from the editor's desk

A Review of David Brooks’ ‘Open House’

David Brooks, Open House. Penguin Books Australia, 2015. RRP $24.95, 168pp, ISBN 9780702253522

Luke Thomas

Open House is one side of a conversation. Brooks’ reflections on living a shared life, on individual and wider identities, and on the animal cruelty that he sees hypocritically ingrained into popular culture, will confront the reader and ask them for a sincere ethical re-evaluation. Inevitably, the reader will pick up and sustain the conversation. Brooks’ poems are arrestingly painful; their narratives draws from the reader’s own life as from his. His meditations on human life extend into an exploration of personal and communal identity, but also of the broader identity of our species.

Many of Brooks’ poems are tied to nature, but aware of their human context. In this sense, Brooks critically assesses the role of humans and avoids the Romantic tendency to rejoice in nature. In ‘Wasps’ he grapples with this blurry line between human and nature:

Now one has bitten my cheek
and the sting’s infected,
It’s only fitting.
I’ve killed a hundred in my time, at least. (31)

Brooks challenges the assumption of human dominance over nature, and dedicates many poems to coexistence. He explores this notably in the narrative poem ‘Plover’ about the namesake bird’s interaction with urban life, which begins:

There’s a Spur-winged Plover,
holding up traffic on Ross street
right in the middle of the southbound lane. (76)

The Plover’ also illustrates Brooks’ experimentation with form, as does ‘White Cockatoos’ (125). Although not the only poems in the collection to use form as imagery, both ‘The Plover’ and ‘The Cockatoos’ use it distinctly to replicate the patterns of birds’ flight. In its first instance, this technique implies a subtle elegance in control as the final verse drifts upwards off the page, whereas in the second the words are presented in chaotic disarray. Brooks employs this technique to aesthetically complement his poems, and does so in a natural manner.

While Brooks doesn’t focus on asserting a cynical perspective, he makes a fair and compelling argument against complacency and involvement in animal abuse that produces a subtle cynical tone. In his second poem, ‘The Thick of It’, Brooks asks: ‘How can we/ be so arrogant, to think that our/ souls are worth so much?’ (5) With poems such as ‘The University’ (16), ‘Jennifer’s Mound’ (78), ‘Carmen 193’ (80), ‘How to Ride a Horse’ (88), and ‘Humans at the Gate’ (147), Brooks establishes himself alongside John Kinsella as a force for animal rights within Australian poetry. His writing takes measures to deny readers moral affirmation, as in ‘The University’:

eating our way
mindless through all
the creatures of the earth
as if we were not one of them (16)

In the poems ‘Carmen 192’ (34), ‘Priest’ (37), and ‘The Lambs’ (151), Brooks takes aim at institutionalised religion and criticises what he sees as ethical and logical inconsistencies. ‘Carmen 192’ and ‘Priest’ hone in on the Church’s history of child abuse, while ‘The Lambs’ picks up again the collection’s underlying vegan thread: ‘and a reminder, too: that ‘sacrifice’/ means to make sacred…’ (151)

Ninox Strenua’, seen also in The Best Australian Poems 2009, is one of the collection’s finest poems. The poem describes the Powerful Owls, or Ninox Strenua, as a hunter of the night that is ‘… almost/ human in their wastefulness…’ (70) The poem responds to two of the most popular criticisms of veganism: that humans are evolutionarily entitled to eat meat, and that the occurrence natural predation justifies eating meat. Instead of constructing a straw man, Brooks represents the argument with a violent pressure. He describes the brutal natural predation of the Ninox Strenua and evokes the reader’s innate aversion to suffering. The predatory life of the Ninox Strenua becomes unappealing. As opposed to shying away from the criticism, Brooks reframes the argument to his own benefit.

Likewise, Brooks admits what could be considered his own hypocrisy, and transparently addresses his own moral faults. Throughout the poetry, there is an underlying theme of the redemption inherent in personal development. Brooks presents this candidly in the autobiographic poem, ‘Birthday Poem’: ‘If I’ve regrets/ whose life is without them/ If I have debts let the creditors come.’ (146)

Open House is full of meditation on the complexities of humanity, often narrative and confessional, and as a collection, it is a beautiful philosophical exploration of personal dignity and place. It is, however, Brooks’ expressions of human-animal coexistence and collective human identity that secures his place as a venerable figure in the animal rights movement. Any isolated poem from the collection will demonstrate Brooks’ brilliant control of language and will leave his readers raw, but the collection as a whole reveals his intimate gift.

Luke Thomas is a West Australian writer who is an intern with Westerly Magazine.

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