Alan Wearne: Prepare the Cabin for Landing

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2012, 106pp.

Despite the increasing frequency of narrative poems, the work of Alan Wearne is unmatched. Nobody has even begun to approach the complexity of his portraits of life in post-war Australia and this most recent book adds another group of poems to the overall corpus. If, on the surface, it appears to be something of a miscellany, a closer look shows it to have a lot of internal coherence about it, both thematic and tonal. For one thing many of the poems – and especially the longer sequences – gravitate around school years in Melbourne in the late fifties and sixties. The second section of the book, for example, is the thirty-five page sequence “Operation Hendrikson” which charts the life of one friend met accidentally after ten years: “And then, this warmish winter day in mid July, / here at the corner of Orchard Grove and Canterbury Road / (territory I haven’t really known since school) / Wearney invites me to his thirtieth”. It is intriguing to see the author making a guest appearance in what is really somebody else’s poem (it is a first person narrative) and I think this is the first time that this has happened in Wearne’s extensive body of narrative. All we really learn about him from this brief appearance, by the way, is that he is the author of a school paper felicitously titled “Proper Gander” and has, as one might expect, a watching brief being simultaneously one of the group but also distanced: “In our concert he plays the butler, / who sees it (and I mean it) all”. Hendrickson recounts his history which is also the history of a large number of other friends and aquaintances at school. The result is a set of pretty lurid portraits: Hendrickson himself is in care with a foster family (“that two that five percent in cottages and homes”) and is chiefly remembered for having an underage girlfriend when he was twenty and being charged with “carnival knowledge”. A row of other “characters” is described and what is known of their fates – revealled when Hendrickson runs across them again in the dozen years after school – filled in.

It isn’t a very optimistic canvas: several are dead, a semi-psychotic minister’s son is stacking trolleys, a Vietnam-vet lives in a haze of drugs. But though the result is a set of portraits and thus might look like an attempt to portray one generation in one suburb you feel that Wearne is driven by an interest in character rather than environment. The fundamental question is: What became of these people, how did they evolve within the parameters of the school personalities? rather than: What kind of world are these people part of? In narrative terms everything is dependent on chance, the occasional flashes produced by chance meetings of which the most important is the meeting, in 1978, with the poet who is prepared, finally, to act as a kind of biographer. Wearne’s monologue technique has evolved, over the years since poems like “Out Here” in his second book, into a less doughy, far more flexible instrument, attuned to fragmentariness and accidental illuminations of character. This is evident in The Lovemakers and continued in poems like “Operation Hendrickson”.

The Blackburn South of Wearne’s own childhood and those of so many of his characters forms, as I have said, the focus of this book. It is introduced in a quite surprising way in a rather wonderful first poem which sketches in the generation before, “A Portrait of Three Young High School Teachers”. This – as does the immensely sympathetic portrait of the Liberal Party matriarch, Elise McTaggart in The Nightmarkets – shows Wearne to be alert to older generations (just barely “older” in this case) and particularly to the world the women inhabit:

. . . . . 
And if like the nation this school seems
on better days almost miraculously do-it-yourself,
doubtless that's because who else is there to do it?
(Then, if you wish to appear old-fashioned
it's all like a "courtship", or what you're discovering re marriage.)

Whilst "This", waves forth your supercilious headmaster,
"all this is how we like our things round here . . ."
He reminds some of Raymond Huntley, pauses and nods
as he calls you by the collective "Mesdames"
and laughs, never at himself, only at his quips.

"Indeed," comes Ruth's later response, "how we like our things . . ."
"I'm sure we'll work around it," says Yvonne
. . . . .

The tone here is light and the conclusion is a tentatively optimistic one in which friendship forms the beginning of some sort of bulwark:

friendships can at least delay these dour, sour uncertainties
of annihilation and damnation, can't they?

They better. So, walking to their staffroom
Ruth, a young woman at her most formally informal
tells Frances, "A few folk are coming over
this Saturday. Yvonne and her fiance will be there.
You and your husband are very, very welcome."

