Alan Wearne: The Australian Popular Songbook

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2008, 93pp.

To readers used to Wearne’s previous massive poems (The Nightmarkets and The Lovemakers), this new book will come as something of a surprise. It is made up of three parts. In the first, which gives its name to the book, there are four sections each of seven poems, all variously rhymed sonnets (apart from two villanelles and a set of triplets). The second part is a set of eleven “Metropolitan Poems” and the third is a seven page dramatic monologue, “Breakfast with Darky”. That is: forty short, individual, unconnected poems. The structure seems to be that the poems of the first part are inspired by the popular songs that become their titles, while those of the second part are inspired by individual suburbs in Melbourne or Sydney – generally, these suburbs form at least part of the title.

Wearne is Australia’s great master of poetic narrative, but one wouldn’t want to treat his work as a consistent whole. The monologues from his first book, Public Relations, brilliant, small poems like “A Molester’s Fortune”, “Warburton, 1910” and “After Adultery” are, in a way, closer to the monologues here than are those of his first two full-scale narrative poems, “Out Here” (of 1976) and The Nightmarkets (of 1986). But in other ways, these poems do reflect the kind of developments going on in The Lovemakers. One of the (very many) remarkable things about that enormous tour de force was the comic poem of the second last section in which the love-lifes of two of the book’s major characters were tied up. The Nightmarkets had been very serious and po-faced and would never have accommodated the kind of slightly manic grotesquerie of:

     Neil was in Melbourne attending a funeral,
he called up his old flame to check out her scene.
     She was delighted and jumped at a meeting,
before he’d fly out from Tullamarine.

And so on through twenty stanzas each finishing with the “lovely liquid” name (to quote an earlier Prime Minister) of Melbourne’s airport.

But there is a lot of this in The Australian Popular Songbook. Indeed any poem which is not a full monologue, rigidly in character, is likely to have a least a touch of this larky style. Patrick White’s typical though imaginary suburb of Sarsaparilla is celebrated by a comic poem done in calypso style (the music is included in the book):

Fifty years past, for a fact,
on some semi-rural tract,
lived a man whose prayers asked, “Boss,
what on earth can follow Voss?”
Question answered, thus he wrote
(as my ballad shall denote)
in his hardly elfin grot:
Riders in the Chariot.

Riders in the Chariot,
ev’ry page a new bon mot,
't's to cross and 'i's to dot,
Riders in the Chariot.

and so on through eight comic stanzas. “Poem for Cathy Coleborne” an equivocal celebration of Fitzroy in the nineties is another comically rhyming piece. This process of allowing the grotesque in to what might otherwise be profound Wearnian meditations on the implications of not only what city his characters live in, but what suburb, even what street, they live in, intrigues me. While “Out Here” was done in impeccable blank verse (the default mode for the dramatic monologue), The Nightmarkets was full of different verse forms, some syllabic, some accentual. But the latter poem was never less than deadly serious. In this new book, either Wearne’s interest in odd verse forms has encouraged the humorous and bathetic, or the desire to be humorous has legitimated the choice of some challenging forms. And complicating this is the fact that for poets of Wearne’s generation, form itself is not the sine qua non of poetry. When such poets do write in complex forms – sestinas, villanelles, and the ever present and irritating (at least to me) pantoums – there is always a postmodern sense of mocking performance about what they do. It is as though they were saying: “I am writing a sonnet but I am just using the formal requirements in a mechanical way. Don’t take them too seriously, the soul of the poem does not lie in them. And expect some deliberately bathetic fulfilling of the formal rules. It’s a game”.

Although The Australian Popular Songbook seems a long way from the epic dimensions and ambitions of The Lovemakers, it does carry over a lot of its concerns. The first poem, for example, inspired by “Down Under”, a pop song even I know, is about the Mr Asia drug syndicate which figures so prominently in The Lovemakers. It also recalls The Lovemakers technically because the speaking voice hovers somewhere between character and author. One of the devices of The Lovemakers was the use of a voice which gave the impression that it had been affected by the world in which it was operating – using its slang, for example, but still with the underlying accents and syntax of the author. In “Down Under”, someone is getting inspired enough to think about importing drugs from South East Asia:

. . . . .
                               And, if here the law
Is “Fit in Western Freak”, well, a brain may yet take off
to one stoned night you tripped into their pigshit trough
but rose back grinning at the tribesmen; or that pleasing twelve hour lockjaw
session and how “With gear like this” you mused,
“not merely fortunes but our souls are made!”
     So how?
                    Well, one mate’s ex-in-law’s this dodgy nark,
whilst another (he’s fevered with the prospects!) reckons on someone who’s
“Like something someplace in some gemstone trade . . .”
     “G’day,” you’ll hear a sardonic Kiwi mutter, “I’m Terry Clark.”

Another poem about the same evil organization is “Neutral Bay” from the second part of the book. Here we are in the much more conventional world (technically speaking) of the monologue. The speaker is one of the young women who couriered the heroin back to Australia in their luggage:

         I’d get in from the airport after midnight
and wait a day, till someone came around,
unloaded me and made me Thanks sweetheart
$15,000 richer. Then I’d hardly be noticed,
not till Allison called, or Kay, and we went off to buy
all those incredible clothes.
. . . . .

Interestingly, it is this simpler mode which is the one chosen to bear the brunt of the ethical perspective on the drug syndicate. When the speaker flies home to see her parents the gossip is of how “someone’s kid was ‘into drugs’, / always someone’s kid and always drugs”. The courier, seeing the results of the trade, wants to escape but is addicted to the money in the same way that the kids are addicted to the drugs:

Who knows what The Organisation’s doing
right now: cutting, grinding and packing;
delivering, collecting and waiting
and how I never wanted to feel damn special again.
But Thanks a lot sweetheart of course I did.

