Drawn to Mystery
Drawing of a Swan Before Memory by Laynie Brown
The University of Georgia Press, 2005, 59 pgs. $16.95.
Experimental poetry—including prose poems—is most exciting when it succeeds on its own terms, creating and fully realizing its own internal logic instead of imitating (even as a method of critiquing) the conceits of “conventional” poetry. Laynie Brown takes this inventive challenge one step further by attempting to construct an entire worldview (albeit a fractured one) in her latest book, Drawing of a Swan Before Memory. She succeeds by using a subtle, almost mystical language to explore issues of memory, passion, and the nature of personal identity in a world that becomes more mysterious the more we seek to understand it.
Drawing of a Swan Before Memory is essentially a poetry of inversion, reversing the relationship that is commonly assumed to exist between poetry and poetry reader. Instead of presenting universal truths by referring to specific details of a world with which the reader is familiar, Brown immerses the reader in her own private poetic world. This is not an abstract world, but an allusive one, merely sketched by Brown’s austere and exceedingly airy verse. It is a world in which the simplest detail (a tree in a yard, the whiteness of new paper) seems to hold endless layers of significance, yet this meaning is obscured by the fractured perceptions, psyches, and memories that are humanity’s only true common inheritance.
At times, Brown’s work seems all but impenetrable, offering few reference points to the work-a-day world or concessions to poetic convention. The poems’ syntax and phrasing are eccentric, and so free of any kind of decorative hassle that they occasionally seem like snippets of pure prose pulled from an enigmatic novel. However, aside from a few archaic British spellings used in the book’s “Touch” sequence, there is little in the way of gratuitous experimentation here, keeping the poems inviting to readers.
Instead of clouding meaning, Brown works to convey her own complicated, but logically consistent, interpretations of the world in these poems. Brown works with form, phrasing, and spacing. She plays with repetition, shape, and white space as a way of manipulating the internal timing of her poems, delaying details and information so that disparate images, ideas, and revelations can be grouped together in meaningful ways that would be difficult to emulate in “standard” poetry.
Brown’s diction varies from deliberately plain to wonderstruck, resulting in descriptions that reach beyond a specific time and place to address the physical world—and the phenomenon of our own existence as temporal beings pulled between the forces of contemporary experience, our memories of the past, and our expectations for the future—as a whole. It is a testament to Brown’s skill that her verse never buckles under the weight of the extraordinary issues she tackles. The singularity of the voice that Brown adopts in Drawing invigorates these sparse, unnamed poems and prevents her universalized descriptions from becoming slack.
Similarly, Brown’s almost microscopic focus on action—whether the action is a deed performed by one of the poem’s unnamed characters or a change occurring in natural world—helps to ground the poems as well, allowing readers to see themselves in the mirages Brown describes. The inhabitants of these poems are as intriguing as they are mysterious, as seen in the opening of the first poem in the chapter “The Emergence of Memory”:
His unset eyes — containing water — become expression or color.
They cloud in changing — though the change is never marked, it
may eventually be seen.
By creating these jarring, evocative juxtapositions, Brown uses silence and space as active agents to establish or reinforce meaning. The long, sentence-like lines effectively marry the directness of prose with the mystery of “pure” poetry. The nine poems of the book’s final section, “White”, break these long lines into rigid rectangular blocks that at first resemble conventional poetry, but continue to function with the fractured, but frighteningly insightful, logic that Brown establishes in the book’s previous chapters. The third poem in the sequence, “3”, shows how Brown uses structure to break meaning, only to reassemble it in a new form:
Cut and fold along the ve-
randa things desired beyond
the realm of touch.
Ordinary materials which
slow light: water, diamond.
Something cold, a still hard-
ness. The atmosphere. She
broke down in whiteness, not
able to utter their names.
Despite its apparent difficulties, Drawing of a Swan Before Memory is consistently compelling. Brown’s attempts to (in her own way) cleanly and simply describe a world that refuses to conform to simple description creates the tension of teetering on a crisis point, of being suspended between the duality of being and thinking. The title of the book invokes this duality as well. Drawing a swan before the memory has worked to calcify the image of a swan in the artist’s mind is simultaneously presumption and prognostication, instinct and insight. This meshing of knowledge and emotion, direct experience and vicarious memory, give the book a propulsion and sense of motion that is rare.
It seems appropriate that a book so concerned with subjectivity and self-definition would be best explained by one of its own lines. The book’s first poem, simply numbered “1”, closes with the narrator claiming:
This is where we are walking, between language that has not been
This doubled theme, of traveling outside—or between—the certainty represented by conventional language, and of the discovery of uncertainty in the midst of what may have once seemed certain (the new language is “uncounted”), governs every aesthetic choice that Brown makes in this collection. These choices produce poems that openly challenge the reader, that demand readers commit the cardinal interpretive “sin” of interposing themselvesin the author’s work, either by assuming Brown’s meaning where it is obscure or by filling in the intentional gaps in the poems with their own fractured memories and observations. However, if readers are willing to meet these challenges, they will discover in Drawing of a Swan Before Memory poetry that is fully-achieved: intellectual, emotional, and, most of all, not easily forgotten.
Steven Byrd is currently studying for his MFA in Creative Writing at NC State University.