Alan Wearne: Near Believing: Selected Monologues and Narratives 1967-2021

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2022, 252pp.

So large is Alan Wearne’s collected body of work, exploring the lives of Australia’s under-, working-, and middle-classes that Near Believing: Selected Monologues and Narratives 1967-2021 isn’t at all a traditional selected poems, the sort that tries to collect the best-known and most important examples of a poet’s work and present them in such a way that a new reader can get a compressed overview. True, this could be said of the last two sections of Near Believing, the one selecting from the short poems of The Australian Popular Songbook and the other, “Metropolitan Poems and Other Poems” selecting from among reasonably recent mid-length narratives and monologues. But Wearne’s poetic activity in the last quarter (or perhaps even third) of the twentieth century was dedicated to two very large works, The Nightmarkets and The Lovemakers which, put together, amount to nearly a thousand pages. The former is represented in Near Believing by a single long monologue and, although the latter gets nearly fifty pages, including Kevin Joy’s long monologue “Nothing But Thunder”, it’s only a fragment of the enormous and complex whole. In the case of these two mega-works, in other words, readers get not so much a selection as a sampler, something that might give one a faint sense of these books and perhaps, hopefully, lure one to explore their complexities further.

One of the things that Near Believing does is confirm the ambit of Wearne’s interests. He is, basically, a poet observing his own postwar generation. There are glances at the generations after this and something more substantial than glances at a generation or two before. In The Nightmarkets, for example, much of the interest in the love affair between leftist journalist Sue Dobson and the patrician politician Jack McTaggart derives not from the different worlds they inhabit – that of a dope-smoking inner-urbanite and that of a patrician landowner – but from the generational difference. And standing behind McTaggart is his mother, Elise, a representative of the generation born in the late teens or early 1920s. (Wearne seems to have a special affinity with this group – women reaching adulthood in the late 1930s – and this may well be because it’s his mother’s generation.) I don’t think that Wearne ever strays, generationally, outside these boundaries, though his work is so substantial that I could be wrong. At any rate, at least up to this point, he has never done historical reconstructions: there are no renaissance painters or bishops (pace Browning) and certainly no voyaging Australian explorers, all alone or otherwise. So much for temporal limits. In terms of space, Australia, especially Melbourne, is strongly the centre, as one might expect, and there is an emphasis on the postwar suburbs like Blackburn, Wearne’s own locus familiaris, although the Mr Asia Syndicate dimension of The Lovemakers means that the poems do make trips to south-east Asia.

Newcomers will be amazed by the extraordinary complexity and detail of the lives that are on show in these poems but admirers and critics may be able to use Near Believing as the kind of overview that makes it possible to ask some basic questions about a brilliant career spanning more than half a century, questions which haven’t perhaps been able to be answered in any satisfactory way before. They are what might be called “second-level” critical concerns which are really beyond the ambit of reviews which, after all, are required to look closely at a book immediately it is published. When there was, briefly, at least the skeleton of a scholarly critical community in Australian literature, one used to be able to say that they were topics later students might take up in their postgraduate theses. Now they look rather like questions that a reviewer poses but can’t really answer: in today’s language, cans being kicked down the street.

At the risk of writing a review which is a set of questions rather than a set of observations, I’ll begin by listing some of these issues and then have a look at one of them in some – if inadequate – detail. One of them is the need to see what patterns of progression there are in Wearne’s poems. In other words, what does that phrase, “as his powers developed”, mean in this instance? How are the most recent poems, “Near Believing” and “Press Play, different to “Eating Out” and the selections from “Out Here” from Wearne’s second book, New Devil, New Parish? Are they better – whatever that might mean? Then there are the characters themselves. Do his women characters seem more developed and less likely to be stereotypes than many of the male characters and if so why? Are the large, aggregated works like The Nightmarkets or The Lovemakers the formats in which Wearne’s genius is shown to best advantage or is it the more minimalist portraits such as are found in the sonnets of The Australian Popular Songbook? (Again, readers can slot in all my reservations about value judgements in the world of creative activity here.) What is the poet’s stake and his role? Is it a dispassionate responsibility to document; is it a humanist responsibility to allow characters to express something of the fullness of their personality, especially in the monologues; is it a desire to analyse underlying social patterns in Australian society (especially in the cultures of prostitution and drugs and their interaction with personal and political lives)? Or is there fundamentally a moral vision – as was the case with Dickens – describing character and social constructions but having a very strong judgemental view of aspects of them? If there is this evaluative component, is it aligned with those generally accepted by the intellectual/creative class of today or is it opposed to them? What is the function of the growing predilection for comic doggerel? Why is it that Wearne himself appears as one of the characters of the long narrative sequence, “Operation Hendrickson”? How are the enormous cast of characters differentiated: do they have different speech patterns, for example, or does their individuality only lie in the complex interaction of family, sex, suburb (always important in Wearne), friends etc – an interaction that produces the ideas and opinions that the character is keen to share with us (in the case of the monologues) or that the narrator wants to explore (in the case of the narratives)?

