But Why Am I Telling You this? You Are Not Even Here: Against Defining the Suburb

1 February 2018

Cul-de-sac 2

There are some poems (doubling and moonlighting as architectural features, e.g. as the lived ground itself) in Perth that are exactly the opposite of what I feel a suburban poem could be, e.g. what I’m flapping my arms at. Gina Rinehart’s (a bumptious mining magnate) poem ‘Our Future’ sits on a rock in a shopping centre she owns in Morley. It is an ode to special economic zones and the unreality which drew and still draws many north from Perth to the mines, reshaping the suburbs in the illusions of wealth the north offers.

The globe is sadly groaning with debt, poverty and strife
And billions now are pleading to enjoy a better life
Their hope lies with resources buried deep within the earth
And the enterprise and capital which give each project worth

In some ways, though, Robert Drewe’s Poetry Line (which carpets the city’s centre square), is worse: the glib, flat lionisation of space, the stolid narrative where time is a flat circle and people become welcome, the shrug of the shoulders. It feels imperious to me, and also declamatory: that a place must have significance to be significant, and not the other way round – that all places are significant and it’s the possibility and joy of language to explore this, anoint, signify, and the suburb is, rather than listening to the suburb.

These kinds of synecdonic poetic oversight make me wonder about fake suburbs, the ones that (by authorial design) stand in for all but only touch a few: Patrick White had Sarsparilla, Channel 10 has Erinsborough, Edna Everage conjures Moonee Ponds, Alan Wearne’s books (sort of, not really, but sort of?) have another flat shaped ideal etc. These purportedly ubiquitous suburban spaces are the kind of thing only something mass media can produce or provide or necessitate, and don’t exist outside of these places: they are the elision of difference to make something representative, which assumes (again) that space is empty without being named and defended and ossified, and becomes repetitive and destructive in doing so.

I would say it’s by dint of everyone in suburbia being so different that mass media is constructed to appeal to them all: it is their heterogeneity, not the homogeneity, that makes something middling necessary for the people who would like to make money from them. If you are told you are the same, you end up believing it; the history of suburbia told from outside itself, from the hovering, imperious capital-S conception of the Suburb, which is not the suburb of the poet or what poetry can be, or the people who live in them. Poems might hope towards there being no such thing as suburbs, only places that can be called them, and exclusively things that defy the word as a name for them.

My inborn feeling is that suburbs do not need defending, and to defend or to settle on a complete image of a suburb is to obscure what you are speaking of in a minatory fashion (in the same way wealthy people talk about aestheticising poverty) and is something that needs historicising. A decade before my petrol station exploded, in Australian Literary Studies, David McCooey asked what the voice of suburbia is? I read his Neither Here nor There: Suburban Voices in Australian Poetry in uncertainty: what did I know? In writing on the matter, McCooey rehearsed some greatest hits – Gwen Harwood, Bruce Dawe, Chris Wallace Crabbe – in the shadow of the old squattocrats like Judith Wright, who once argued that suburbs and suburban writing were not to be explored in poetry. ‘One reacts against that,’ Wallace-Crabbe retorted. And there are many ways of doing just that. In the poems McCooey looked at, there was an uncomfortable burden of representation, of having to define, name, classify, judge, decide upon what suburbia was – the Suburban, as it was / were, remained in need of claims made for itself as a subject instead of being prima facie the world. There hovered an anxiety about it not yet being recognised as a part of the world of possible language, and had to be fashioned, semi-fomented in poems, as a part of the growing pains of Australian poetics in the haphazard democratisation of art from the landed gentry to us.

Different types of distancing employed by these poets – the gothic, the surreal, the mocking, the romantic – that McCooey refers to all seem like ways of trying to talk about something else rather than the fact of the suburb and suburban existence. Rather, it felt like the attitude towards suburban existence in the presence of other attitudes. Instead of being in a suburb, one is firstly conscious of being looked at, and then writing in the wake of that looking. In the same way, a current proliferation of zombie apocalypse films from Perth – implying that suburbs are for zombies – say a lot more about feeling towards a suburb-concept than saying anything particular, implicating space as guilty of a general malaise instead of investigating the space as it is.

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