Near Believing, Alan Wearne

Near Believing: Selected Monologues and Narratives 1967-2021 is a selection of Wearne’s poetry from over his whole career. I bought a copy when I saw it in my local indie bookshop last year, but apparently the official release is a John Hawke “In Conversation With…” at Readings Carlton, 6.30 pm, Wed. 15 February ’23 (here).

I think it would be fair to say that Wearne’s specialty is the verse narrative – novels and long monologues – and that he has developed a particular and recognisable vernacular voice. Here we have selections from each of his novels – Out Here, The Nightmarkets and The Lovemakers – from other collections and, he says, some new stuff, presumably the last section, under the heading ‘Metropolitan Poems and other poems’, plus an Introduction by Michelle Borzi.

Borzi writes: “The groundnote of Wearne’s vernacular is the audibility of his words and phrases as a movement of conversational sounds and gestures. A kernel of that narrative voice first appeared in two breakthrough poems in his first book Public Relations (1972): ‘Saint Bartholomew Remembers Jesus Christ as an Athlete” (written in 1967, when he was eighteen [his first year out of high school]) and ‘Warburton 1910’ (written in 1972). He went on to develop that voice in ‘Out Here’ and it has carried forward into all corners of his subsequent work.”

This too was a feat: running for a month
(as rumour had it).
Sprinting in the temple
was nothing less than perfect. Tables knocked,
whips raised and money lost.
He charged them twice

Saint Bartholomew Remembers Jesus Christ as an Athlete

Borzi, and Martin Duwell, both of whom I have linked to below, quote Wearne as saying his influences are narrative poets from Chaucer to the Victorians, and especially Browning. I assume they mean Robert, and not Elizabeth. Robert Browning’s wikipedia entry says he “was noted for irony, characterization, dark humour, social commentary, historical settings and challenging vocabulary and syntax.” Very Wearne-ish.

Australian vernacular is difficult to get down on paper without descending into parody, and I would like to add, if not as an influence, then at least as a predecessor, CJ Dennis. It is difficult to tell with both Wearne and Dennis whether the slightly forced nature of their expression comes from finding the right phrase in speech that is not naturally theirs, or from the discipline imposed by their respective poetic structures.

Yeh live, yeh love, yeh learn; an’ when yeh come
To square the ledger in some thortful hour,
The everlastin’ answer to the sum
Must allus be, “Where’s the sense in gittin’ sour?”

CJ Dennis: The Mooch o’ Life

Dennis uses shorter words and has a predictable, staccato rhythm. In all his “Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” he is attempting a slum/working class argot for the entertainment of a middle class audience. Wearne is often slangy, but it is middle class, suburban slang. And his words are longer, often fitting only awkwardly into his poetic structures, which vary, I’m sure not haphazardly, but let’s say, unpredictably.

Dennis and Wearne are alike in that (in their long pieces) the protagonist speaks directly to the reader. But Wearne fills out his narrative by having more than one speaker, so that we, in the verse novels, see the story from multiple points of view. There is some argument as to whether Wearne’s protagonists have different voices or just different stories to tell. Wearne’s own voice is so strong and so unique that I probably tend towards the latter view.

Alan grew up in Blackburn, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, in the 1950s and 60s, all apple orchards at the end of the War, then weatherboard housing estates, shading quickly to brick and tile, becoming prosperous as all the middle manager fathers rose through the ranks. He went to uni at Monash, an island in the southeastern suburban sea, but seems mostly to have lived in the then student/bohemian inner suburbs of Fitzroy, St Kilda, Carlton. And these locations are at the centre of all his poetry.

The poems and excerpts in this collection are undated, so it is difficult to tell whether his themes have changed over time, or if, as seems more likely, he returns over and over to this heartland of his teens and early adulthood.

But on this afternoon, in a new year
at a new school, whose tiresome Latin motto
you’d like to think might be interpreted as
Making Do With What We’ve Got (which isn’t much)

some things you’re hoping to commence will commence.
And if outside, starting at Holland Road …

A Portrait of Three Young High School Teachers

So, in what is presented as a later poem, here we are back again at Blackie South High (in Holland Rd), in the 1960’s – “if only they’d let us wear slacks!” Which brings up another point: that Wearne is just as likely to take the teachers’ point of view. This is evident too in ‘Out Here’, which he says is based on a story told to him by a teacher who had come to Blackburn South from another high school. You get the impression that by the end of his school years he was already being taken seriously as an adult writer.

Let me end with one other longish (25pp) narrative – because that is what I am more comfortable with – ‘Operation Hendrickson’ in which the protagonist Henn is busted for sex with a minor (Henn seems to be 20 and the girl 15). “… And here’s the real equation/their real equation: either she’s sixteen or isn’t./Sure wasn’t./But moral danger? Behind me she held on and/(anyone thought I might look after her?)/just ride and talk.”

Henn has come from a Kildonan (Presbyterian) home to a foster home in Blackburn, and has been in a youth group with the author

Whilst Wearney you needn’t believe because
he’s just making it up for Proper Gander,
his rag: ‘Hey Wearney, write my memoirs
then put them into your Proper Gander!’
In our concert he plays the butler,
who sees it (and I mean it) all.

Over the course of the poem Henn looks back on his mates – just the one speaker, but a different register for each mate – from the perspective of his thirties: the one that went to nearby Burwood Tech, the one that did nasho, what Wearney knows and doesn’t know, circles back to true love, Kim behind him on the bike, the cop

Here though was a plan: she was going to climb
on my machine and we, the Kim ‘n’ Henn Show
would leave it, all of it: dole, debts, cops, folks
and end where we would end. (That’s what I told him,
Wearney, one evening just across the road.)
Then within a month a week,
a jack is telling me: ‘… think you’re something, son?’

‘Wearney’ writes “this warmish winter day in mid-July,/here at the corner of Orchard Grove and Canterbury Road”, two streets down from my Mum’s retirement unit; or “walking north where Punt Road overpasses/Dandenong Road at St Kilda Junction” where I’d eat my lunch when I was on office boy in Prahran, watching the trucks pass underneath; or “Bowater-Scott’s four-to-midnight shift” whose lane off Middleborough Rd I park my truck in when I stay at Mum’s; and so on and so on. Alan Wearne is writing my life, and his life, and the lives of all us boomers who grew up in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

I wish I’d made it clearer: Wearne writes men and women equally, though not in ‘Operation Hendrickson’ and the generation before ours, our mothers particularly. Read him. He’s one of a kind, telling the story of his and our time.

.

Alan Wearne, Near Believing: Selected Monologues and Narratives 1967-2021, Puncher & Wattman, Newcastle NSW, 2022. 252pp

Cover: detail from Untitled (girl in the mirror), 1985 by Jenny Watson

Other Alan Wearne works reviewed:
Out Here, 1986 (here)
The Nightmarkets, 1986 (here)

See also (reviews much more informed than mine!):
Martin Duwell, Near Believing, Australian Poetry Review, 1 Oct 2022 (here)
Michelle Borzi, Prepare the Cabin for Landing, Southerly (here)

17 thoughts on “Near Believing, Alan Wearne

    • I’ve enjoyed all three of his verse novels, though I haven’t reviewed The Lovemakers. The problem these days would be getting hold of one, but of course second hand is always a possibility.

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      • Brotherhood Books is a good online source secondhand books recycled through their op shops. (Janine from The Resident Judge is a volunteer at their warehouse, which was flooded just recently but they are now back on deck.) It’s a site as professionally managed as AbeBooks and I’ve bought a lot from them.
        Oops, time to go, thunderstorm outside so the computer must be shut down!

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  1. You keep tempting me Bill … I must try Wearne (though I’m a boomer who’s female and grew up in Queensland and Sydney’s north shore.) You suggest he’ll translate, but will he?

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  2. The Lovemakers is the most Sydney of his novels but it is also by far the longest. What would be best is an audiobook with Alan reading, for a long journey, but I don’t suppose it will happen. If you see one, especially a new one, buy it for a rainy day. Or if Alan says he has any of the novels under his bed, I’ll buy one for your next birthday.

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  3. I’ve never read a verse novel and have always been a bit intimidated by them – poetry (unlike prose) sometimes feels inaccessible to me, though I have my favourites. When you’re reading a verse novel like this, do you eventually get engrossed in the story and stop noticing the form, or are you always aware of it?

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    • I don’t say you stop noticing the form, but it certainly doesn’t get in the way of following the story. I find the few verse novels I’ve read – and I only read Wearne, initially, because the subject matter was so familiar – sit on a continuum with novels like, say Ulysses, where the writing is more important than the story, but the story holds the writing together (or tries to).

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  4. When done well the verse novel can be a thing of pure reading joy! Dorothy Porter is my favourite and the YA authors Steven Herrick and Marcus Sedgwick are impressive too. I guess like any book, it depends on if the topic or subject matter is one that appeals to you.

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    • The only poetry I read is Alan Wearne and occasional Indigenous collections. I think that what I like is the sense of being told a story, which of course Wearne does, and a lot of Indigenous poets seem to do too. And I’m slowly reading more Kinsella (though I prefer his novels) for the same reason.

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  5. I’ve never read a book that has Australian dialect, and I wonder what that would look like. I kind of played around with words and sounds in my head to figure it out, but to little success. I will say I am reading a Western novel aloud to Nick, and much of the dialogue is in cowboy dialect. Much to my surprise, the dialect is basically exactly how we talk (e.g. often using “fer” instead of “for”). So, apparently, I speak like a cowboy all the time. *SIGH*

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    • So, finally, you have got me to buy Even Cowgirls get the Blues. How DO people’s brains work? I’ll listen to it some time this year. (And don’t worry, I got your subliminal message in an answer to Sue that I haven’t bought Lola Lesbian Lorry driver yet.

      I’m sure if I’m comfortable with ZNH, you’ll be fine with Orstraylian (start with Crocodile Dundee and work backwards to the movies of Chips Rafferty).

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      • Ha! That was not a subliminal message through Sue, but I appreciate that you are suspicious enough to look for those. I think you’ll enjoy Cowgirls. Everything about Tom Robbins is delightful, including his memoir, in which he has various stories that remind me too much of you.

        Do you know of any books written in Australian dialect that you would recommend that don’t sound forced? I started reading Angela Slatter, by the way, only to realize there was almost nothing of Australia in her short story collection. It was all fairy tale retellings, not even through an Australian lens.

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      • Dialect sees to have largely gone out of fashion – thankfully – in Australian writing. Thinking of ZNH makes me wonder if there aren’t Indigenous writers working on Australian Creole. There are a number, especially in poetry, working at including Language.
        And that brings me to: Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip (2018). I wrote in my review: “She is a Bundjalung woman of the NSW north coast, as is her protagonist Kerry Salter, and the patois in which the book is written is presumably the usual langauge of that people, though I’m guessing Lucashenko is an educated woman, as the patois sometimes feels a bit forced.” And I got jumped on by everyone, not least WG. Please read it, and tell me what I should think.

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  6. The comparison with Browning is an interesting one – he was also one for awkwardly shoehorning words into metre, and the work does seem reminiscent of him. Unfortunately I disliked doing wodges of Browning at school, but I thought it was worth mentioning that I can see the connection.

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    • Well thank you Liz for confirming that connection and I’m sorry that it took me so long to notice that you had. I don’t think I studied even the most obvious English poets in school (and I took Eng Lit up to fifth form).

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      • I think I did Browning in Sixth Form (so for A-levels, normally aged 17-18. 16-17 for me). We did First World War Poets and some Romantics, I think, at O-level and then First World War poets for A-level along with Browning and Poetry of the Thirties. (I did First World War poets for an optional course at university, too, so as not to waste the knowledge / not have to work too hard!).

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