Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Singular and plural, Michael Brown's Where Grown Men Go


Michael Brown’s poetry is deft and skilled in its portrayal of male identity, specialising in vignettes that capture and transform moments and experiences. Even so, repeated readings of his first full collection, Where Grown Men Go (Salt Publishing, 2019), were required before I finally got to grips with the subtleties of his craft.

One striking example of this afore-mentioned craft is Brown’s use of pronouns. Several poems are written in the second person and others in the first-person plural. In fact, very few poets use the first-person plural as much as Brown. However, my favourite pieces from this collection are those that combine pronouns, play them off against each other and let them interact, often to powerful effect. Here are the opening and closing stanzas to two poems. Let’s start with The Social and Economic Consequences:

I found the place easily enough.
It was a Sunday and I was here to drink.
They were already six sheets in the wind…

…and we had not come to think of love
as any more or less than this: a space
where grown men go to find they’re lost.

And then let’s compare it with Minor Operation:

When I was four I nearly died.
My temperature sky-rocketed
fahrenheit degrees: 108,109…

…I don’t believe in fate, how routines of days
and weeks are fixed at birth. We all pretend
we don’t balance on that edge.

Of course, these extracts don’t do justice to the poems in question, as they miss out the central cores. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to quote them in this way so as to illustrate how the two pieces employ a similar technique, shifting from the first-person singular to the first-person plural, but in slightly different ways. The first one invokes a specific first person plural, referring to the people in this place, while the second expands that plural far more widely to include the reader.

A common purpose links Brown’s varied use of singular and plural pronouns in this collection. His intention is to take something specific and expand it out into the universal, inviting us in to his anecdotes, encouraging us to invest in them emotionally. Moreover, he’s posing constant questions as to the role of the individual and the collective both in the family (such as fathers and offspring) and in wider social contexts. As such his use of pronouns is pivotal to a deeper understanding of his work.

Michael Brown’s poetry might initially seem straightforward. Certain critics might dismiss it as facile or simplistic. In reality, the opposite is true, as Where Grown Men Go demands close attention before its layers begin to reveal themselves. I only hope potential readers give this collection the chance it so richly deserves.

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