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: The Australian Popular Songbook

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2008, 93pp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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