This tonally delicate and yet precise poem is followed by “Dysfunction, North Carlton Style or, The Widow of Noosa” an example of Wearne working in his comic/crude mode: “Long-haired, even-featured, an absolute Ali / (is it any wonder she looked like MacGraw?). / On their sundeck each summer how Bob’s loins would rally / at the sight of his missus, spread out in the raw”. It is such a contrast to the first poem that it gets one thinking that perhaps this first of the book’s sections is organised in sonata form which in turn, of course, makes one want to read the entire book’s four parts in terms of the movements of a classical symphony. At any rate the third and fourth poems of the first section – which would be developments of the themes of the opening two poems – are “The God of Nope” and “‘All These Young Australianists . . .'” The former is a Wearne dramatic monologue about the Nugan Hand Bank scandal of the seventies though it is seen through the perspective of a young banker rather on the fringes of the affair (“One part vocation matching nine parts lurk”); the latter is a comic double monologue making fun of young academics at conferences overseas. The pattern isn’t perfect – it seems a long way from the poem about the teachers to the poem about the CIA’s money laundering, though Wearne’s interest in the way characters develop out of their schools, observed by the teachers of the previous generation, brings these two poems closer together than you might have thought initially – but the tone of the second and fourth poems is almost identical. “‘All These Young Australianists . . .'” exploits all the features of serious comic verse and you feel that the figure of Byron isn’t standing too far behind. This is especially true in the sort of poetic one-up-manship involved in the search for the most extreme of complex and bathetic rhymes and it climaxes in one most impressive stanza:

And though I call him Ted the Handful soon he was off delivering a paean
at some fortnight long colloquium on I believe Musil or Mahler;
whilst beside the Baltic or was it the Aegean,
I chanced upon these wonderful Finno-Ugrianists all dissecting the Kalevala!

According to the model of the classical symphony, the third section of the book would be its minuet and trio or its scherzo – at any rate, something lighter in tone. In Prepare the Cabin for Landing we get a return to the idea of basing poems on Australian songs, a process that produced many of the poems in the earlier The Australian Popular Songbook. These are all sonnets (including a Meredithian one) and come in various complex stanza divisions and rhymes. But they also relate to the poems of the first two sections. The first sonnet, for example, “Waiata Poi”, describes two young women, an Australian and a New Zealander who, immediately after the war, head to New Zealand by flying boat (“Let’s scoot across ‘the dutch'”) for a golfing and skiing holiday. It is hard not to think of the three teachers of the book’s first poem here, especially in the celebration of innocent friendship as something that can be counterposed to events at the macro level. The next sonnet is the monologue of a stoned, escort-accompanied businessman and, at least to some extent, is written in the crasser language of “Dysfunction, North Carlton Style . . .”. In other words the tonal juxtapositions here match those that can be found throughout the book, but especially in the first section. The themes match as well: in “Love is in the Air” a young woman, twenty-five years in the future looks at a photograph of her parents’ wedding, looks at our present, in fact, “Filled with our future, Red Bull and Champagne!“, and asks herself about the way in which she developed out of this. And the last of these sonnets, “My Home Among the Gum Trees” takes us back to the post-war period of the first sonnet and deals with the setting up of the Melbourne suburbs after the war from which Wearne (as well as Hendrickson) emerged. And just as the poet himself makes a guest appearance in “Operation Hendrickson” so here he is introduced at the end of the poem:

For later on the bus, seeing a copy of The Age or The Argus
          bordered in black, I'll be asking my mother "Why?"

Friday February 8 1952. "The King has died."

All of which prepares us for the book’s most ambitious and successful achievement, “The Vanity of Australian Wishes”, a thirty page reincarnation of Juvenal’s Tenth Satire with a nod to Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes”. (In a sense the second-last of the sonnets, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, is also a preparation in that it deals with developments in a second-hand, image-ridden Australian nationalism that is going to figure largely in “The Vanity of Australian Wishes”.) Unlike the poems of Juvenal and Johnson, Wearne’s poem contains a good deal of personal involvement, a personal involvement which, I’ve been arguing, the other poems of the book prepare us for. It begins with two deaths occurring almost simultaneously: that of John Forbes and that of Alphonse Gangitano. The chiming between these deaths is more than one of time, however. Gangitano’s death is described as that of “an over / underachieving Lygon St lulu, / whose killing kick-started a decade plus / of Melbournian mayhem, and ultimately its mini-series” and it’s the second of these two results that engages Wearne’s anger since it shows images spawning a kind of cut-price reality:

                                                  O Gangitano!
So needing us to pretend you were our De Niro:
no mere gangster but the movie star who,
on those occasions when paid to,
pretends he is one (though when one imitates
the imitations just how many deluded layers
is that?).