I’m especially interested in this last question, and the first thing to say about it is that it isn’t a simple issue. One always has the sense that there is a basic “Wearne style”, that he is, in other words, parodyable. The same can be said of Browning, surely the founder of the specific genre that Wearne works in. One of the features, in Browning’s case, is a kind of bluff energy that animates even a depressed old painter like Andrea del Sarto. It’s an energy deriving from the desire to express oneself fully that often keeps monologues poetically alive, pumping through enjambed pentameters. And that energy can lead to a kind of gigantism that is difficult to rein in. Every student thinks that Bishop Blougram goes on too long and the same can be said of Sue Dobson’s two monologues in The Nightmarkets and especially of Therese Lockhart’s in the same book (it runs to well over two thousand lines). At any rate, a poetry which is driven by energy is likely to have the same powerful pulse whether the speaker is an inner-urban activist from The Nightmarkets or a drug-running Kevin Joy from The Lovemakers. And this pulse seems to determine repeated syntactic structures so that a passage from Near Believing’s second-last poem:

                     And if on Saturday evenings
that station’s Sexuality Show was somewhat fatuous
(though for those times and on its terms well meaning)
often it seemed we both were giving
differing answers to quite similar questions . . .

seems identifiably a passage by Alan Wearne with its “and if” opening, its deployment of “somewhat” and the balance of the last clause. Wearne is obviously sensitive to this issue whereby characters, no matter how different, sound “somewhat” the same and a note at the end of Near Believing explains that certain passages have been omitted when he found himself “announcing to his creations: “Truly, this isn’t you speaking . . . it’s me!”. There are also quite a few slight emendations to “Climbing Up the Ladder of Love”, Sue Dobson’s second monologue from The Nightmarkets, and the one included here. Again. I’ll bequeath a detailed study of these amendments to some imaginary scholar of the future but one of their functions is clearly to make Sue sound more like herself and less like her creator. To take a single, not necessarily representative, example, the original,

Yet, even if portions bore, I thought, love some to last.
This starts my career, it must. But was about to get cast
by John in some wilting bloom role. . .


[“]Yet even if such portions bore,” I knew, “love some to last.
This starts my career, it must. . . “
                                  Though was I set to be cast
by John in some “wilting bloom” role? . . .

The original has two very Wearnian compressions: “love some to last” – ie “I would love some of them to last a long time” – and in the next line, “but was about to get cast” – ie “but I was about to get cast” – and presumably the existence of two so close together makes Sue sound more as though she is speaking a kind of Wearne-speak than the author is comfortable with.

This underlying style doesn’t inhibit verbal differentiation though; it can just provide a context in which it can occur. For me the strongest part of this Selected is the last section made up of individual narratives of medium length and the first of these, “Chatswood: Ruth Nash Speaks”, is one of my favourite Wearne poems. It is built around the Bogle-Chandler mystery of the early sixties where two of the guests at a New Year party for CSIRO scientists, Gib Bogle and Margaret Chandler, went off together for some extra-marital shenanigans. Their poisoned bodies were later found at the Lane Cove River but no murderer was identified and there have been many theories about the deaths ranging from a prank gone astray to a sudden eruption of hydrogen sulphide from the river floor. The party was held by Ken Nash, another scientist, and his wife, Ruth. The whole poem is a monologue which Ruth delivers in lolloping, bathetic couplets and it has a wonderful opening:

. . . and we are, in best sellers or movies, near press-ganged to pretend
how simple, bland beginnings might prologue a ludicrous end,

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. . .

It’s a gorgeously precise evocation of Ruth Nash who is clever in her own way and rather outside the male domain of the scientists at the party. She must, incidentally, have been born in the early twenties and is thus a contemporary of Elise McTaggart who, with her friend, Molly, has a similar position vis a vis the male political world of the postwar Menzies government. She is thinking, through the poem, about the mysteries of the events of people’s lives, rather as a narrative poet must and she’s quite removed from the mental processes of science: as she says, “Well you barely ask such questions of the CSIRO”. She’s less uptight than her husband – who objected to Margaret Chandler’s husband’s Hawaiian shirt – and there’s a slightly larky quality about her conveyed especially beautifully in that phrase “lightfooting bugger all”. All of this is transferred to her tone of voice in the poem itself. We aren’t told about her parents, suburb and school as we might have been in a longer monologue, and so this has a minimalist quality. But her personality is as strongly conveyed as Kevin Joy’s or Sue Dobson’s. As a poem it’s a masterpiece in miniature with a sharply individuated speaker.

Another poem worth exploring from this point of view is “A Portrait of Three Young High School Teachers”. We aren’t told the date of the portrait but it feels like the sixties or even, conceivably, the decade before – a period when the three young women “in full, pleated, white or floral-patterned skirts” are not allowed to wear slacks. The poem opposes female friendship to the way in which the high school “does things” and thus to the way in which prevailing social structures do things. The idiom of the poem sounds like reasonably familiar Wearne narrative:

. . . . .
And if outside, starting at Holland Road
(after which they’ll circle out into those whatever-beyonds)
the instant museum of jingles and choruses, slogans and chants
continue their parade:

a Peace Congress for both civic-minded and pest,
or for the troubled, the naïve, the plain inquisitive,
Revival Crusades making sure of merely nothing . . .

As the poem says, “friendships can at least delay these dour, sour uncertainties” and it’s the friendship of Ruth, Frances and Yvonne which is the subject of the poem. The power of the last stanza is that the language moves from that of conventional narrative to direct speech in the form of a very elegant invitation:

            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 fiancé will be there.
You and your husband are very, very welcome.”

It could be argued that this is not so much the individuated speech of a precisely defined character so much as the clichés of a particular class but it doesn’t feel that way to me. The contrast with the third person narrative ensures that it seems to the reader immensely human and really quite moving. It’s the mark of an author with a sure and very delicate touch and just as Ruth Nash stands outside the world of the scientists, so these three friends stand outside the structures of school and wider society.

One way of investigating both the processes of individualisation and the issue of Wearne’s development of a poet might be to pick similar figures appearing in early and more recent poems. “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” is a piece that chimes with Sue Dobson’s experiences in The Nightmarkets. A leftist activist (admittedly from a middle-class background and with an academic father) finds herself in a situation which challenges the values she has evolved for herself. In The Nightmarkets, as in the earlier “Out Here”, the plot is deliberately rather tenuous and the author leaves you in no doubt that it is the characters that are to be highlighted and the function of events is to challenge and define these characters. In a sense this happens in “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong”, but the situation is so good and so full of ironies that it is hard for a reader (at least, it is for me) not to be much more interested in it than I am in the central character who is, after all, just another activist facing social change. To summarise: the central character falls in love with a French girl while they are both in school but when, older, she travels to France to renew the relationship, she finds that things have moved on for Antoinette:

. . . . . 
       Nothing I would ever do had been so planned,
so mis-planned.
               Candidacy and scholarship were certainties
whilst French would never be a problem:
wasn’t it all mine, not as a kind of loan
but the zealous gift which, steeled and committed,
I thought had chosen me, such being that on-cue bravado
History and love both offer.
                            Shy, arrogant girls,
hadn’t we kept each other’s photographs
“Moi sur Les Barricades”, “Me and my Collective”?
Maybe. But what hers had hardly shown
was all the ground she’d filled, she’d travelled,
which wasn’t, I knew, mere breasts and a boyfriend
. . . . . 
          Then catching this right-through-me look of hers
I knew what she was seeing Here’s that Australiene again
(some place like that)  a pest from my past,
and how right now in the compost of our caprice
and paranoia, my Antoinette was truly blooming . . .

