Grave Gossip by Brian Patten - review by Stan Smith

Stan Smith

The Dodo and the Nightingale

Grave Gossip


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The Dodo came back
It took off its hat.
It took off its overcoat.
It took off its dark glasses and
put them in its pocket.
It look exhausted.

Exhaustion, to the point of extinction, is a recurring theme in this latest volume of Brian Patten's poetry. And yet, as here, it's often the prelude to an obscure hope. The Dodo is exhausted by all the subterfuge of actually surviving; and something new is going to happen. The 'Laboratory Assistant' who is the speaker here gives the bird a fresh injection of blood, furtively buries in the garden a manuscript containing 'The History of Genetic Possibilities', and sits waiting with 'Genesis' open on his lap as, 'Outside, people not from the neighbourhood were asking questions.'

The exhaustion arises from a general sense of the played-outness of a culture and its forms – forms of experience as of poetry. In 'Hopeful' Patten speaks of being 'exhausted even by what had not yet happened'. The sophisticated party in 'Ghost-culture' is stunned into embarrassed silence when the guest of honour produces from his pocket 'a few crumpled and unexplained petals' and begins to weep from sheer exhaustion. Exhaustion in fact for Patten can be a sign of authenticity, of caring enough to wear oneself out, quite different from the numbed indifference of the doctor in 'Song of the Grateful Char', or the psychiatrist professionally immunised to nightmare, murmuring 'Hush, ... It is a common dream.'

Patten has lived close to the temptations of mid-life déjà vu. 'Monsters' speaks of going 'on a journey to where he imagined the need for journeys would have ended'. There he learns how to destroy the monsters conjured out of his own fear and jealousy; but, banishing them, what they

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