By Michael BrennanPoetry Giramondo Publishing
Autoethnographic tunes into the feedback loops of liquid modernity and the strange loop of the self. This is the third collection from Michael Brennan, award-winning author of The Imageless World and Unanimous Night.
Brennan has an anarchic openness to anxiety, dysfunction and the endless hunger for community. Autoethnographic offers offers hallucinatory jumpcuts from a dystopic near-present inhabited by casino capitalists, bonobo cultists, free market geneticists, grifters, lurkers and lovers going about their business in the aftermath of the freedom agenda.
‘Picaresque, spiky, with an infectious rhythm that makes Brennan’s tangentially connected mini-narratives almost bounce off the page, it collapses a varied collation of literary modes from the past into a dense knot of decay in the near future,’ says Peter Keneally, reviewing this collection in Australian Book Review.
Brennan’s short narratives interrogate the surreal nature of perpetual growth and the violent ellipses of democratic capitalism. He offers jagged canticles to the beautiful monsters of language, love, friendship and family, as well as field notes from a protean and kaleidoscopic world governed by speed and recurrence.
This book charts the flows of desire and the architecture of fear. It is a disorientating and relentless mix of elegy, anti-poetry and post human punk.
Autoethnographic is an extraordinary series of prose-like poems in which characters and caricatures move across a half-remembered landscape, with scatty dialogues, dramatic monologues and satirical descriptions that intermittently collapse into torrential epiphanies.
Brennan’s poems skate over the narrator’s plural and imagined pasts in unpredictable tones, echoing and vital. As autoethnography itself places the personal in the wider politicised world, so Brennan creates an un-unified un-stabilised life rendered through many lives, a cubist portrait of self / selves in vivid excursions through a mythologised yet recognisably contemporary era.
Autoethnographic, Michael Brennan’s third collection, is a wild flirtation with a version of now. We (as readers) witness our language (and culture) taken to some kind of amnesic limit. It’s not so much an apocalyptic, sci-fi future-world, but a possible version of what’s familiar – the culture of now taken to some kind of inevitability. It’s a world traumatised by what’s referred to, in the poems, as ‘The Great Forgetting’.
Each poem in Autoethnographic is narrated by characters who seems to have an energy unburdened by perspective. There is mention of the ‘soothing tyranny’ of predictive text (‘Authentic’), and language in this new context seems to have a mind of its own. In this sense, Brennan explores how art and language change, and the role of the imagination in our future.
This all sounds quite serious and, in the hands of a less experienced poet, the book could have been clunky, but Autoethnographic is very funny and very fast. It’s a dirty-loud shape-shifter of a racing car; one that runs endlessly and – much to the anxiety of its driver/reader – deliciously close to empty.
Elsewhere, in the poem ‘After the Circus’, we encounter ‘clowns falling out of the car’s doors’, and that’s just one way Autoethnographic’s lively techniques come at the reader. Others thickly ‘trundle/broken-toed up the road’, or squeeze at you abjectly like ‘anchovy paste’ (‘Those ox-heart tomatoes’).
With these snippets you get a sense of some of the poems' absurdist tendencies. They carry the reader along in spite of the book’s singular form: 57 or so prose poems that run about a page to a page and a half each, for 81 pages all up, each running to the same right margin, may seem a little intimidating at first. Brennan, though, has removed the idea of line-breaks, verses, traditional form and chapters, to focus-in on the collection’s end-of-language/memory idiosyncrasies.
‘We’re vehicles/ no one’s driving, so what’s the point in freaking out/or getting all lyrical’ (‘MDPV’). Here Brennan’s refers to his characters' post-forgetting consciousness, but also the poems themselves, and contemporary poetry in general. In doing so he slyly undercuts the book’s more descriptive and rhythmic moments. ‘MDPV’ continues: ‘Soon enough, you’ll wake/ with something you might have said caught in/ your throat and the sense of someone/ standing behind you, watching.’
The book’s narrative and meaning is gorgeously cubist and elusive: ‘Who knew/ where it all fitted together’ (‘Willful Blindness’). The writing is more than just self conscious, too – language seems to be its starting place. Part of one of Autoethnographic’s two epigraphs, from linguist and anthropologist, Edward Sapir, goes: ‘Human beings… are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society.’
Duchamp is also called forth by mention of the ‘ready made’ and the question of the author’s location looms (or loops).
What I interpret as the book’s climax, if it could be located, is a longer, comical poem called ‘Roughly-cut pages’ and it’s expertly constructed. The narrator finds ‘Brennan’ in the White Pages after ‘three wrong numbers’ and tells him: ‘I found the rest of your youth/ folded in a second-hand book I bought from a/ guy called Chad’. ‘Brennan’, also a prankster, replies: ‘There will always be Chads’.
The Australian vernacular his never been placed in such a deliciously vivid, contemporary context. Autoethnographic is an ambitious and wonderfully realised book jambed with oddity, ideas and humour.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist