I know Brendan Bonsack first as a photographer. He is a familiar sight at spoken word events in his black on black uniform, camera poised, a reticent presence but his slight smile always at the ready. His black and white specials are beloved profile photos by performing poets. I knew from seeing him perform “A Rough Guide,” at the 2015 Melbourne Spoken Word prize that he could also be a wry and entertaining story teller. I knew from the multiple books and albums featured on his website that he was prodigious and multi-talented. But he doesn’t perform so often on the open mic “circuit,” so I was excited when I discovered that he would be featuring at the Eltham Courthouse in August.
The high ceilings and historical feel of the courthouse turned out to be a lovely backdrop for the performance. Mr Bonsack stepped up to the witness stand with his guitar and quietly introduced his performance by suggesting we needn’t clap between pieces. This was followed by roughly half an hour of sung and spoken poetry. It was like being given a brief tour of a weathered, much-loved and deeply storied house. Each room or setting was beautiful on its own, but it was the house as a whole that revealed the heart and artistry of the set.
I also got the accompanying chapbook that was offered on the night, “Tiny Drum” which turned out to be like liner notes to a favoured album. This article is a joint to Brendan’s performance at the Eltham Courthouse and his chapbook “Tiny Drum” that started off as a memory aid but is slowly beginning to supplant my memory of the night.
Moving effortlessly between song and poetry, Brendan ushered us into the house. With his first short piece,
“I once knew a doctor
a doctor of the mind
it was my first time”
— from “A Doctor”
we were humorously welcomed into the parlour, given a hint of so much more, then deftly moved on.
Some doors opened onto intense memories:
“when you stepped into the station
to report him missing
it was not like TV”
the details seemingly sharper with time, sounds evoked emotions that would have otherwise been muted by time:
“radios speak and choke
choke and speak
bent anorak rocks forth and back
the styrofoam steams
the air is green with disinfectant”
— from “Missing”
Possibly because I find it personally difficult to write love poems that don’t seem obtuse and obvious, I find Brendan’s love poems most interesting. They feel like found artefacts that have developed a genuine patina. Many are like opening a bedroom door onto an intimate scene, caught just enough hints to guess at the story then the door was shut on me.
“What a tiny drum is love
A skin so worn and yet
Just when you think
The rhythm’s lost
It calls you up
That you are breathing”
— from “Intimacy and the tiny drum”
Perhaps the clue to the intimacy of Brendan’s poetry is in just that, restraint in the use of words, white spaces, volume and theatre. There is a feeling that every word and whitespace is carefully chosen, everything extraneous scraped away. In “Laces”, the “constable rubs the level back of his crew cut” extending the line, giving the feeling of long minutes as the protagonist breathlessly waits for someone to respond to their feeling of urgency.
The effect is one of travelling a long way in a short poem. In “Halfway” for instance, within 15 lines Brendan creates a lifetime of this intimacy then threatens to snatch it away in a heart stopping stanza:
“A phone clenched in
— from “Halfway”
Brendan’s set at the Eltham Courthouse finished with a neat book-end, “A Doctor II”:
“A fish takes
what it needs
and no more
And we take
— from “A Doctor II”
As we sat together in the judges and jurors’ seats, the room got more quiet, contemplative. We burst into applause and happy chatter as Brendan ended his set, having gotten only glimpses, but so many fulsome glimpses into this old house, we left satisfied. As I’ve been reading “Tiny Drum”, I’ve felt myself get quieter and more contemplative. It bears repeating and re-reading.
[Photo by Michael Reynolds]