TEXT review

Roman holiday

review by Dennis Haskell


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Kevin Brophy
This is What Gives Us Time
Gloria SMH, Melbourne Vic 2016
Pb 94pp AUD25.00


Kevin Brophy’s This is What Gives Us Time is the product of his residency at the BR Whiting Studio in Rome, and is a fine testament to Lori Whiting’s generosity in donating the apartment for use by Australian writers and the Australia Council’s efficient management of the Fellowship. The book includes one poem set at BR Whiting’s grave (‘Grave keeping’ 14) and one section of the final poem concerns his wife’s planning a final sailing on her yacht at the age of 90 (although she is not named). Both poems convey a sense of gratitude and respect without becoming obsequious or sentimental; this is not easy to do, and points to Brophy’s commanding emotional poise throughout the book.

At the end of the sailing poem, ‘Her thoughts will be of finding her way / through rocks and channels to the safety of harbour and bay’ (78). These are his thoughts of her thoughts, and the poem has a good deal in common with Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’. Both poems deal with impending journeys, one which we will all have to take. At the end of the poem ‘Sightings’ Brophy declares:

Our souls are the dim lights on boats that fish for calamari on the sea
At night: vague, far out, glowing like creatures slowly filling with luminous ink. (67)

It takes courage to use the word ‘souls’ but the Eternal City prompts it and the phosphorescent squid are symbols of Brophy’s own fishing for illumination, with inky lines rather than nets.

Considering that the book is written from Rome and that Brophy usually lives in Melbourne, the book is remarkably full of water – in the sea, the Tiber, and the rain. The first poem, ‘The drowned world’ (its title taken from a JG Ballard novel which provides the book’s epigraph) states: ‘The surface of the mind is permeable under the swirling suggestion of water’ (1). Not just the surface, the book suggests. Permeability, attempted interactions between the mind and the external world of a city being newly discovered, is one feature and indeed one implicit theme of This is What Gives Us Time. The contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum has led the philosophical argument, contra Plato, for the need to integrate thought and emotion and ‘to have a kind of openness to the world’ (Nussbaum qtd in Aviv 2016). One might say that Keats knew all this, but it is important to recognise that Brophy’s poetry everywhere exhibits both characteristics.

Water is fluid but stone and marble, and a city’s buildings, are fixed – relatively. They seem even more solid than earth, and all three elements are threaded through Brophy’s book while he seeks verbal meanings to set against his own and others’ transience. Everywhere he carries an awaremenss that we are given time, but only a limited amount of it, a fact that is life’s greatest irony. The poem which gives the book its title (‘Elena!’) begins, ‘We are building the ruins’ (3). ‘Every different death is death’ (‘A bunch of flowers, a wallet’ 7): death is the one absolute. Time is wonderful but it is also ‘a slow inhuman shade of silence’ (‘Hours’ 11).

Thus, Brophy is very aware of the statues of God or of the gods that are plentiful in Rome, and of what they represent: the urge for permanence and for a purpose to our lives. Brophy at his most urgent feels the need of ‘something like redemption’ (22). The poem from which this statement is taken, ‘How we made it through a whole day (again)’, posits its everyday language against past representations of the ideal, ending:

At night electric haloes on the heads of saints
burn prayers into the sizzling air, dissolving all complaints.

Their holy marble gestures are more eloquent than words:
we could never say what they have not already heard. (23)

A part of the poet admires the aspiration embodied in the statues of the saints and partly admires the confidence that created them, but such confidence is not available to contemporary humans and in the end the lines must be read as ironic. ‘We fear… / all things that fix’ (‘To the Statues’ 59) and Brophy’s is ultimately a poetry of questions: ‘Where does this intensity arise – in us or in the world?’ (‘Coming to the end of winter at Easter’ 45) ‘If a perfect net of light was pulled through the sea along the shoreline / What fish would tumble into it...?’ (‘Mediterranean Sea’ 56)

In case all this sounds too ardent it is good to meet the moments of humour. Brophy’s father writes ‘With an organised and disciplined, “Firstly”: / Letting me know, firstly, that the postcards / Have been arriving… / I’ve sent them Popes, some nuns, but mostly ruins’ (Firstly 58) Advice especially to poets: ‘Do not be so joyful, your mental health will be questioned’ (‘Negatives not to live by’ 52). The poet, who does not speak Italian, finds:

The new cordless phone has instructions in Italian on how to set it to another
Language. It rings in English now but still speaks to me in Italian (‘Sightings’ 66)

To seek large meanings in a city with as grand and long a history as Rome’s seems apt but occasionally lines slip over into preciousness: ‘If tomorrow does come it will be in sorrow’ (‘The mystery of proverbs’ 44); ‘What is the ocean if it is not a god?’ Well, probably an ocean. This is from the last poem, ‘Oceanus’, which seems faux-naif throughout. Personification is the most difficult of all tropes to make work in contemporary poetry and few of those in This is What Gives Us Time seem convincing.

For the most part, though, Brophy’s imagery is vivid and it is always interesting – ‘the river and its bridges like gypsy bracelets / along its arm’ (‘Sand and cinder’ 50). ‘A visit to the convent of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary’ (61), for instance, shows respect for the nuns’ religious belief, but, subtly, the whole poem is governed by its first word, ‘If’. Brophy respects any serious effort to express the human soul – through prayers, poetry, solitude or jokes. Almost everywhere the book evidences his poised intelligence, as he considers ‘our lack of pedestals and artistry, us / with our light-filled liquid eyes’ (‘To the Statues’ 59).


Works cited



Dennis Haskell is the author of 8 collections of poetry, the most recent Ahead of Us, (Fremantle Press, March 2016) and 14 volumes of poetry anthologies, literary scholarship and criticism. He is currently Chair of writingWA. In 2015 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for ‘services to literature, particularly poetry’. He wishes it to be noted that he is a friend of Kevin Brophy.


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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste