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.