Tag Archives: Alan Wearne

Alan Wearne’s Things Are Real

Alan Wearne, These Things Are Real (Giramondo 2017)

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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.

That’s Martin Duwell in 2013 reviewing Alan Wearne’s Prepare the Cabin for Landing. He could have been introducing the five narrative poems that make up the first 70 pages of These Things Are Real. The book’s title doesn’t so much make a claim of non-fiction status for these narratives, as insist that the kinds of stories they tell, stories that don’t make the headlines, and that are unlikely to make it into the history books or best-selling novels, are nevertheless poignantly human.

A widow renews her friendship with a friend from her youth, but they drift apart after some years when she rejects the overtures of her friend’s husband, all in Menzies-voting suburbia. A Ceb (which, as the poem had to spell out for me, is argot for a member of the Church of England Boys Society) tells the story of his multiple coming-out. A young woman, single mother, has a relationship with a musician who turns out to be abusive. A school teacher, a ‘happy-go-usey’ drug addict, struggles with his moral compromises and worse, including an involvement with squalid and murderous criminality. A ‘recently retired femocrat’ recalls the contradictions of her middle-class radical youth.

These are five complex yarns, told in irregular verse that occasionally breaks out into rhyme. There’s a strong sense of an idiosyncratic speaking voice, rough around the edges and often assuming shared knowledge that isn’t always there (not necessarily a problem when Google is at hand). The narratives don’t offer easy resolutions to the uneases and tensions they raise. In fact, mostly they don’t offer resolutions at all. Maybe that’s another meaning of the book’s title – in the real world things stay complex and unresolved.

Just a taste of how the language works, from ‘Anger Management: a South Coast Tale”

His screaming’s recommenced. The kids are home.
And you are bruised, walking-into-a-door bruised,
like you’ve seen enough before except
now it’s his, his bruise and possible fracture.
You saw the good man (if nobody else did)
the one who rolled you your White Ox,
the one who actually wrote songs,
the man you were loving who disguised
so much (no doubt from himself).
Well, it is all out now with a sort of noise
that’s heading to your kid’s guts
to stay for decades. But it’s when
he starts up, ‘Don’t you get it, I love kids,
I love them!’ you grab yours and lock away
the three of you, three hearts deranged
with thumping, with him outside the toilet
howling, whilst you phone your girlfriends.

The remaining 50 pages of poems are grouped under the general heading, ‘The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre’. They range from throwaway couplets (an unkind ‘Elegiac Proposal’ for Cardinal George Pell, a note on being a runner up to Lily Brett in the 1987 Victorian Premier’s Prize, a gleeful skewering of an error in something written by Les Murray), through several songs of praise to AFL personalities and others who remain mysteries to me, to longer rhyming poems about Australian politics, religion and, in particular, poetry: ‘For Chris Wallace-Crabbe at Eighty’, ‘The Ballad of 68 or I Was Dransfield’s Dealer’ and ‘Ode for Johanna Featherstone & Fiona Wright’.

My copy of These Things Are Real was a gift from Giramondo Publishing.

Overland 207

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 207, Winter 2012

The winter issue of Overland arrived here while I was summering in Turkey, and it was still in its plastic wrapper when spring arrived with a burst of grevillea flowers and the thud of issue 208 on the front step. The spring arrival looks great – it includes a comic – but it will have to wait. Winter is enough for now.

Fat people are oppressed, says Jennifer Lee in ‘A Big Fat Fight‘, and they’re organising on many fronts. It’s a pugnacious article, which seems to anticipate a hostile response, and indeed I found myself wanting to argue with it. Anwen Crawford responds in issue 208, and addresses the things I was uneasy about much better than I could. I recommend the articles as a diptych. It doesn’t help your argument to tell readers that if they disagree with you it’s a knee jerk reaction.

Porn and the misogyny emergency‘ is a debate between Gail Dines and Sharon Smith, which I’m happy to report doesn’t descend into name-calling, as feminist debates on this subject have been known to – as in a twitter storm around Gail Dines at a recent Sydney Writers Festival.

Jessica Whyte’s ‘“Intervene, I said”‘ addresses the vexed subject of how talk of human rights is used to rationalise imperialist aggression and other nastiness. It strikes me as a sober discussion, not looking for villains or getting lost in its own rhetoric as sometimes happens when mainstream discourses are being critiqued. I didn’t know that Médecins Sans Frontières, undoubtedly good guys in my book, played a major role in popularising the so-called ‘right to intervene’ on humanitarian grounds, which was used to justify the invasion of Iraq and other dubious military ventures.

Matthew Clayfield’s ‘Waiting on the Arriaga-Ixtepec‘ is a first-hand observer’s account of the ordeals of undocumented immigrants to the US from South and Central America. It’s powerful stuff. I could have done without the occasional literary flourish, especially the opening reference to Casablanca with its use of the manglish ‘torturous’ instead of the original’s perfectly sound ‘tortuous’.

Louis Proyect, in ‘Republican Democrats‘, offers an analysis of Obama’s policies that is a bracing contrast to what wishful thinking would have us believe. He argues that the time may soon be at hand when the USA’s rigid two party system yields to something closer to real democracy. In the meantime, he seems to be suggesting that African-Americans are mistaken to support Obama. Having just read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant ‘Fear of a Black President‘ in The Atlantic (if you haven’t read that article stop wasting your time here and click on the link now), I found Proyect’s argument thin and unconvincing on this point.

There are three pieces identified as fiction, though the most immediately touching of them, 19 year old Stephen Pham’s ‘Holiday in little Saigon‘, isn’t fiction at all, but a meditation on the changes he has seen in his suburb, Cabramatta, in the last ten years, as it has transformed from heroin capital of Australia to tourist destination.

Sequestered up the back on different colored paper is the poetry. I particularly liked Andy Quan’s ‘Islands‘, a cool despatch from a grieving family; Mark O’Flynn’s ‘Corydalis‘, a poignant glimpse of someone else’s homesickness; Fiona Yardley’s ‘Your Bath‘, an unlikely celebration of a long lived love, perhaps an elegy; and Alan Wearne’s ‘Also Starring …‘ poem as parlor game or vice versa, in which actors arecast as dozens of Australian poets living and dead, and a couple of politicians. The pairings that I recognised in that last poem ranged from the wittily spot on, through cheerfully insulting, to gloriously inspired. My favourite is George C. Scott as Francis Webb. It’s a poem that invites reader participation: I’d add Robert Morley as Les Murray and Katharine Hepburn as J S Harry.

Undoubtedly the serious reflections in this issue on all that’s amiss in the world and the possibilities for change will have lasting impact on how I am in the world, but right now my vote for the best thing in it goes to Alan Wearne’s utterly frivolous poem.

Not a 68er

Vivian Smith, Along the Line (Salt Publishing 2006)

Having mentioned the ‘sixty-eighters’ a couple of times on this blog, I poked around on the net to find out what I was talking about. It looks as if the idea of a distinct ‘generation of 68’ among Australian poets can be traced to John Tranter’s 1979 anthology, The New Australian Poetry: the work of twenty-four poets from Australian poetry’s most exciting decade. The notion of a ‘generation’ was challenged almost immediately by, among others, Rae Desmond Jones (‘the … highly successful anthology and the polemical introduction had only marginal relevance to each other’), but it has lived on. More recently, as one might have predicted, the 24 68ers have been portrayed as a mob of up-themselves, cliquish poetry warriors, and – also no surprise – have been defended against those charges. (The article by Alan Wearne on that last link demonstrates nicely that reality is more complex, interesting and benign than the labels might suggest.) When the Tranter anthology came out I was distracted by being a new parent and earning a living and the like, but during the late sixties and early 70s I had been a regular at poetry readings in Sydney (and once, memorably, in Canberra) and can testify that the poetic times were pretty exciting. I have a copy of a 1971 publication, We took their orders and are dead: An anti-war anthology (edited by Shirley Cass, Ros Cheney, David Malouf and Wichael Wilding), which captures some of the feel of the Moratorium Poetry Readings where elder statesmen of Aust verse like AD Hope shared a stage with as yet un-labelled 68ers like John Tranter or Vicki Viidikas and quite a few in-betweeners like, say, David Campbell. (The 68ers themselves, of course, are now either dead or approaching elder status.)

All of which is a convoluted lead-in to Along the Line, which I bought a while ago as my contribution to Salt Publishing’s Just One Book campaign. If memory serves, Vivian Smith read at those long-ago Moratorium readings. He’s certainly got a poem in the anti-war anthology. But he’s not a 68er – and not just because John Tranter didn’t include him. The poems in this book have a quiet formality that shows none of the influences or impulses  that besotted the young ones in those heady days. The poems don’t spread across the page like spider webs catching and displaying apparently random flies of perception. They aren’t Chinese boxes or monkey puzzles. Neither the Ramones nor Bob Dylan are referred to even once. Iambic pentameters rule and straightforward subjects dominate: there are many arrivals in Sydney, the poet’s home, and at least as many returns to Hobart, where he grew up; there are poems about poetry, poets and painters, depression, friends alive and dead. I used the word ‘quiet’ , and that is the overwhelming effect: quiet reminiscence, quiet elegy, quiet observation, quiet wit, even, in ‘Deathbed Sketch’, some quiet philippic. Something of a quiet achiever, then, and reading him is a quiet pleasure.

Incidentally, ‘Return to Hobart’, the poem that appeared in the 1971 anti-war anthology makes another appearance here, unchanged except for much improved editing, which makes me realise that this is not a collection of new poems, but some kind of unspecified retrospective, which accounts for a sense of temporal dislocation –  the poet’s daughter is a little girl on one page, for instance, and quite grown up a couple of pages later, and all those comings and goings between Sydney, Hobart and the rest of the world don’t have any discernible sequence.

Rather than say more about the poetry, let me declare an interest. Vivian Smith was the supervisor of my aborted MA thesis in the mid 1970s. Of course it wasn’t his doing that the thesis came to nought, though I wish I’d got my facsimile copy of Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Expeditions back from him before leaving the university. (Vivian, if you chance to read this and happen by some miracle to have those books still in your possession, I love your poems, please drop me a line …)

I have a vivid memory of a Year 3 elective in which Dr Smith gave a series of lectures to a tiny scattering of students. He was a quiet, unassertive lecturer, poles apart from, say, David Malouf, who lectured us with passionate brilliance on the Jacobean playwrights. At about the third lecture, there may have been only three of us in the audience – me up the front dutifully taking notes, and two older women (they must have been at least 28), one of whom has since gone on to wield power and influence in the ABC and elsewhere, the other to do impressive work as a journalist and writer, leaning together like grumpy conspirators. As Dr Smith was discussing the two main kinds of poetry being written in England during the post-war years, open and closed poetry if I recall correctly, the future journalist interrupted his flow:

‘Excuse me, but aren’t these generalisations almost completely meaningless?’

She had a point. Dr Smith responded quietly, modestly, and not at all defensively, ‘Yes, but they provide a structure that allows me to talk about the poetry.’

And he continued with the lecture, of which I remember nothing else. (Maybe I should be explicit here: I’m not suggesting that the poetry in this book is ‘completely meaningless’: rather that it isn’t out to impress, or seduce, or dazzle, but offers itself as a mind at work and play, take it or leave it.)