Poetry Book Review: brush by joanne burns

joanne burns, a veritable stalwart of great Australian poetry, has once again proved her enduring capability for the unexpected in her latest collection of poetry, brush. Fittingly, the publication of brush has been assisted by an Australia Council Midlist Authors Grant, designed to showcase established Australian authors, such as burns, who have made an important contribution to Australian literature.

Since her first publication in 1972, burns has produced a stellar body of work, of which brush is another jewel in the crown. Separated into six sections, (or ‘strands,’ as burns herself has dubbed them), brush is the result of an eclectic mix of poems written over the last six years.

brush begins with what is perhaps my favourite sequence of the entire collection, called ‘bluff.’ In ‘bluff,’ burns illustrates corporate life, particularly finance, as inherently ridiculous. She parades complex financial jargon and the corporate lifestyle and reduces them to craft activities, or baked goods. Alternatively, she is perhaps elevating the status of a Country Women’s Association meeting to the cold-blooded ecosystem of margin calls and stocks. Either way, the result is cheeky and borderline insulting (which I like): ‘this week the market/on a roll, more swiss/than sausage and/sweeter than an audit/banks danced with renewed/interest tango fox trot hip/hop.’

The more I read of brush, the more I took note of burns’ peculiar ability to mismatch nouns with unrelated adjectives and verbs, to a knockabout affect. How can a soda be feisty? How can a star slurp? How can a tonsil gossip? These are questions with no answers, but they certainly allude to a strange world where these mashed-up concepts and violent juxtapositions are truly possible. It is nothing short of enchanting.

Although burns’ poetry is, at its core, absurd, she also demonstrates a technical prowess within it that is consistently impressive. ‘harbinger,’ one of the best poems in the collection, shows burns’ precision in her word selection, and how she leverages this for maximum poetic impact – the close placement of chalice and malaise, leisure and cruise – is dainty and shows great restraint, delivered in the verbose grandeur of her ridiculousness.

At times mismatched, often esoteric, and always evocative, brush is an outstanding achievement of Australian poetry that revels in its own pleasure-giving sensors.

Louise Jaques is a poet. She is currently editing the 29th UTS Writers’ Anthology, Strange Objects Covered With Fur. She has been published in Cordite, Vertigo, and the 28th and the 29th UTS Writers’ Anthologies. You can find her on Twitter @louise_jaques.

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