π. ο.: Fitzroy: The Biography

Melbourne: Collective Effort Press, 2015, 740pp.

It is now nearly ten years since π. ο.’s remarkable 24 Hours appeared, seven hundred and forty pages of immersion in the physical environment of the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy and the grungy side of its café culture. But also seven hundred and forty pages of immersion in the weird language of the place, Balkan and Greek versions of English that could be as difficult to penetrate as a passage from Finnegans Wake:

Wai yoo look mai kaartz?!
Eye look yoo “fayc” n - o yoo kaartz!
Tin . . . . .aa’ft - o? Tin aa’ft - o . . . . vrr - e??!
Giv him! GIV HIM!
Aa’k oos ti ley . . . ???!: GIV HIM!
Tha naym iz Aapostoli!
Aapostoli Kaangaar - oo (ggh – aamot - o)!
F’err - e m - e t - o pistoli!
Ggggggaam - o. tin. paaaaanaaayia s - oo!
Hoo . . .? Hoo ey’m?! HOO . . . .?!
N - o look HIM!: Hoo?!

This (at a card game) isn’t an unrepresentative passage, at least of the more hectic stretches of dialogue. And so 24 Hours, remorselessly realistic, clear-eyed and unsentimental about multicultural traditions in a Melbourne suburb is as much about an experience of language as of place. The sly warning on the cover, “Contains Language”, admitted as much. And in the latter parts of Fitzroy: The Biography we are in the same linguistic world:

. . . . . 
Bobbie (the house painter) at the Costa Azzura (in
Brunswick St) said: Tha layf thet taym (Fitzroi) woz “lonli”.
Tha MAYGRaaN, dai gon to EKSPRESSO to e’KS-chaynj
tha filling. (Thai g-o to playc th’aat AAXCEP dem)!
Pipol wit ewt-pipol k)))aaaaan living! Iz a H’yoomen instink.
Tha gerlz (ne’chyoo-raali), dai pik da MENZ! (Shi
kum, to yoo). Whair, YOO g-o? / EKSPRESSO!
Wun g-el kum . . .

It’s a brilliant evocation of an Australian dialect that we have all heard and the achievement should rightly be considered poetic – it is far more than a phonetic rendering – since language is poetry’s obsession and it’s an obsession that can range from the vocabulary of the highest of high styles down to this, the lowest of low styles.

Fitzroy: The Biography is a kind of counterpart to 24 Hours. It signals this by being almost exactly the same length. But the focus is historical so that instead of getting a snapshot of a single day we are introduced to a single suburb for the nearly two hundred years of its existence. The governing principle appears in a portrait of a fellow-student, Nonda Katsalides (“But, Nonda was / the coolest bloke in Fitzroy; he had a girlfriend (at / school): Notta – the sexiest girl alive . . .”) which finishes “’The people are the city’ Shakespeare said, and / I guess I’d agree, with that”. I don’t want to play the dreary pedant here but, of course, it is a tribunus plebs who says this in Coriolanus, not at all Shakespeare and not remotely a trustworthy character in Shakespeare’s eyes. Perhaps a better quote for π. ο.’s project might be from Aristophanes’ The Frogs: “I came down here for a poet so that the city might be saved.” At any rate the “biography” of Fitzroy is a catalogue of portraits of its inhabitants organised chronologically and it seems to be a suburb that, from the very beginning of its existence as a civic community rather than a tract of land, does need some saving. This is especially true of a period beginning in the late nineteenth century: “Vags, Pros & Drunks” and “Police: ///// pencillings” are both examples of a kind of compendium poem that collects fragments of a group of lives:

. . . . . 
On Saturday morning, a Gardener found the dead body of
a woman of about 35, lying under some bushes.
There were no marks of violence, and nothing to indicate
who she was. She died of cold, and exposure. (The weather
Friday night was particularly bitter). Christine Gilligan (with
a record of over 40 priors) was charged with vagrancy.
She had made a raid on the front garden, of Dr Howitt’s
residence (in Victoria Pde) and prior to that had created a row
in a fish’n’chip shop. She is the laziest vagrant in Fitzroy!
Herbert Brooks, is a nasty piece of work also . . .

Slowly the world of poverty moves into larrikinism – describable as poverty with a certain kind of violent style – and then eventually into the full-scale gang wars which have bubbled up inside Melbourne’s underclass to the present day. “Fitzroy Vendetta 1918” is a forty page, twenty-two poem section following the dealings of Squizzy Taylor with women (Dolly and Ida) and with other gangs in the area before he was killed by “Snowy” Cutmore (“Fitzroy was about the only Place in the World, that / could tolerate Snowy”). Not all the portraits are entirely bleak however: Fitzroy footballers like Haydn Bunton and Chicken Smallhorn are positive figures as is Pastor Doug Nicholls an aboriginal man who began as a Fitzroy footballer before becoming a minister and eventually governor of South Australia:

. . . . .
When Doug Nicholls died, they took
him back, to Cummeragunja (on the Murray).
Fitzroy would like to, salute him here

Once postwar migration begins and the poet’s family arrive in Bonegilla from Greece on their way to an eventual life as café proprietors in Fitzroy, the book changes a little to become more autobiography than survey of a suburb’s history. But since the author and his family are so centrally positioned to document what is happening in the life of the suburb the change is more superficial than anything. There is a brilliant twenty-poem sequence, “The Flats” about the complex of events and processes that eventually lead to the demolition of the older, slum parts of the suburb:

. . . . . 
                        Some arsehole from
the Housing Commission, got into a light-blue Ford, armed
with a copy of Morgan’s Street Directory (and a blue-
pencil) and went out, looking for a slum to tear down.
He drove down Brunswick St, Gertrude St, Napier St, and
King William, and overnight (by virtue of Sec 56 of
the Local Government Act) our shop (and the 2 rooms we
lived in at the back, next to the toilet) were declared a Slum.
The dog, didn’t even have “the decency”, to get out of
his car, and have a look around. When the facts are few,
there are experts aplenty. He did the whole job, looking out
from the /// windscreen of his car, and everything
I knew thereafter, or could point to
          got demolished . . .

