Australian Marginalia: Encounters with Australia in Raymond Roussel, John Ashbery and Georges Perec

1 November 2019


Ashbery came to Australia as a guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival in 1992, the year in which the poet August Kleinzahler and travel writer Bill Bryson were also invited. The three struck up a friendship, Ashbery entertaining his fellow Americans with impromptu renditions of Gracie Fields’ songs (she too had visited Australia, to great acclaim, in 1945). At the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, Ashbery read two poems that mentioned Australia: ‘The Wrong Kind of Insurance’ from Houseboat Days (1975) and the then-unpublished ‘Poem for the New Year’, later collected in Hotel Lautréamont (1992), which contains the suggestive lines: ‘I wonder about Australia, is it anything like Canada? / Do Pigeons flutter? Is there strangeness there, to complete / the one in me? Or must I relearn my filing system?’ (83).

In Ballarat, Ashbery read at the recently converted Courthouse, where he complied to the organiser’s request that he stick to a tight schedule by performing just one fleeting poem, ‘We Were on The Terrace Drinking Gin and Tonics’, which reads in its entirety: ‘When the squall hit’ (As We Know 96). This bathetic one-liner (a rare example of a poem where the title is longer than the subsequent text) did not disappoint. As an audience member quoted in The Age recalls: ‘(He) allow(ed) people, particularly writers, in Ballarat to be shocked out of an almost self-congratulatory indulgence in the past and to realise that cultural identity is a struggle each generation has an obligation to re-invent’ (Carbines and Perry 12). When asked what he thought of Ballarat, Ashbery gave a typically Rousselian reply. ‘They took me to the South Pole’, he obliquely answered, as though he had not seen Australia at all (12).

The poet Tony Towle – a close friend whom Ashbery has described as ‘one of the New York School’s best-kept secrets’ (Towle, cover copy The History of the Invitation) – has a memorable poem titled ‘Australia’ (1978). It portrays a swirling city vista:

admiring (…)
from my ledge of altitude
in the fashionable Australian quarter of New York;

just as my portrait of living air
will produce a sample of illustrated steps
up the Avenue of the condensed Americas,
past hedges of parenthetical strangers
who are strolling, too, around the world,
working closely with history,
which fades fashionably into the distance[3. First published in Tony Towle, Works on Paper (New York: Swollen Magpie, 1978). The quoted poem is an unpublished updated draft – Towle self-describes as a ‘compulsive revisor’ – obtained in 2019. Tony Towle, email to author, 8 August 2019.

From the vantage of a New York apartment window, the poet’s eye wonders beyond the city limits, through South America and across the Global South. Remembering the poem’s composition more than forty years later, Towle explained that the ‘Avenue of the condensed Americas’ was based on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan: ‘(it) used to have the coat of arms of one of the Latin American countries hanging from each lamp post’ (email 11/8/19). Yet so far as he can recall, the ‘fashionable Australian quarter’ draws upon no such real-world referent (‘there is no Australian quarter in New York that I know of, fashionable or otherwise’). Perhaps this ‘bizarre but intriguing’ image refers less to a concrete location than to a general Australianist attitude which was fashionable among New York writers: since Towle and Ashbery were not alone in their interest in the antipodes (Ibid). The influence of the New York School on contemporary Australian poetry has been widely acknowledged. But beyond the hoax poet Ern Malley, who Ashbery published in his magazine Locus Solus, the infiltration of Australia into the New York School is far less explored.

The delightful opening of Frank O’Hara’s ‘Today’ – ‘Oh! Kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas! / You really are beautiful!’ – immediately come to mind (Collected 15). Kenneth Koch recalls that reading these lines was a ‘real conversion experience’ (Lehman 58). He found them infectious: ‘from then on (…) exclamation points, aspirin tablets, harmonicas (and) kangaroos (…) appeared in my poetry’ (58). Koch authored a play titled Guinevere, or The Death of the Kangaroo (1961) and wrote that: ‘Australia was the next best thing to air’ (108). Neither O’Hara nor Koch ever visited Australia, but both served in the Pacific during the Second World War, Koch in the Philippines and O’Hara in Papua New Guinea. When O’Hara returned to study English at Harvard in 1946, he submitted an assignment for Albert Guerard’s writing class describing Manus Island: ‘Oh how like Key West without Wallace Stevens, this near sky by the surf! (…) On the horizon, up to their knees in the sea, palm trees waded sedately, walking towards us’ (Early Writing 123).

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About Brendan Casey

Brendan Casey is a doctoral candidate in the English and Theatre Studies program, University of Melbourne, researching Australian poetry and fiction through a postnational or ‘unAustralian’ lens. His research focuses on ‘literary visitors’ and their writing about Australia. He has published essays on Australian poetry, art, music and literature in Meanjin, Memo Review, Difficult Fun and elsewhere.

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