Borghese’s paintings centre on Pope Francis as the climactic central figure; the only other recognisable figure is Mother Theresa. Campbell’s text quotes exclusively from the Psalms and Pope Francis. Brophy’s use of St Francis in ‘His Dear Prison’ and two epigraphs from Pope Francis also suggest a Catholic heritage. Setting aside the curious absence of anything much from the Gospels (The Good Samaritan? The Prodigal Son? Matthew 25?), are there no examples of merciful Protestants, Jews, Hindus, atheists, Buddhists, Muslims? The Catholic Church does perform many works of mercy, whether funding education for the poorest Cambodians or helping the homeless in Australia, but is mercy the sole preserve of the Catholics? Jesus’ story sets the failure of the orthodox Priest and Levite against the mercy shown by the despised, outcast Samaritan. A Catholic I may be, but I know all too well that mercy hasn’t always been exercised by a Church responsible for crusades, inquisitions and child abuse. The Faces of Mercy fails to acknowledge that the Catholic Church itself, like any other human person or institution, needs to ask for mercy.
Charlotte Clutterbuck has taught Creative and Academic Writing for many years in many contexts – Adult Education, High School English, and most recently as adviser to PhD students at UNSW Canberra. Her poems, essays, reviews and articles have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies both in Australia and overseas. She has published three collections of poetry: Soundings (Five Islands 1997), Ion (Piccolo 2012) and Brink (Picaro 2013).
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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste