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 monthSaint Bartholomew Remembers Jesus Christ as an Athlete
(as rumour had it).
Sprinting in the temple
was nothing less than perfect. Tables knocked,
whips raised and money lost.
He charged them twice
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 comeCJ Dennis: The Mooch o’ Life
To square the ledger in some thortful hour,
The everlastin’ answer to the sum
Must allus be, “Where’s the sense in gittin’ sour?”
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.A Portrait of Three Young High School Teachers
And if outside, starting at Holland Road …
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