The Australian sums this experience up as “She cut me and I caught a chill” but the chill turns into something much more life-threatening. So far, the poem exploits the ironies of the way in which changed times and conditions challenge previous experiences and values, not entirely different to the questions Sue Dobson faces when she finds herself in love with a member of the privileged rural elite. But the next irony of “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” is more delicious. Her life is saved by the unremitting efforts of her parents and Australian consular staff, exactly the people she has spent her activist life fighting against:

. . . . .
         Week after shaky week I’d little else but sweated,
though now someone was saying my name and I caught that
monotonal national voice diplomacy never could dispel.
Whilst all those manner of people I wished exterminated:
governments, Foreign Affairs, specialists, flight crew, anyone
wanting the world purged of every Antoinette-and-I
were helping to lift, mend, fly and propel me
through Customs and out, school girl ruthless still . . .

It’s an irony worthy of Henry James (who would surely have hailed it as a “germ” suitable for expansion into a Jamesian novel) and it reaches some kind of resolution at the conclusion when the character shares a joke with her father. It’s too complex an issue to go into here, but one would like to spend some time comparing this woman’s idiom with that of Sue Dobson, even if the issue is complicated by the fact that Sue’s monologues are imagined as occurring almost immediately after the events she describes whereas the character in “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” is looking back on her life from a much more mature viewpoint – she’s described as “recently retired”.

“Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” raises another issue which perhaps I should have added to the list of issues that one would like to see examined in Wearne’s poetry. The final section of the poem, after the daughter’s laughing with her father, is a strange imagined poem/song in a tricky rhyme scheme:

We knew Struggle, we knew Truth,
          Knew Hué and Hai Phong,
Served such causes in our youth,
          Waitin’ for the Viet Cong.
Whilst Johnson, Nixon strafed the North,
Bellowed each July the Fourth:
“Longin’ for the Viet Cong to win girls,
          Screamin’ for the Viet Cong!”

And so on for another five stanzas. I’ve quoted it simply because to try to describe it in a way that made sense to a reader who doesn’t have the book would take a lot of space. It’s really hard to know what it’s doing as it seems so out of keeping with the monologue style of the poem and its proliferating ironies. It can certainly be said of it that it stops the whole poem from being too po-faced and it isn’t something Henry James would have been able to do. Perhaps it ties in with Wearne’s obvious delight in comic poetry seen in poems like “Dysfunction, North Carlton Style or, The Widow of Noosa” or “All These Young Australianists . . .” from Prepare the Cabin for Landing. (Interestingly, the first of these occurs immediately after “A Portrait of Three Young High School Teachers” in that book as though to say that there are more registers available to the poet than the solemn, sensitive tone of that poem.) The whole technique appears first (I think) at the end of The Lovemakers where Barb and Neil’s relationship – one of the running themes of this nearly seven hundred page book – is concluded in a tone which is the opposite of what a reader might expect:

          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.

Her heart was kickstarted, it wouldn’t stop thumping
with part of what happened and part might’ve been.
Then she panicked; if Neil has a touch of the cold feet
won’t he run off to Tullamarine? . . . 

And so on for another eighteen stanzas all finishing with Melbourne’s airport’s name providing a rhyme. At the time it struck me as a daring experiment, a way of avoiding the solemn rounding-off that a long narrative poem might be expected to have – as Ian Metcalfe’s final section of The Nightmarkets has, for example. Perhaps its appearance here and in “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” is a sign that it is part of Wearne’s long-term thoughts about tone and conclusions.

Wearne is a great poet with a freak hypersensitivity to people, their inner lives, relationships and conflicts, and the familial, educational and suburban elements that make them what they are. This sensitivity allows him to tap into the almost infinite complexity of our subjectivities. Michelle Borzi, in her excellent introduction, quotes Sue Dobson’s remark, “Take any normal street of average length . . . / Simply concentrate on / a street of a suburb: that’s mindblowing!” Admittedly, in this passage from the first of her two monologues in The Nightmarkets, Sue is talking about the sex going on in that street but sex is only a part of the infinitely complex interactions of human beings. It may be that there are other people around the place equally as sensitive to human subjectivity as Wearne and one should really focus only on Wearne’s unique powers of giving imaginative expression to this material. I made a brief list at the beginning of some of the questions that a mature literary culture would be asking of such a poet. Another one to add to the list might be the question of the extent to which he is a social or a biological determinist, answering Ruth Nash’s question about the role of the heavens, perhaps. Deciding which of his vast cast of characters is able to make the freest choices might take a long time.

Alan Wearne: These Things Are Real and as editor: With the Youngsters

These Things Are Real, Artarmon: Giramondo, 2017, 126pp.
With the Youngsters: Group Sestinas and Group Villanelles, Flinders Lane, Vic.: Grand Parade Poets, 2017, 90pp.

Here are two books which, put together, show Wearne in three of his most important poetic roles: as maker of the best verse narratives Australia has produced, and as satirist and as teacher. Perhaps this final role should be modified slightly since With the Youngsters is not a book about how to go about teaching the writing of poetry at university level but rather an anthology of what students and their teacher have, over the years, produced when faced with the task of writing something collectively in two of the most demanding fixed forms. If anything, then, it might be more accurate to speak of Wearne in his little-commented-on role of explorer of fixed poetic forms. The big verse-narratives – The Nightmarkets and The Lovemakers – never seem happy to operate entirely in Wearne’s distinctive blank verse and are always ready to rise to the challenge of one of the available forms.

At any rate, of the three roles the one I value most is the verse narrative. Wearne’s two earlier extended narratives are made up of monologues and third person narratives but in the case of The Nightmarkets these are extended pieces. The Lovemakers is rather more complex narratively speaking and interweaves an immense number of shorter narratives into an enormously complex whole documenting postwar Melbourne and Sydney and exploring the relationship between sex and politics, the media and drug cultures: a kind of postwar Australian Comédie Humaine. The shorter narratives in Wearne’s previous book, Prepare the Cabin for Landing, and the five that make up the first section of this book can be seen as either distillations of the longer ones or as examples of the kind of stories which could, imaginably, be woven into something ambitious and thematically wide-ranging, like The Lovemakers.

In These Things Are Real, the five narratives make up a section the size of a conventional book and though the satires, grouped together as “The Sarsaparilla Writer’s Centre”, run to fifty pages, it’s hard not to see them as little more than a light addendum to the book’s narrative core. I’ll have more to say about “The Sarsaparilla Writer’s Centre” later, but, for the moment, I want to focus on the first part of the book which is where Wearne’s genius is to be found. Though they are in no way interlinked, they do have thematic and structural resonances. Two, for example, could be said to be about varieties of violence – domestic and drug-culture – while another two explore the way individuals born in one cultural environment are forced, as they age, to accommodate newer times and the judgements those times pass on the culture of the past: a pregnant theme which Wearne deals with brilliantly.

And then there is “They Came to Moorabbin”, which is placed first. I think it is the subtlest of them and contains a relationship (between Keith and Nance) which is very complex and quite challenging. The characters are born in the twenties (and thus presumably belong to Wearne’s parents’ generation) and inherit the postwar boom years. It’s a period we have met in The Nightmarkets when the narrative steps back from the immediate issue of politics and prostitution and looks at the parents of the politician, Jack McTaggart, in a long monologue in which his mother, Elise, recalls her life with his father, John, one of Menzies’ postwar, ex-military ministers. One way of looking at “They Came to Moorabbin” might be in the light of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier which is built on the relationships between two couples who form a friendship after bumping into each other at a spa: it’s just that in “They Came to Moorabbin”, one of the four is already dead. Iris, an AWAS cypher clerk, marries Keith, a soldier opinionated enough to have extensive, but ultimately limited plans for their postwar future. At Half-Moon Bay, a decade or so after the end of the war, she runs into Nance, whom she had known in the war, who married a major later to become a diplomat after the war (serving in Wellington, Edinburgh and then Cape Town). When he discovered he was dying, he bought a house for his future widow and four children in Moorabbin – Mars as Nance calls it. The core of the poem explores the relationships between Nance and Iris and Keith (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, between Nance and her dead husband). Keith constantly breezes in to Nance’s place doing her tax for her. He seems an embodiment of Australian littleness and the poem suggests that he perfectly represents one aspect of his period while Tony (the diplomat) represents a more ambitious, disciplined, outwardly focussed component of fifties Australia. At any rate it’s a non-love affair and when Nance breaks with Keith it is over his treatment of Iris who bears the brunt of his opinionated whining. Ultimately she isn’t prepared to sacrifice her friendship and stands by Iris in a kind of unspoken woman-to-woman loyalty. Intriguingly, the poem doesn’t stop at the moment that the relationship breaks down (though it is more a slow drifting apart than a melodramatic “scene”) but continues into the future. I don’t think that Wearne often does this: usually the future is suggested at the conclusion of his narratives, a vista, good or bad, predicated on the characters he has been dealing with. The end of “They Came to Moorabbin” is especially bleak: Iris dies, Keith absconds with “some ageing bowling club girlfriend / nobody guessed he had” and we last see Nance, a chain-smoker and drinker “tubed-up for emphysema, a granny in a granny flat, / out the back of her daughter’s”.