Fitzroy: The Biography has, as readers of the passages I have quoted will have noted, its own eccentric punctuation whereby every subject and its verb is separated from the rest of the clause by a comma and often subjects are even separated from their verbs by a comma. I’d thought initially that this may relate to the fact that this is very much a performance poem (or poems) as 24 Hours was and as most of the poems in Big Numbers: New and Selected Poems are. But it’s hard to see how these commas mark units of utterance in a performance: all that can be said is that it is a convention that is carried out completely consistently throughout the seven hundred and forty pages. As are some unusual spellings: “stomach” is always spelled “stomac” and “soccer” always “soccor” and so on.

The first four hundred and fifty pages of Fitzroy: The Biography might have been a slightly solemn collection brief lives, the sort of thing a local history group might produce if they were locked in a room with unlimited supplies of alcohol, were it not for the dominant and most interesting poetic technique of the book which is the continuous use of generalisations in between sections of narration. These generalisations usually seem random but they have a sly relevance and serve as a sort of sardonic groundbass underneath the lurid goings-on of the inhabitants of the suburb. Late in the book there are fascinating portraits of Bert Newton, E.W. Cole and, especially, Barry Jones who first became famous as a quiz contestant on a radio program called “Pick a Box” hosted by an American Bob Dwyer and his wife, Dolly. His poem, recounting a famous moment in the show’s history (from memory it was about Warren Hastings) where a contestant became more interesting than the compere, is a good example of these truisms at work:

          The human brain, weighs 5.4 kilos;
same as a bowling ball. The first public library
was opened in Warsaw, in 1747. I saw Barry Jones
on the steps of the City library; a beard, 
is a sign of wisdom. And in spite of bell, book, and candle
he seemed all too human. Hello Customers!
an owl’s eyes, make up 30% of its head.
Bob Dyer was born, in 1909 in Tennessee;
arrived in Australia ’37, played a Hillbilly (with
a ukulele) at the Tivoli, in Sydney. He was
a keen big-game fisherman. Began in radio, in 1948;
had his own quiz show, Pick A Box with Dolly (his
wife): The money, or the box? (an Australian-
wide *joke) – The box! / Come here Dolly! -
One day, Bob asked Barry Jones (one of
the Contestants) who the Governor-General of
India was?, and the answer came directed
in a language unexpected; the most common
letters of the English Alphabet, are R,S,T,L,N, and E.
France granted Laos sovereignty, in 1953.
There are 12, 634 butcher shops, in Great Britain.
An archipelago, is a long run in music.
Useless features, are just simply add-ons & whistles.
Potatoes go well, with almost everything. Prostrate means /
lying face down. – Bob Dyer, looked “fazed”.
The first victim of the electric chair, took 8 minutes to die.
The Adjudicator (George Black) was /// stumped!
Barry had muddied the waters, somewhat.
PS47 was a school for the “hard” of hearing.
The first pictures on Tv, were shots of “the heads
of dummies”. The sponsor was Colgate Palmolive.
All the contestants on the show had
to wear ( ) ( ) headphones (Trivia, is important).
Information Please, was the name of a Quiz show
in the United States, and as a kid, Barry Jones
would go by tram, to 3DB, and listen to
Professor Osborne, prattle on about . . . . everything.
Information needs, a context. In 985 AD, “25 ships” sailed
for Greenland. In 1924, John Poole underwent,
a total laryngectomy. – Customers!!!! I find myself in
a dilemma, Bob Dyer said. (Knowledge, is
a commodity). The contest, was “a No-brainer”!
Barry Jones, the schoolteacher (from
Dandenong), had come out “triumphant”.
China invaded Tibet, in 1950. The whole of
Australia, was clapping!

This technique seems to come from a group of poems, beginning with “9/11”, at the end of π. ο.’s New and Selected Poems and we can see it fully developed here, especially in this brilliant poem about popular cultural phenomena, the way quiz shows treat knowledge and the historical and global contexts of the period. There is also a dose of humour so that “arpeggio” is confused with “archipelago” (there are a lot of these truisms that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny) and the host’s “fazed” expression is connected to the first victim of the electric chair, and so on. The constant moving between narrative and generalisation also thickens the texture of the poetry itself and acts as a narrative-retarding device. You can imagine this working very well as a spoken text.

Fitzroy: The Biography, like its predecessor, is a tour de force even if its author, tongue in cheek, says it is. It is one of those works that extends an area in a national literature by replacing po-faced, realistic representations with over-the-top panache. The literature never looks quite the same afterwards. It will probably, in the future, get pigeonholed into discussions of migrant experience but really it belongs to the larger field of the documentation of specific urban areas and a specific way of life. This seems to be a Melburnian obsession. Bruce Dawe (significantly he is one of the portraits in this book) wrote brilliantly about the general experiences of the postwar period in the expanded outer suburbs of Melbourne in poems ranging in conception from “The Rock-Thrower” to “Homo Suburbiensis”, but Alan Wearne is usually considered to be the master of this field. In fact Wearne and π. ο. are very different poets: the former has an essentially dramatic imagination while the latter has a bent for accurate recording. At any rate Melbourne is a lucky city to have the culture of this single, bravura suburb recorded so intensely.