Can Poetry Be Happy?

By | 1 September 2023

There is an RMIT-red bean bag in the corner of the hot desk space where I have been reading the end of Ulysses (I have not read the beginning). I am thinking of getting back down there, back into the stream of Molly Bloom’s consciousness. I like it there, and I like that this is my job: bohemian layabout, decadent baby, scam artist. I want to take off my shoes but I worry that my feet smell and don’t want to unsettle my fellow hot-deskers. I cross my right leg, resting my ankle on my knee. I look at the bottom of my shoe and in its creases I find dog shit.

Outside, the nearest patch of grass by Building 9 surrounds a (2017) monument made by Brook Andrew and Trent Walter, memorialising the deaths of two Aboriginal men, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener, who were hanged by colonial authorities on that site, near the Old Gaol, near Building 9, in 1842. They are buried underneath Queen Victoria Markets.

Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener were guerrilla rebels in what some now refer to as the Frontier Wars. More so than at Gallipoli, these wars were where the national character was built. Most Australians happily (luckily?) repress this character-building history. The two men’s names are engraved on a concrete slab that RMIT students and passers-by occasionally sit on, occasionally suggesting a lack of reverence, or more likely knowledge, of the significance of the memorial site. The chains that hang down to the concrete slab, which represent that the men were hanged, are also evocative of children’s playground swings. The bright colours of the newspaper vending machine-shaped sculptures behind the gallows add to the confusion around the tone of this memorial artwork.

Naturally, I take my dogshit further up the road towards Lygon St. I pass some Astroturf which will not serve me, until I reach the Eight Hour Day monument. I decide, despite thinking this is a nice monument, that it is okay to wipe my shoes clean.

My parents got married on ANZAC Day. They didn’t want people to have to take a day off work. Lately this has struck me as telling of their character. Not only are they hard workers, their gestures toward the world are founded on an essential kindness, but within this kindness is a degree of self-abnegation that is slightly weird or excessive. Indifference toward themselves. Why would you want to share a significant date in your life with the memory of those who died in war? Or what is really going on is: blithe indifference to the gravitas of occasions, of dates, both their wedding anniversary and ANZAC day, as if not quite living in the world. My parents are fiercely anti-ceremony and also anti-mysticism, possibly anti-themselves. I too feel, and especially lately, that I am not quite in the world, that the significance the world seems to try to impress upon me doesn’t quite reach. I feel out of control in a way that’s partly willed, partly self-protective – also, ‘oppositional’, as in anxious. Massive claustrophobia?

If everything were to make sense, well, that would really hurt the soul, wouldn’t it? That’s why it’s hard to really let the world in. It’s almost like nothing matters, this attitude or mode I inherit from my parents. But really there’s a strict code which is to be good to others, usually at the expense of yourself, and generally not to worry about yourself or expend much energy considering the possibility that your experience of the world could be something other than it is, which is almost random. It is almost a fatalistic position, almost nihilistic, but somehow overseen by a sustained performance of goodness and service to others, a sincere performance, which facilitates, due to the privilege and/or good ‘luck’ of living in this Lucky Country, the relatively smooth flow of daily life.

* * *

I think about the ‘Afterword’ to Corey Wakeling’s The Alarming Conservatoryoften. Partly because I couldn’t make a lick of sense out of the rest of the book, and so this hyper-clear prose reflection on the author’s childhood at the end hits like a breath of fresh air, or the ‘perpetually bold sky’ of Western Australia. Partly because I felt some identification with the world Wakeling builds, despite never having been to Western Australia, and with the boy in the poem, despite being a different boy.

In The Alarming Conservatory, Wakeling scorns a sort of happiness, which we might call Australian: the ‘artificially self-satisfied’ look of his image, eight years old, printed on a mug: ‘as if [he] felt the decision to be happy were an achievement’. The idea of a ‘decision’ to be happy is particularly scathing and deeply neurotic, anxious. Like the decision to forgo – as his parents did – a life of going to punk shows in the San Francisco Bay Area to raise kids in suburban WA, which as far as we can tell from the information in the ‘Afterword’ was a pretty random choice. Paradisiacal, uncomplicated, unpunk WA. It seems in the ‘Afterword’ not exactly to be a happy life, though certainly decisive, an ‘achievement’.

Of course, WA is complicated, which we feel in the undertow of the ‘Afterword’, whose familiar imagery is both nostalgic and melancholy, and which is demonstrated in the difficult poems that precede it, which ‘unsettle the way we live and dwell in the everyday’ (Vickery, blurb). The poems are anxious; they make me anxious. The everyday could be happy, Wakeling seems to reflect, but to make it happy one must ‘smile the world away’. The world is not happy.

Look what he does to Happiness here:

Happiness can usurp affirmation, which still makes 
Of the colleges a briny rhetoric for self-presence
And self-preservation. What you called salty, once upon a time. 
When we’re beef steaks, how soon Indonesia, 
Because knowing the primeval inhale of all metallic alarms,
Fate of the hagioscope head, if it had its own gestures,
Might drink in the evaporated. (‘Ombudsman Reader’)

Or ‘Ecstasy’, a poem which begins:

Thank you for your missing.

As I devowelled its celebration of things mutual, I
swept for this new sordidality, my flies running years.

Wakeling’s ‘Happiness’ might be able to ‘usurp [be even better than?] affirmation’ in theory, but in practice is washed away by nonsensical grammar with slight charm (‘how soon Indonesia,’ Indeed! Why not?) but mostly salt (‘the hagioscope head … drink{ing} in the evaporated.’ – Evaporated what?). Ecstasy is missing, devoured immediately by a mash of anxious poetry that mangles the world the poet, presumably, hates: Europe, Australia, America, the anxious subject who concedes: ‘They’re right. / Surfing is the first thing I think to do, / Though I am in fact a curse, / Incorporeal and unbalanced, / So their work on me is done.’ ‘Ecstasy’ ends with enigmatic optimism – ‘I have a right to my ecstasy’ – which in the context of the book’s anxious poetics feels borne from the ‘launching pad for critique’ of the speaker’s ‘own subjective foundations’. It’s a painful, jittery downward spiral into the paradoxical power of ‘inaction’, ‘arrest’. It hurts.

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