Since Keith’s treatment of Iris is a kind of low-level sniping that can conceivably be put under the umbrella of domestic violence, there is a thematic connection between “They Came to Moorabbin” and “Anger Management: A South Coast Tale” which chronicles the relationship between a single mother and an itinerant busker, a “burly, stubbly muso in his thirties”. Whereas the anticipated affair between Nance and Keith never happens, here the anticipated violent outbursts do and, as a result, this is a less subtle poem but still a ruthlessly forensic one:

This could’ve worked except he’s sick 
and stupid. Once is a shock,
twice you’re a failure, but three times
that’s a pattern and three times mate,
matey, sport and Sonny Jim you’re out . . .

“Mixed Business” where violence might be seen as a context seems like an addendum to the world of drug dealing which forms such an important part of The Lovemakers. Its central character is an ex-teacher with a habit and a divorce, living alone on a pension. His dealer, together with his pack, all of whom might be described in terms from Wearne’s earlier “The Vanity of Australian Wishes” as “lulus”, murders a thirteen-year old junior pusher and the central character, together with Bob, a friend from his teaching days, goes to witness the sentencing. The structure of the piece is designed to place the protagonist in between the two visions of the future that his world seems to offer him: a solid, trustworthy sobriety (the kind of person who “never let his parents down”) that part of him wants to access and the incipiently insane world of the user become pusher. Interestingly, whereas the other four narratives cover an extended period of time, so that we can watch the character’s developments or the developing relationship between their character and the rapidly changing one of their society, “Mixed Business” is compressed into three years. It could be because the drug user’s world simply operates at a more frenetic pace or it could be because this is a poem that wants to portray a pendulum-like stasis.

The other two narratives, “Memoirs of a Ceb” and “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” are portraits of two characters, a man and a woman, both of whom are gay. The first focusses on the character’s love life while the second focusses on the character’s activist history, shaken apart by an affair with a French girl, begun at school age and leading to her rejection when, rather like the central character of Christina Stead’s For Love Alone, she makes a pilgrimage to Europe to renew the relationship only to be snubbed by someone who has changed with the times:

. . . . . 
                            Shy, arrogant girls,
hadn’t we kept each other’s photographs
“Moi sur Les Barricades”, “Me and my Collective”?
Maybe. But what hers had hardly shown
was all the ground she’d filled, she’d travelled,
which wasn’t I knew mere breasts and a boyfriend.
Much worse she couldn’t, wouldn’t announce
Don’t you understand, we’re hardly like that now!
. . . . . 
     Then catching this right-through-me look of hers
I knew what she was seeing Here’s that Australiene again
(some place like that) a pest from my past . . .

Eventually she is rescued from pneumonia by the very forces of middle-class parental conservatism and care that her activism is opposed to. Wearne has a history of being fairly gentle with the activists he portrays and there is something more than merely contemptible about this character who finds that, though she feels free to reject whom she wants, she still has to suffer rejection herself. Times and activist targets change (she moves from a leftist anti-imperialist position to a feminist one as she ages) but so does love: it isn’t the central out-of-time experience that she took it for.

“Memoirs of a Ceb” follows the life of conventional character, Peter, from his adolescence – where he has his “Brokeback Mountain” moment – to a stable adult career (as engineer) and a stable adult relationship with Cameron. Interestingly the meaning of the acronym (a member of the Church of England Boy’s Association) is only explained late in the poem and thus acts as a kind of nagging reminder to the reader that we are dealing with different tempores and different mores. Also interestingly, Wearne chooses to take his narrative, which is structured as a row of decade spaced glimpses, into the near present (2006) when Cameron is waiting to die in a hospice. I think the reason for this is that Peter’s broad perspective on his own life is that it isn’t the discovery of his homosexuality which is the core event of his life but the framing, accepting and accommodating of this. And this is done when, as an adolescent, he meets another member of the congregation, a doctor, who recommends him to a counsellor he knows:

     “I’m Bev,” she announced. “I gather Bob Dalzeil
said how you would never change
and why should you?” Bob told correct . . .

