The Irreducible Materiality of Words: January by Nathan Brown
Last month saw the release of Canadian author Nathan Brown’s poetic debut January, a slim publication or ‘chapbook’ released by the Berlin-based publisher Broken Dimanche Press.
There are three reasons why those interested in the field of avant-garde literature will care about this new publication: two contextual, one aesthetic (the last being, of course, the most important).
First of all, Nathan Brown is not only an emergent poet but also a notable scholar of philosophy and art, with various highly digestible, theoretically rigorous articles in some of the most respected print and online journals of the present day – namely (but not limited to) Parrhesia, Radical Philosophy and Mute. In these texts, the subject of his philosophical writing – which ranges from, for example, G.W.F. Hegel to Jean-Michel Basquiat to Jacques Rancière – demonstrates a comprehensive familiarity with conceptually complex metaphysical and aesthetic issues, handled with a deft and eloquent touch. Any artistic project produced by such an adroit philosophical mind is one that immediately piques our interest, familiar as we are with the fact that the conjunction of philosophy and literature has proven, over the course of centuries, to be a stage from which arise texts of extraordinary merit. Think Voltaire’s Candide, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea or, more contemporaneously, Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia.
The second item of relevance is the involvement of Broken Dimanche Press. BDP is a relatively new exponent in the world of experimental prose publishing. Though admittedly, and disappointingly, this is a world that has far too few members, those that have established themselves as stable entities (such as London’s Bookworks, New York’s Fugue State Press or Montreal’s Coach House Books) are absolutely instrumental, providing a fundamental service internationally by facilitating the publication of truly innovative texts and thereby encouraging the promulgation of an artistic category – avant-garde literature – always in danger of extinction. Founded by novelist, artist and curator John Holten and journalist Line Madsen Simenstad in 2009, BDP clearly has both the ambition and capacity to be as serious a contender as the names listed above. Included among its roster thus far are the authors/artists Ann Cotten, Hanne Lippard, Kate Holten, Angela Rawlings (known as a.rawlings), Morten Søndergaard, Shane Anderson and, of course, John Holten himself, whose first novel The Readymades (published in 2011) was described by influential American critic Travis Jeppesen as “one of the greatest works of art to come out of Berlin in recent years”. Consequently, to be the recipient of BDP’s collaboration is a definite coup for the nascent poet Nathan Brown.
Happily, the reverse is also the case – Nathan Brown has achieved remarkable feat himself. His slim volume is rich, innovative and highly readable.
In a short preface, Brown informs us that the poems were “typed between the evening of January 9 and the night of January 10, 2016,” that they “are ordered in the sequence of their composition” and that no pieces typed at the time have been excluded from the finished product. Hence, in the very conditions under which these poems were written and accordingly organised, we are confronted by some of the primary thematic concerns demonstrated throughout the collection, viz.; the status and experience of time, considered both (existentially) as the present insofar as it is passing and (logically) as the absent past that determines current events; the contrastive features of day and night; the qualitative relationships that obtain between being, nothing, and existence; the difficulty inherent in either conceiving of or enacting a beginning; the possession of an ego that is either proved or problematized by relation to its attendant spatial representation; and the irreducible materiality of words (what is written cannot be undone), a kind of physicality or density that is almost sculptural, and one which counterbalances the postmodern idea of language’s inherent slipperiness – its shadowy, mutable nature – with respect to signification. Many deep themes reside in Brown’s poetry: these are only those that come to mind most readily. Perhaps the most accurate, concise summary of the poems can be found on the BDP website. According to the press release, Brown’s concerns boil down to the elementary problem of how one conceptualises thought vis a vis its expression:
How does thought relate to the form in which it appears? Is its material appearance simply a constraint or does thought realise itself in matter? Can philosophy help poetry think about its physical presence on paper?
If one takes, for example, Brown’s lines “being there/ having been/ here/ nothing changes/ but place/ placeholder/ this/ body” one can palpably feel the tensions described above, pertaining to the relation between thought (as an instance of self) and the expression of self via the body.
Having quoted Brown directly, we bring to light what is perhaps the most significant aspect of his work: the strikingly formalized constitution of his poetry. Though technically this is free verse, the aesthetic mood is anything but “free”. The essential character of Brown’s poetic style is profoundly restrained, his construction is minimal, condensed and elliptical. Most lines are composed of between one and two words, and very few lines run longer than three (only one runs to five). There is almost no punctuation. All text is lower-case. There are no titles. This last “subtractive” element generates an intriguing ambiguity into the chapbook as a whole: with only a string of dashes separating various sections of text, how are we to quantify what constitutes a complete poem? Are we reading a collection structured along familiar lines, or something more esoteric, such as one long, ascetic epic, or a highly fragmented series of atomic poems? This ambiguity surrounding completion is a formal device that nests comfortably within the wider thematic concerns.
Having said that, I don’t want to make it appear as though these poems (if we accept that collective designation) are purely cerebral experiments in structural assemblage. My reading experience was not clinical, at a remove, but was rather highly involved. The brevity of prose gives one the impression of tightrope walking, while the columniform organisation engages the reading eye trippingly, creating odd disjunctions and combinations, like a saxophonist playing staccato jazz. The following extract – one of my favourites from this economical but incredibly rich volume – gives a measure of Brown’s talent: “quiet/ what does this mean/ sense/ of no sound/ revocable/ pause/ the revocable/ appears/ bleeds being/ turns/ phenomena/ toward finitude”.
January by Nathan Brown, 36pp., is published by the Berlin-based Broken Dimanche Press. It is available from their website for €14.99 and has a print run of only 200 copies.