“Neutral Bay” is preceded in the Metropolitan Poems section by “Chatswood: Ruth Nash Speaks”. Here the subject is, ostensibly, the notorious Bogle/Chandler murders of New Year’s day, 1963, and the speaker is the hostess of the party that the doomed pair left, never to be seen alive again. In a way, it recalls the structural techniques of earlier Wearne narratives like “Out Here” and The Nightmarkets. In both of these, there is a central narrative event, but it is no more than a focus for studies in people’s lives and how these relate to all those determining features – city, suburb, school, etc – that Wearne is obsessed by. Since the death of Bogle and Chandler is an unsolved crime, we know that this is not going to be a narrative which proposes a solution. It is not going to finish with Mrs Nash saying, “And, just to teach those randy buggers a lesson, I slipped some dog-worming pills into each of their drinks to give them the runs”. Instead, its interests are in the way that the unseen, violent future event structures everything leading up to it into a narrative:

. . . . .
so there’s Gib on arrival lightfooting it down our hall,
and there’s Gib a day later lightfooting bugger all.

We think we know the limits? We're merely to follow this text:
Lives unfold lives fold, here’s one hour here’s the next.

And where in a plot place “the heavens”, their ever expanding no?
Well you barely ask such questions of the CSIRO,

For (lab coats, leather patches, pipes and British cars)
my other half worked with boffins who rarely trusted the stars.
. . . . .

Mrs Nash’s concern over the shape of fate is given added poignancy, of course, by the fact that she died exactly on the eleventh anniversary of the murders and that her husband suicided exactly on the thirteenth – though neither of these events is foreshadowed in the poem. “Chatswood: Ruth Nash Speaks” is a brilliant meditation and might even be called a meta-narrative. Again, as in the poems I began with, this can be balanced by one with ethical considerations. “Breakfast with Darky” is a “straight” dramatic monologue whose speaker, serving out his time in a Melbourne high school in the late seventies was, in his younger days, the author of a book of stories in the socialist-realist mode. A new, young staff member recognizes his name and wants to know why there was only one book. The title of that single collection, Just Doing My Job: Stories from the Struggle, is worth pausing over for a minute. It is very funny and cruelly accurate. I’ve always suspected that novelists have a particular ability to imagine the titles of books they would not have wanted to write themselves. After all, if you can imagine an alternative reality, peopled by alternative characters, you should be able to imagine that reality’s fiction and the kinds of titles its books would have. Anthony Powell, an author whom both Wearne and myself admire, was a master of this and one of the running gags in the Dance to the Music of Time novels is the row of titles of books by a pretentious old writer of high-flown romance, St John Clarke: Dust Thou Art, Match Me Such Marvel, Fields of Amaranth.

At any rate, “Breakfast with Darky” is an attack on this particular, leftist mode mainly because it approaches reality through ideology:

Mike was so sincere, so fragile with it,
I couldn’t bother to advise:
“In the end I only wrote what the party
wanted. Quitting that much of my life
required . . . how much heroics?
Just one. One on a day I would not
be labelled. Simple? Yes, simple."

In the end, “Breakfast with Darky” is more about the ethics of writing than it is about the ethics of politics. The speaker’s unpublished second volume sees the great battle of the classes as being played out like a game. Once people accept their part, reality unrolls. I think it says, finally, that that is fine for all except the writer.

Among the sonnets of the first part of this book there are some very fine achievements. Some are comic (the general tone is comic), like the monologue of the girl whose father has run off with her best friend. This is perfect, right down to the speaker’s high-rising terminals:

. . . . .
So, when I get to see him and he’s all earstud ’n’ lovebite
(hoho, who’s been helping you co-dependent through the night?)

and familial interaction seems the least of his chores:
“Err how’s y’mother, Princess?” Jeez Pop, jeez Pop, how’s yours?

The embarrassment! He’s fifty-one, she’s twenty-four,
so wouldn’t you move further than Maroochydore?

There’s better, it’s worse but, the Get this! fun begins.
They run this motel, see? And she’s expecting,
     she’s expecting . . . twins?

Others, like the two poems about his mother’s younger life in Brisbane during the war, or the poem about the Argonauts Club are modest and somber. I think the best of them is probably “I Go to Rio” which modulates suddenly from the mad world of Peter Allen, Judy Garland and her daughter to the real Rio de Janeiro in which the author saw, before a match at the Maracana, the players holding a banner, aimed at the police death-squads and saying “Please Stop Murdering our Children”.

Wearne is, as everybody who reads Australian poetry knows, a one-off. Better than our novelists he gives a sense of what it is like to live at one of many times in one of many places. His sensitivity to and inquisitiveness about all the issues which determine us as individuals is unparalleled. Paradoxically, he is not somebody who has radically changed Australian poetry. What he has done is stretch it by taking it into the world that novels usually inhabit: the world of registering the infinite detail of social life. The trouble (if one wants to look for serpents in this particular garden) is that he is so good at the narrative poem or the dramatic monologue – both based on the suggestion that only a fraction of an entirely detailed imaginary world has been revealed – that it makes it harder, not easier, for any poets wanting to tag along in his footsteps. There are plenty of poems being written as narratives or monologues today but they all look stagey or coy or self-focussed in comparison to Wearne’s work. If the function of literature is to make some kind of sense of what a place is and how its people live within it, then Wearne is one of Australia’s most precious literary treasures.