The initial meeting with Dalzeil is brilliantly done – Peter finds him dancing in a conga-line of little kids on his daughter’s eighth birthday – and reminds us how good a conventional story-teller Wearne is, but the point of the entire poem, I think, is that the meeting with Dalziel is more important than the meeting with the first lover (a bodgie met on an “Outreach” mission). When, at the end, a friend asks what would have happened if he hadn’t gone, he says, “I’d have got married, had children, cruised / and spent a life sensing there was something . . . incorrect”.

One feature which “Memoirs of a Ceb” and “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” share is the incorporation of some verse in Wearne’s comic mode. In the former it is the acerbic Cameron who at a holiday house with mutual friends disappears to produce a set of couplets about lesbian Catholic schoolgirls. More importantly, “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” concludes with a comic piece –

. . . . . 
Some played Dylan, some played Ochs,
     And others Cheech and Chong.
Whilst some just played at (said their folks)
     Waitin’ for the Viet Cong . . . 

It’s a very odd thing to do but is probably a healthy antidote to my tendency to see these narratives as luminous, extremely subtle portraits of people defined by time and place. It’s a kind of sophisticated doggerel – if that’s a tenable oxymoron – and it may be an important feature of Wearne’s style, telling us that there are other ways of looking at this material. It’s worth remembering that something similar happens near the end of The Lovemakers where the otherwise very serious relationship between Neil and Barb finishes up as a set of quatrains full of excruciating rhymes on “Tullamarine”.

This makes a serendipitous segues to the second part of the These Things Are Real, “The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre”, because the satirical pieces there are full of “sophisticated doggerel”. As its title suggests the targets are mainly fellow poets though there are political (and religious) attacks later on. There are also some very genial ballades: one addressed to Alan Gould and celebrating the Christian name they share and another celebrating Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s reaching his eightieth year. And there are also some wonderful, gently satirical prose dreams: I especially like the one in which Alvaro de Campos (speaking with a Scots accent) claims that Pessoa is one of his heteronyms rather than the reverse: “Since he has spent time in Glasgow I ask him his opinion of Robbie Burns. I am told that Burns too is one of his heteronyms”.

Someday someone will write about the satirical element in Wearne’s poetry, beginning, perhaps, with especially important ones like “The Vanity of Australian Wishes”. It’s a complicated issue. The conventional definition – that satire is the ridiculing of human vices and follies – is fine as far as it goes but it forces us to ask: who decides whether something is a vice or a failing to be pitied? What right does a poet have to set him- or herself up as a judge of such matters and whom does the poet represent? This is a twenty-first century Australian question, perhaps, rather than second century Roman or eighteenth century English or French one. Under this spotlight, the least equivocal vices and follies are those which contain some inherent contradiction – such as hypocrisy – since there the failing is independent of any viewer’s judgement: it’s a mathematical issue rather than a morally determined one. But even hypocrisy could, conceivably, be judged more sympathetically as a frightened, willed blindness.

There is a very interesting essay by David Foster on satire which, though I’m not sure I agree with it, has stayed in the back of my mind since I first read it in his collection Studs and Nogs more than a dozen years ago. He divides satirists up into two classes: the “toothless” – those “willing to wound yet afraid to strike” – and the “biting” who, in Foster’s terms, are the true satirists, the desperate wounded fighters. Fair enough, but the intriguing element is the recognition that the latter are damaged and that the satire arises out of a personal wound. It’s an interesting position because, in a single step, it renders the question, “What gives anyone the right to set themselves up as an arbiter of acceptable behaviour?” irrelevant. It establishes, for the writer, a stake in the issue.

