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Substantial but obscure

John Tranter reviews

«New Devil, New Parish», 1977, poems by Alan Wearne, 1977

New Devil, New Parish, poems by Alan Wearne; UQP Paperback Poets Second Series, $1.50 (paper). First published in The Australian, 11 June 1977. This review is 800 words or about 4 printed pages long

Alan Wearne’s second book is an interesting development from his first, Stares and Statues, published in the Gargoyle Poets series a few years ago.

It consists of two sections. The first seven poems are like those in his first book: dense flurries of images and scraps of dialogue that remain obstinately personal. Wearne also has a peculiar habit of explaining something in a quick aside, usually in parentheses, that leaves the reader baffled: “in his sleepout J. M. Hooke mentions the words/ computer and motel; or, is she married? (left hand fool;)”

The confusion here results from inadequate punctuation. Is Hooke left-handed? Is “she” a left-hand fool? I think what Wearne means here is “look at her left hand, you fool” (to see if she is married); but if so, why not say so?

My mention of marriage is not accidental: Wearne seems obsessed with the state of matrimony throughout much of his poetry. No explanation is given in the book, so the reader is left again to wonder why; but at least it makes a refreshing change from the typical Australian poetic obsessions for rural scenery or drugs.

The eight-page poem ‘Extracts From a Competent Novel’ is where Wearne gets into his stride. His verse tends toward dramatic monologue, and is often reminiscent of Browning. In ‘Extracts’ we have something approaching a short story, though the compression of scenes and the tone of introspection work more like a contemporary rnovie.

It’s a story of a young man’s adolescence, and focuses on his Air Force experiences, his unhappy liaison with a young girl, and the break-up of his parents’ marriage. The crunch comes at the end, where he finds out that his old flame is now (that word again) married.

A fair part of the story consists of throw-away references to things that can exist only outside the poem: “Myself, Pamela, Rodney. (Later of course, Basil Pryor).” Why Basil has to be included in this list is inexplicable, as we never meet any of these people again. One would need a telepathic understanding of Wearne’s intentions to make sense of many of the poem’s scenes, and it is this strange obstinacy that will turn off many of his potential readers.

TANGLED WEB OF RELATIONSHIPS

In style and theme, ‘Extracts’ is a limbering-up exercise for the major part of this book: the 2000-line poem ‘Out Here’. It deals with a single incident: teenage schoolboy Brett Viney slashes his stomach with a knife. In the manner of a sociological novel, the poem proceeds to explore the events that led up to what is probably an abortive attempt at suicide, and the effect it has on Brett’s family and friends, particularly his girlfriend Tracey.

It takes the form of nine distinct dramatic monologues, spoken by Brett’s high school deputy principal, his mother, his father, his father’s girlfriend, his grandfather, his aunt (a “radical nurse,” as Wearne labels her), Tracey, Brett himself, and Tracey’s father. The effect is to spread out the poem’s concerns into the tangled web of suburban relationships, and a rich and complex portrait of Australian society emerges.

It is a unique work; nothing quite like it has been attempted in Australian poetry and it bears no relation to anything done here before. I mentioned Browning earlier, and though the poem’s technique is broadly reminiscent of the English 19th century poets, its tone is more American.

The problem of obscure references in Wearne’s poetry is not so much a difficulty here, simply because he has the space to fill in most of the background details as he goes along — and this density of personality and life-style is of course one of the poem’s great advantages.

I think two serious problems prevent the work being a complete success. One is simply the matter of verbal surface: it is so elliptical as to be almost impenetrable in parts, and for a poem that relies on narrative for its initial momentum that is fatal.

The other problem is one of voice: although we have nine distinct characters speaking their inmost thoughts, we get little sense of their individual accents. Wearne attempts to come to grips with this difficulty, but the recalcitrance of his style prevents him achieving the necessary flexibility to talk in voices recognisably different from his own.

Apart from these two problems, ‘Out Here’ does stand out as one of the genuine and major departures of the past 10 years. It doesn’t posture, it works. Its firm sense of structure, its willingness to explore important areas of social experience, and its bold individuality of concept compel respect.

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