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

1 February 2018

Cul-de-sac 3

The first time I recall hearing a poem read aloud which was not to do with the ANZACs, or my mother reading us Sylvia Plath, was Ricky Gervais reading John Betjeman’s ‘Slough’ in an episode of The Office – about as complete an evisceration of the humdrum surburban life as possible. In that tradition, you also have Stevie Smith’s jocularly contemptuous ‘Suburban Classes’, Michael Blumenthal’s scornful villanelle ‘Suburban’ and the Bulletin doggerel that is referenced in McCooey’s essay.

All this mockery reads the same to me as poems like David Malouf’s ‘suburban’: an attempt to catch a total essence which reveals an anxiety about the possibility of the whole which could never be fulfilled, something grasped at which was never reachable. And true. The nature of the suburb is that it cannot be taken as a whole. Our ‘suburb’ – sub-urb – becomes a stage for a universal kind of drama. But I feel this misreads the suburb. Approaching the suburb without an externalised set of someone else’s assumptions – communicating from, rather than to – with the uncertain integrity of belonging, is worth the walk on the hissing lawns.

A lawnmower is no longer bourgeois – it is de rigueur – and that squattocracy no longer hogs the roost when it comes to talking about the entrance and exits of a suburban poem. What McCooey was reading for, I think, was that sense of the whole. If a suburb is nothing, then … what is it? McCooey ends on a quixotic note – the ‘voice of suburbia does not require any smuggling in of the poetic, but the poetic cannot wholly voice suburbia.’ And this, I would say, is an oversight: suburban parts do not sum to its whole. To be a suburb is to be a part which is a whole.

If we are talking about the essential of the suburb it is not merely quantity – time and space – but also quality, making it important to speak quietly and clearly about suburbs as precisely as Gerald Murnane describes racing colours or the contents of his desk: the dim flat plural erases each, the map becomes the opposite of the territory. I am often struck by roadmaps and the arbitrariness of purported boundaries: what is the difference between Kenwick and Beckenham? Council rates? A bridge separates the towns, but it unites us as only an arbiter of space can, and every centimetre between has something different to speak. The suburb is, after all, in Australian unspoken parlance (“mate: someone you do not intend to do immediate harm to”) the home of the individual with ties, the one rooted and landed. In writing about suburbs as an ugly whole, you do get a tidier representation, but there is something profoundly useless about that, cruel as a census: you report what you are and have been, and that’s that. There is no looking.

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