Brain Fugue, Claire Trévien
Verve Press, 2019 £7.50
Caring for a brain
The poet seems to have charge of a particularly tricksy brain, a brain that sometimes comes off the tracks and misbehaves. She talks about the brain as something separate from her, a thing she needs to care for, like a small child. She takes this responsibility seriously — in ‘Orchid Brain’, we find her searching for information about how to keep it alive.
It is also an entity she doesn’t fully understand: she talks of the existence of ‘The School for Brains’. In ‘The House of Brains’ her temporary home translates from Breton to The House of Mad. The idea of translation — without full comprehension — is a strong theme in the collection and is reflected in a number of places. There are Celtic and French phrases interwoven through the poems. For example, ‘Je bois des etoiles’ (I drink the stars), in ‘Bubbly Brain’ — where the brain, like a vintage champagne, seems always in danger of exploding if moved. And she meditates on her bilingualism in ‘Pigeon Brained’: ‘which one swears the best?’; ‘Do I sweat French?’
The energy of this brain is also reflected in the variety of forms deployed in the collection. Flicking through the pages we see unusual shapes — e.g. ‘Flaneuse Brain’, with its fractured lines. We have to tip the pamphlet on its side to read ‘The Brain at Home’ — only at home when half slant?
‘Daytime Drinking Brain’ edits out the words it doesn’t want to hear in squared brackets down the right-side margin. ‘Orchid Brain’ takes the form of the plant, and ‘Brain Fugue’ the form of a formal (doctor’s?) report. ‘The Ouija Brain’ speaks back to us, and we are told of forgotten footnotes that run across the page in ‘Spider Brain’.
It feels like hard work containing the words, calming the capital letters. I feel the constant pressure and energy needed by the poet to keep the brain contained, keep it from going awry: uninstalling itself into another fugue — which is just what does happen in the closing poem.
This is a set of poems in which a poet is thinking about her brain. She speaks to her brain, and about her brain, and out of her brain.
Not, however, out of her mind. The word ‘mind’ appears three times in the back cover text but never (so far as I can see) inside the poems. This must be, I think, because a human being can think of herself as separate from her brain (that biological mechanism) but the mind is the person, or at least it is to most of us.
It seems to me that the point here at which brain and self come closest is in imagery of cars. In ‘Brain Freeze’ the speaker is literally in a car, ‘Putting my hands on the wheel, lights on’, and then the car and herself partly merge:
ease the gas
and park, handbrake up, body cranked shut,
your bellybutton boxing you to the seat.
It’s not the car that’s ‘cranked shut’, it’s her body. And it is really interesting, isn’t it, how drivers come to feel that a car is a kind of instinctive extension of themselves? It’s illogical to identify with a ‘cold container / of a car’, but still people do.
In ‘Storm Brain’, the word ‘car’ seems to stand eerily where ‘brain’ might have been:
A wreck of wasps falls from the sky,
unnerves your car. Your eyelids can’t
swipe fast enough
And in ‘House of Brains’, where the ‘I’ of the poem goes to live in her father’s converted garage, she says
Each night I unlock doors wide enough for four wheels
and drive my brain inside
In the title poem, ‘Brain Fugue’, she has an ‘in-built satnav’, while in ‘Code-Switching Brain’, switching between two languages is described in motoring terms:
We start off in one lane, eyes on rear-view,
develop arms to switch gears better, increase
awareness of obstacles, of figures in darkness,
of squirrels dashing before our sentences.
The imagery here seems to me dynamic — ‘develop arms to switch gears better’ to describe increasing skill in language is somehow both disjunctive and intuitively ‘right’.
These are thinking poems, tricky and interesting. And complicated and funny and also sad.