31 May 2017

Review: Andy Brown's 'Watersong'

The title of Andy Brown’s new chapbook from Shearsman might suggest a lyric rurality, but this collection takes as its subject matter something rarely treated in either poetry or song and sets it firmly in the urban.  Brown’s topic is disease:  disease caused by water contaminated by human faeces – not quite what the reader might have expected from the title.

The collection falls into two parts.  The longer, first section, is a sequence of untitled poems grouped together as ‘Watersong’, and deals with the Exeter cholera epidemic of 1832, which killed over 400 people. This is followed by a short set of poems which address the issues of water and disease in the twenty-first century.

The ‘Watersong’ sequence is full of the grisly detail of the realities of cholera, much of it employing a lexis and register which gives an impression that some of the words might be incorporations from original texts.  We are given lists of fines for keeping insanitary conditions:

The Widow Barrier, for a nucence by keeping a mound
of filth and nastiness beneath her court, amerced 5l.8s…

lists of deaths

On July 24th, at Bury Lane –
the wife of a journeyman cordwainer.
Cholera 3 days…

and lists of symptoms

Skin cold and clammy. Cramps, emaciation.
Abnormal smell. Intelligence entire.
Vomiting and purging now profuse.
Jactition. Diarrhoea.

and we are given stories. The subject of these poems is not just cholera – it is people. So we hear of the grave digger who was attacked for carrying a coffin ‘underhand’, and the surgeon who before sewing up a dissected body ‘strokes the black heart’.

The poems in the sequence have no titles – they flow into each other in a way that creates a sense of fever and unreality in the reader –  yet even as they do this,  the poems are also formally distinct. These are poems that fall (sometimes uneasily) into the varied form of song. They use songlike features such as refrain (‘Sing: Water from the wealthy, private well…’) and chant  (‘’Plague. Plague. Plague. Plague…’).

Other poems utilise poetic forms which have their roots in song. ‘In Bury Fields’, for example,  is a rondeau  which closely follows and interacts with the form and structure of John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’. Most noticeably, six of the thirteen poems in the main sequence,  including many of the list-poems,  are fourteen-liners,  each structured in such a way as to invite the reader to see them through the lens of ‘sonnet’ (a term which, of course, has its derivation in the Italian ‘little song’). 

The subject matter of these sonnets is, however, far removed from the form’s traditional themes. This tension between form and  subject is both witty and disturbing, as is the uncertainty engendered in the reader as to whether these texts are ‘found’ or imagined.  One sonnet is a list of public orders, while several are a series of medical notes:

20th. 10. A.M. fiat pilula
quarta quaque hora sumenda:
Cupri Sulphatis, gr. ¼
Pulveris Opii, gr. ¼

The final four poems of the collection, the poems that deal with contemporary cholera deaths and the present-day attempts to address the problem of contaminated water, have titles. But they are titles which reflect the continuing problem of naming, and the way in which this results in an inability to address the central issue. In ‘The Unnameable Taxonomy’, we are given another list – this time, two pages of jauntily rhyming euphemisms:

...Room 101, or Number Two.
Auditing Assets, Doing the Do,
Taking Some Weight Off Your Troubled Mind,
Seeing How Things Turn out Behind…

In the final, unrhymed sonnet of the pamphlet, ‘The Flying Toilets of Kibera’, Brown moves the form forward into something more lyrical, and something that more closely relates to the sonnet as an image-led  structured argument:  ‘Because the politicians can’t discuss/ toilets for fear of breaking taboo…’ children such as ‘Kanja (Sanskrit, ‘water born’)’ and ‘Nafula (African, ‘born in the rain’) have to get rid of their faeces into the reservoir from which they drink. Their names are of the beauty of water, but their deaths are waiting in its contamination.

The underlying message, made explicit in these final poems of the collection, is that because society still shies away from talking about ‘answer[ing] nature’s call’, people are still, nearly two hundred years after the Exeter epidemic, dying of cholera.  Andy Brown, however,  is not shying away, he’s ‘singing’ about it. This is an intelligent and witty collection, which throws the reader into the gruesome details of an historic tragedy, while at the same time addressing an important contemporary issue. 

Watersong, Andy Brown
Shearsman, 2015

Review first published at Canto Poetry