Every Now and Then I Have Another Child. Diane Brown (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2020). ISBN 9781988592404. RRP $29.95. 164pp.
Reviewed by Anuja Mitra
Paired with the slightly uncanny doll on the cover, it was the title of Diane Brown’s latest book that first intrigued me. What would lead a person to collect children without concern or ceremony? Is it loss of agency or deliberate whim?
As a person, Joanna Lodge is used to being abandoned by others. As a writer, she is accustomed to birthing and discarding characters. Every Now and Then I Have Another Child explores a surreal chapter of her life involving a mysterious baby, a persistent doppelgänger, a missing mother, and a mural come-to-life. It is the deft manner with which Brown interweaves these elements that makes the collection engrossing, guided as we are through a world both disconcerting and mundane; privy to Joanna’s deepest thoughts while she starts to question her reality.
Advertised as an extended poetic narrative, I essentially read this book like a novel told in poetic vignettes. In my view, there are several potential pitfalls of poetic narratives and novels-in-verse: will the poet privilege craft over readability? Or will interesting language take a backseat to progressing the story? Every Now and Then I Have Another Child avoids these shortcomings, attesting to Brown’s confidence with the form. Her style has an appealing simplicity that helps build an organic narrative without confusion between characters or events. The collection is shot through with disorienting imagery, beginning with an unrestful night (“In the Dark”) and returning every now and again to the unease of living in the world today:
We’ve been here before, with adored despotic leaders, but they’re
spreading now, rising like the sea levels. The dog hurtles towards
the black-backed gulls congregating at the curve of the shallows
where the currents converge. As the gulls rise in unison, I sense
something invisible, keeping in step.
(“That’s Enough from These Invaders”)
These references are sprinkled in without making it feel like the collection is straining to be relevant. It is enough that these global issues haunt the edges of Joanna’s story, adding to its undercurrent of discomfort. They also deepen her disconnection from the world. Who among us doesn’t feel a little detached from things this year, ‘like you’ve slipped into another life, running / on a parallel track / one layer behind’? (“Finding Yourself on the Other Side”).
Joanna’s isolation from others intensifies when she interacts with her sons, referred to vaguely as her ‘firstborn’ and ‘secondborn’. Poems like “Where the Heart Is” convey her desire to be involved in their lives, as well as the feeling of distance between them (likely caused by their suspicion that she might leave them the way her own mother left her). The anxieties of motherhood are often foregrounded:
Strange to feel as if I’m standing in the dock giving an account
of a night I can’t remember. The verdict would come down hard,
as it always does if your offspring is doing the judging.
Not when young and still in love with your mother smell,
but later on
when they develop a more discerning sense, a preference
for their own perfume.
These kinds of observations are combined with lighter musings on contemporary living and working as a writer, and we might presume Brown is speaking here from experience. I enjoyed Joanna’s heartless advice to a writing student who she thinks is being stalked figuratively by a character and not a real person (“The Woman Who Refuses to Leave”), as well as her general weariness with the status of celebrity author.
Something about the collection I found surprising, but which serves to further enliven and unify these poems, is its metafictional aspect. Joanna’s doppelgänger is conscious of her intrusion into Joanna’s plotline (the first poem from her perspective is titled “Inserting Myself into the Story”). Other characters speak directly to readers’ expectations: ‘The reader / might think it a step too far’, remarks the Baby on a new development (“Manifesto”). Several characters also criticise and comment on others, mirroring our own activity as readers interpreting the text. The doppelgänger does this the most memorably, as Brown invests her with a distinct point of view that continually pushes up against Joanna’s.
The parts I found most engaging were the clashes between Joanna and this enigmatic figure who claims to be her missing sister. What they want from each other is not always clear, but the insights we get from the way they position themselves in this odd relationship reveals much about their differences, in class and life experience. ‘I don’t think you have a clue about those of us who live / precariously,’ accuses the doppelgänger, while Joanna attempts, embarrassingly, to prove her credentials as someone who cares for the less fortunate: ‘I read the paper and cry in Ken Loach films. I, Daniel Blake / and Sorry We Missed You’ (“A Visitor in the Garden”).
While the concept of a writer too wrapped up in their fiction is far from new, Brown illustrates this in inventive ways. At one point, Joanna seems to transform a boy in a street mural into a living, breathing one, yet cannot find a place for him in her life (“A Home Not a Wall”). While the doppelgänger is ‘a woman of action, no time for living / between pages’ (“What Use Are Words”), Joanna is propelled by her narrativising impulse; her imagination sparked by particular individuals instead of abstract scenes (“A Visitor in the Garden”). The question, of course, is when knitting real people into your stories becomes exploitative. It is a question Brown leaves unanswered, but it is one that is ever relevant for any artist, with repercussions for both one’s work and personal life.
Though Every Now and Then I Have Another Child is consistently interesting in both language and ideas, there are a few places where Joanna’s ruminations felt slightly blunt or repetitive. At the dentist in “Witnesses”, she tells us
the tooth has to go
is no surprise. I am used to losing
before listing the people and places she has lost. Joanna’s feelings of abandonment have already been effectively built up throughout the collection, making this matter-of-fact confirmation unnecessary. Such direct explanations of her state of mind perhaps work better when they come from another character’s mouth, like when the Baby addresses us in “Why Not Show My Face”: ‘You see what I’m saying? She doesn’t really / want me. She just wants an idealised version.’
Ultimately, however, these are nitpicks that did not impact my enjoyment of the book. Brown’s skill in constructing a narrative through 160 pages’ worth of poems, which feel both varied and intimately connected, is commendable in itself. The fact that Every Now and Then I Have Another Child is downright gripping proves her mastery. Incisive and strange, this book makes you pay attention to how you navigate the narrative of your own life.
Anuja Mitra lives in Auckland. Her writing has appeared in Signals, Starling, Sweet Mammalian, The Three Lamps, Mayhem, Poetry NZ and Cordite, and she is also co-founder of Oscen magazine.