Having spent two decades or more writing his massive verse novels—The Nightmarkets (1986) and The Lovemakers (2001, 2004)—it may seem that Alan Wearne, with his latest book of poetry, The Australian Popular Songbook, has finally returned to smaller forms and, as suggested by the title, a more lyrical idiom. But, as always with Wearne’s work, things aren’t that simple. The smaller forms were already present in the verse novels (if that’s what they were) in the form of sonnets, villanelles and other verse forms buried in the sprawling architecture of the works’ narratives (if that’s what they were). And the ‘lyrical idiom’ of The Australian Popular Songbook is ambiguous at best, offset as it is by Wearne’s characteristic attraction to the dramatic monologue, satire, vernacular culture, and wrenched syntax.
In other words, despite the obvious change in scale, the poems in The Australian Popular Songbook can be seen as a continuation of Wearne’s ‘epic’ project (if that’s what it was) by other means. Wearne’s poetic world remains urban and suburban, idiomatic, and stylistically idiosyncratic. We still find characters with names like Nigel, Larissa, and Jill. We still find references to suburbs such as Prahran, Box Hill, and Bundoora. (Actually, particulars being Wearne’s raison d’être, the references are to East Prahran and Box Hill South). We still find well-defined personae, such as the 1960s union organiser, the lesbian Uniting Church minister, and the middle-aged high-school teacher from the 1970s. We still find the odd excursion from the suburbs to the demi-monde (‘There’s a fortune a day / just pulling cocks’). Also present are Wearne’s characteristic poetic interests: family, politics, sexuality, gender, and war, with the adjective Australian before all of them. Wearne continues his essays on local culture, with references to Australian films such as Pure Shit (‘A mid 70s “underground” black comedy about heroin addiction’, according to Wearne’s notes), Australian politicians such as Don Dunstan, and Australian television programs such as IMT (which, it should go without saying, is the Graham Kennedy version of In Melbourne Tonight rather than the more recent, but also defunct, reincarnation).
The most obvious attention to local, vernacular culture in The Australian Popular Songbook can be found in the collection’s eponymous sequence, which—naturally—comprises of poems that take their titles from popular Australian songs. These range from folk songs such as ‘Bound for Botany Bay’, to oldies such as ‘Bless this House’, 60s pop hits such as ‘Ciao Baby’, and classic Aussie rock such as ‘Girls on the Avenue’ and ‘Just a Suburban Boy’ (how Wearnian can you get?).
As one might expect, these Australian songs are not the poems’ subjects, but instead give the poems resonance and colour. Often enough, that resonance is comic or ironic, as in the hilarious villanelle ‘Come on Aussie’ which has one of its refrain lines reading ‘It’s babyboomer partytime in Oz’ (which, Wearne explains, is ‘the title of a cassette album by Nigel T and the Oz Party People, a Perth-based nostalgia cover band’). And getting back to the villanelle called ‘Come on Aussie’, that’s pretty amusing in itself. At other times the irony can be more biting, as in ‘I Go to Rio’, one of the few poems to directly address its eponymous song, which does a pretty devastating job on the Peter Allen version of Rio-as-camp.
The trope of popular songs as indices of past times and places is a brilliant one, and one that draws attention to Wearne’s great strength as an evoker of milieus. For Wearne, place cannot be understood without reference to time. This is seen especially in the collection’s second sequence, ‘The Metropolitan Poems’, which includes poems with titles like ‘Ascot Vale 1953’ and ‘Rose Bay 1959’. Wearne ranges widely in his depiction of Australia, from the early twentieth century to the present, though he seems most comfortable with the decades between 1950 and 1980. This might be intuited from the fact that none of the songs in his songbook contain titles from contemporary songs (if you take ‘contemporary’ to mean anything after ‘Down Under’).
Again as ever, much of the brilliance of Wearne’s poetry is found in his figuring of the vernacular, as in ‘Off his tit he’s after Sharon’s, / this swatvac Friday’ and ‘I’m attempting / every domestic diplomacy possible, bar the grovel’. As the prevalence of sonnets (and things that may or may not be sonnets depending on how you view their lineation) suggests, the attraction to the vernacular is all part of Wearne’s highly formalist aesthetic, one which—more often than not—is founded on an idiosyncratic use of syntax: ‘“Mum…” you could try, “I’ve Jerry…” (but you won’t) / and how, if you’re both not fighting, he’s keen / enough, wanting those kids you don’t’.
Wearne’s vignettes of the local are neither sentimental nor parochial. Instead they are evidence of an Australian culture that is capable of encompassing irony, parody and satire, without engaging in the putative elitism of, say, Barry Humphries or Patrick White (the latter the subject of ‘Sarsaparilla: A Calypso’, which comes complete with music). A baby-boomer himself, Wearne’s milieus might seem almost as historical as Humphries’ and White’s (how many of Wearne’s younger readers would have heard of B.A. Santamaria or the Argonauts Club?), but they offer much-needed alternatives to globalised culture and media versions of Australiana. And Wearne can cast a satirical eye on more recent times, as in ‘Poem for Cathy Coleborne’, with its opening invocation to the denizens of Melbourne’s Fitzroy: ‘Put aside your essays, theses / kids in black, it’s Friday night’.
When reviewing the second volume of The Lovemakers (Money and Nothing) in ABR, I suggested that Wearne’s poetry was a kind of light verse. This seems even more the case with this latest collection. But The Popular Australian Songbook, like all of Wearne’s work, is too strange and too original to be merely light verse. Wearne has taken the attitude of light verse (especially with regard to its marrying of wit, form, and tonal lightness) and fashioned an utterly original version of Australian vernacular culture that is funny, astringent, and unsentimental. Bloody ripper.
DAVID McCOOEY is a poet and critic and the author of the ‘Contemporary Poetry’ chapter in A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900 (2007). He works at Deakin University (Geelong).