James Brown comes from Palmerston North - a hyper literary excursion by Gregory O'Brien

Gregory O'Brien launched James Brown's new poetry collection Floods Another Chamber at The Southern Cross on Wednesday 4 October. Thanks to Greg for letting us publish his speech.

There are numerous questions that arise, like a lowland mist, from this collection, as from all of James Brown’s books: For a start, why did he ever leave his home-town of Palmerston North, to which he is so manifestly linked. Or maybe he did never leave? Or when is he due back there?

Taking this, Brown’s sixth poetry collection, as a kind of provocation, two Fridays ago I drove north to Palmerston North and checked in for the night at the Hotel Coachman, a neo-Tudor confection on Fitzherbert Avenue. Not far from ground zero—the address where Brown spent his formative years—I had decided to read this new collection on its home turf—on the south side of ‘the bustling go-ahead city at the heart of the Manawatu Plains’ as Brown once memorably wrote.

According to the Palmerston North Creative Giants website:

‘Of all Palmerston North’s Creative Giants, poet and short fiction writer James Brown stands out...’ Expectations of the new book were, accordingly, running very high in Room 102 of the Hotel Coachman. In the company of an increasing platoon of sopping tea-bags and an intermittently boiling kettle, I lay down and made my way across the flat, bicycle-friendly territory of Floods Another Chamber. . .

Despite the fact she appears in Brown’s new collection a much-remarked-upon four times, Jenny Bornholdt had earlier in the day declined the invitation to accompany me northwards on this hyper-literary excursion. . . Alone, I was consigned to my carpark-facing double room—$160 the night, which included breakfast in a rowdy dining area filled with travelling salesmen and at least one sports team. While the scrambled eggs resembled a Manawatu wetland and the spread, generally, was lacklustre, I was up to my ears in Brown’s book by breakfast time, which made it all not so bad. In fact it was as if James Brown had scripted the whole thing.

Later I drove past the Palmerston North Public Hospital, where the poet was born at 12.40am on April the 1st, 1966; a moment’s respectful silence, also, near the birthplace of Sarah Laing and the childhood home of Karl Maughan—and on Broadway Avenue where painter Pat Hanly, aged 15, was an apprentice hairdresser at Bert Pratt Limited.

The early things in life determine how we evolve. In Brown’s villanelles and quatrains, I can detect the orderly grid of the Palmerston North street plan, and the inspirational, idiot wind that crosses it. This is the place where, as Brown writes in ‘Childhood’, the days ‘inched by… Glue, glitter, galaxies. Things shone. Broke. You laughed / until you cried. There was no escape.’

Beautiful crowd

While James Brown delights in poetic constraints, and is dazzling within them, he can also blast away and, like the late night motorists on Fitzherbert St, has been known to throw beer-cans and drop donuts, or their literary equivalent. . . On the subject of provincial psychology, ‘Erotic Snowdome’, from the new book, contains possibly the best, rudest line in all of New Zealand verse—or first-equal with Hera Lindsay Bird. (You’ll have to read the poem to discover this for yourselves.)

Brown is the New Zealand poet laureate of torpor, resignation and exhaustion (or maybe loss of interest), with intermittent bouts of fanatical bicycle riding. The miracle is that he can make it all so interesting and darkly humorous and weirdly moving. The poems are characterised by a process of subtle inversion whereby the personal is rendered impersonal and the impersonal becomes personal. The end result is a poetry that is simultaneously lop-sided and true. At times, it’s like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, but definitely, to use a word from Brown’s book, funner. . .

Like the hometown, the poetry gains a certain intensity through its sprawl, pragmatism, volubility and absence of long term planning. . . Just as Palmerston North has its New Zealand Rugby Museum, Brown embraces the sacred paddock and has written the odd rugby poem (most recently ‘True Blood’ in Warm Auditorium). For such a flat place, Palmerston North casts a long shadow. Echoing the city’s single Beds R Us outlet—at 133 Rangitikei St—Floods Another Chamber includes a similarly stocked poem titled ‘Beds R Us’. . . With its conference centre, in-house training and local dialect, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa—Brown’s recent long-term place of employment—configures in much of his poetry as a kind of rehash of Palmerston North, but on three or four levels.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, there are a great many poems in Floods Another Chamber about the other place, Wellington, but as any true son or daughter of Palmerston North will tell you, Wellington is only the southernmost suburb of Palmy—a feeder city or satellite. All roads, as indeed all bike lanes, lead to the one true Square.

After giving a talk at the Palmerston North art gallery—which was the other reason for my trip north two weeks ago—I fell into a conversation with a member of the audience, a district planner. When I put it to him that Palmerston North was just a theme park based on James Brown’s poetry, he appeared not to hear me and proceeded to outline, in some detail, the myriad cycle lanes that the council was now investing in—riverside bike trails, designated lanes, scenic diversions. . . According to my new friend, the place would soon be like Copenhagen—although with Fonterra and DB in the ’hood, and the Manawatu River rolling through and occasionally flooding everything. Having just read James Brown’s new book, it was crystal clear to me that the city was preparing itself for the imminent return of its most illustrious son, its cyclist-poet laureate.

Floods Another Chamber is our latest, biggest chance to bask in the life and work of a genuine Creative Giant of Palmerston North and of everywhere in the world that does not call itself Palmerston North. The overnight trip to Palmy is an optional extra. In some very fundamental ways, this indispensable collection will take you there anyway.

Gregory O’Brien