Wearne, in the light of this essay, wouldn’t appear to be a satirist at all. Partly because there’s often a kind of loving intimacy, born of curiosity, between him and his more extreme characters taken from the media, sporting and drug worlds (there’s not much room for curiosity in Foster’s sense of an extreme satirist) and partly because many of the poems in “The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre” come into the category of sharp epigrams (Martial gets excluded from being a satirist in Foster’s classification). But one couplet might well come out of the kind of wounded outrage that Foster requires. A couplet about the 1987 Victorian Premier’s Prize for poetry says: “What you see is what you get: / Runner-up to Lily Brett”.

Whatever distress may or may not be hidden behind Wearne’s satires, With the Youngsters is a celebration, a celebration of collective verse-making. It collects twenty-three sestinas and twenty-two villanelles made by writing students mainly at the University of Wollongong as part of Wearne’s poetry classes. Wearne’s “Afterword” describes how the sestina exercise was set up. Each student provides three words, the words are collected and then an outsider is roped in to draw six of them from a bag. This six, in the order drawn, will form the last words of the first stanza. The remaining stanzas can have their last words laid out in the correct sestina pattern and then each sub-group within the class is given the task of writing one stanza. It sounds a lot of fun, especially as the emphasis is on playing with and bending the rules: none of the resulting poems are at all solemn accomplishments.

One’s immediate impression is that Wearne’s method of eliciting the final words – “From you I’ll have a colour, a piece of fruit and something associated with your home . . . from you a verb ending in ing, a movie star and an adverb . . .” – isn’t designed to make a difficult form any easier. Pound, speaking as a war-hungry Bertran de Born in “Sestina: Altaforte”, could choose “peace”, “music”, “clash”, “opposing”, “crimson” and “rejoicing” which doesn’t pose any insuperable problems, but you feel sorry for the class that were stuck with “taa”, “inoculate”, “seventeen”, “wallowing”, “reckon” and “Nazism or for those who got “Bryan Cranston”, “eating”, “bracelet”, “android”, “starry night” and “blimp”. Still, presumably the difficulty is part of the fun. You get an interesting result in a poem like “Marilyn Sestina” where five of the words chosen are reasonably easy to accommodate into what might have been a perfectly conventional poem (“Monroe”, “jumper”, “blues”, “net” and “Rio Bravo”) but one, “water polo”, is extremely resistant and brings a necessary surreal touch to the finished poem.

The villanelle exercise is a little different but allows students to choose lines from other student poems which they think might survive the constant repetitions of that form. I think the results are not quite as satisfying as the sestina exercises. It may be that I’m prejudiced against the villanelle with its oh-so-obvious syntactic variations to accommodate its repetitions but I think it’s a little more significant than this. The villanelle has always seemed a closed form. Its repeated lines are separated by a single line at the beginning but appear together at the end. This gives a sense of it spiralling inwards towards its conclusion. It’s good in that it always provides a sense of an ending but limiting in that it always feels the same. The sestina, despite its rigid rules, seems much more open: it spins out into meanings but always touches base with the form at the beginning of each stanza which has to repeat the word at the end of the previous stanza (surely the most difficult issue of both these forms is to bring that off without drawing attention to it). To lapse into metaphor for a moment: if a villanelle is like a (usually blunt) arrowhead, the sestina is like an unpredictable balloon, ready to set off in unusual directions and only held back by its six repeated words which come together to make a kind of provisional knot in the final three line stanza.

At any rate, With the Youngsters is the kind of book that will be important when criticism finally begins to come to grips with the issues involved in the professional teaching of the act of writing poetry at tertiary level. It is a tribute (or a slightly quirky monument) to Wearne’s impressive achievements in the field. But it also has a profounder connection with Wearne’s own poetry because he has always been an explorer of fixed forms. There are Meredithian sonnets and syllabic count poems in The Nightmarkets and both sestinas and villanelles in The Lovemakers. The villanelles are brilliant in that book because they are spoken by a defence counsel and thus the dramatic situation supports the repetitive nature of the form. The sestinas in the “Making the World Revolve” section of The Lovemakers are brilliant and brilliantly daring in the way they play with the form: dividing it in half, assigning the final three lines to be the opening of a new poem, and so on.

With the Youngsters and both sections of These Things Are Real are prefaced by a large number of quotations. The result isn’t pompous since many of these are whimsical but my favourite is the comment made by Shostakovich to his (then) student, the serialist Sofia Gubaidulina, at his retirement party: “I wish you to continue on your mistaken path”. It would be a good motto to have inscribed on buildings where Creative Writing is taught.

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.