Diane Brown Taking My Mother to the Opera Otago University Press 2015
Otago University Press is producing beautifully designed poetry books with striking covers and internal designs that are both fresh and inviting. Diane Brown’s new book is no exception. The nifty look could be out of the fifties or sixties with its limited palette, the oval shapes and the time-pinning, parental photograph. Gorgeous. Being a child of the sixties, there is a nostalgic hue that draws me in. Plus the book is that rare poetry species – hard cover with a yellow ribbon. The book is about to be reprinted.
Diane’s new work could be flagged as narrative poetry, poetic narrative or as poetry as memoir. The writing is fluid, fluent, daring, exposing, moving. Diane steps back into her earlier self, the daughter-self, as she builds portraits of both her mother and father, and her shifting relations with them. Yet the adult writing self is never far away. The memoir is in debt to hand-me-down anecdotes, photograph albums and the potager plot of memory. We read of memory’s failings and fadings, in the light of mother, father and poet-daughter. Over lifetimes, memory has been weeded and fertilized to suit, unwittingly in the main. The poet is acutely aware of how tough and provisional a recuperation of the past is:
Too late to ask permission,
it’s up to me to tease out
some sort of narrative
from the missing story,
to add the words
I never thought to ask.
This memoir is like a poetic version of family archives; the hidden box where a cluster of things unlock family stories. What makes this family box retrieved from the dark so potent is the unsparing eye. Diane delves deep into parental enigmas. How can we ever know the adult? Stepping back into the shoes of the child, Diane steps back into things done and not-done, said and not-said, observed not-observed. Forbidden from the beach on Sundays, her mother is ‘alone in a studio/ in her velvet dress, blue/ possibly, with sunburst// embroidery, wishing/ she wasn’t.’ We get physical details, but then the melancholy arm’s length:
She’s maintained this one-way
conversation all her life, keeping
her own counsel, allowing
no disclosures, either of anger
or of love to husband and children.
Diane’s memoir, then, transcends the photograph album and exposes miniature wounds (the mother not at the school gate, the fact you cannot eat poems), mysteries (mother) and allegiances (with father). The poet has lifted veils and allowed space for rankles, reflections, sympathies. As detail and miniature stories accumulate, the memoir sharpens. It is as though we intrude on a personal endeavor to get to the truth of the past (for each participant). Lots of billowy white space to explore. Admissions. It is hard not to bring your own luggage to the scene.
The memoir is a sharply rendered portrait of time and place — haunting in the detail that drags me back to my childhood and adolescence. I loved that. Yet what makes this memoir stick is the complicated, heart-trembling knot that is on the one hand mother and on the other hand father. It carries you across generations to a time where parental expectations were different (as both mother/father and of daughter). It reminds you of the elusiveness of mother/father. We know what they shown us, less so what they have not. In the final part of the book, the parents age, become frail, face death. This introduces new questions, new writing drives, different parental versions:
I want to call him back,
have him describe changes
in the town and tell me
all the things I never thought
to ask. But too late,
he’s swimming downstream
with flowers in the current
and not looking back.
To enter so deeply into behind-the-curtains stories of family life is brave. That the family portrait depends on economy rather than over-statement heightens the emotional kick. You get the arc of the poet’s life where it intersects the parents, but there is so much that flickers in fleeting traces. Absence heightens the focus. As writer, daughter and mother, the book raised many issues for me, issues that I explored in great detail in my doctoral thesis, issues that I want to return to in my new book. For now, Diane’s new book is a beautiful read — a rollercoasting, thought provoking, detail clinging, self catapulting, beautiful read.
from ‘A Black and White Story’
Not the opera, Dad says,
we never went to the opera, but the flowers sound right.
I’ve always bought your mother flowers, why wouldn’t I?
Best woman in the world.
Mum, who doesn’t believe in poetry
or any other form of declaration, mutters,
Actions not words, behind his back.
Not tuned in to cynicism, Dad refuses to hear. It doesn’t occur to him
his memory might be fading.
There may have been a time
when they attended Madame Butterfly,
Mum wearing her good dress,
the green tulle with a flared skirt; behind her ears, a dab of Evening in Paris, from the deep blue bottle.
Dad in white shirt and striped tie, heart soaring. There are no photos of this so perhaps I am spinning
the parent tale we all want to read at bedtime—love uncomplicated and just for you.
© Diane Brown 2015