And this, of course, is John Forbes aesthetic territory, especially in his notion that images only ever drain creative energy rather than fuel it. And the poem introduces Forbes’s description of the new discipline of Cultural Studies – often driven by an infantile desire to walk large on the stage of those images which they are analysing – as “The Kids in Black”.

The evil of images is a long way from the comparatively simple evils of the worlds of Juvenal and Johnson – “those grand distillers of bemused despair”. And Wearne introduces a framework metaphor that makes the distance greater. Whereas Johnson spoke for a god’s-eye view that surveyed mankind “from China to Peru”, Wearne imagines us all sitting on a long-haul commercial flight imagining what other passengers are travelling towards:

          And maybe when an aircraft seems to distil
not merely time and space but where you're heading
and what you're heading to, the novelty, the romance,
the deal, the con, the climax, the start of it,
and end of it . . .

And in this symbolic world, the poet is the plane’s captain who, at the end, will tell the cabin crew to prepare for landing.

Juvenal and Johnson are careful to anchor their critiques in real people or, at least, imagined individuals. Wearne adopts the same approach using, as an epigraph, Pope’s comment that “General satire in times of general vice has no force . . . and ’tis only by hunting one or two from the herd that any exampes can be made”. His individuals are an unlovely and occasionally interrelated group:

Diggah, a multi-substanced sportzstar, V'roomv'room
some ex-ex would be-would be supermodel,
Annabel-Kate this very former CEO turned opinion-piecer,
and Chad: that bankrupted motivational speaker poised
at the edge of the slammer. Plus big-noter, small-timer
. . . 
our very own self-proclaimed King o' th' Rooters

The case of the first of these is a compressed and, it turns out (given recent revelations of the intimate involvement of the underworld in sport), prophetic study of the interaction of sport and crime:

It's just (big just) the lowlife they're required to befriend:
sniffed, swilled or shot maaaaate maaaaate
isn't it understood, the only guys that can
flog you this are criminals? They never get it.

The way these individuals inhabit their world of day-time and “reality” television forms the bulk of the poem but they are all portraits with very specific interests to the poet. An important early section describes the way Wearne’s own Grade Five and Six teachers – “those edgy-wise suburban prophets Mrs Samson / and Mr Kavanagh” – could have organised their ten-year-olds into a cruelly revealling hierarchy:

first, those kids (who'll always have the jump on anybody)
with Smarties in their play-lunch/
then those who want to be them/
who want to be their friends/
who want to beat them up/
who want to beat up those who want to beat them up/
and then the very worst, the theorists, the ideologues,
those who urge the beatings, all the beatings.

It’s a bleak picture but, as in “Operation Hendricksen” the reader gets a strong impression of Wearne’s interests being in development and the way this is a hierarchy of potentialities that will blossom in its own grotesque way. Everything, in other words, spins out of our socialisation in school.

The poem ends, as do the Juvenal and Johnson, on as positive a note as the poet can manage. For Juvenal it was the limited wish (which we all might share) for “mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body in old age. For Johnson, himself pathologically afraid of the judgement of God, the way for a person to avoid swimming “darkling down the current of his fate” was to “leave to heaven the measure and the choice”. For Wearne there is clearly a comfort in those passengers who are not part of the insubstantial world of image, status and celebrity. They can be seen in the group of

                          smart-suited women and men
heading in easy phalanx towards the departure lounge,
that kind of quietly anonymous professionalism
plenty still retain, set to neither con nor big-note
nor indulge . . .

Analysis, too, has its virtues and to be able to say of one’s unnattractive passengers “We may not be them but they are surely us” is some kind of achievement. And it’s an achievement of poets like Wearne but especially John Forbes for whom this entire poem can be read as a memorial. Analysers and debunkers of those desires which arise out of television images are to be valued: “Ehrt eure deutschen Meister” – “honour your local poets” – is always a recipe for sanity in a mad world.