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

1 February 2018

Cul-de-sac 4

I remember a friend’s words – his suburb of Perth is on the other side of the river to me, but still – ‘i know all words have their place-making agenda.’ The word suburb cancels out the possibility of the living suburb like a fire blanket thrown over the map of the territory and the possibility of speaking to its particularities. To say anything about that which is suburban is to do the kind of ungovernable, non-physical affective violence (the distinguishing is important to me) of being that is as immanent as it is finely graduates. So often, suburbs are profound and disgusting cyphers of violence. I only ever saw my suburb mentioned in police reports … mentions of the streets around me or the ones I knew, watching the trees, the light, the colours change as I moved into the city or onto the more prosperous train lines and into the different city across the river that opens to the sea. The suburbs’ names are tools to navigate with, not capsules of our lives – though, as they blur in so doing, they materialise into our living state in the same way that speaking and acts of nomination are erasure. They absorb the things we cannot bear about what is borne upon us, but never do so completely. My suburbs’ names were only what I knew as cuts.

What I am saying here is reinforced by the Benoit Mandelbrot coastline paradox: the more precise the tool, the less one is given over to reaching an answer, and the more minute and painstaking a calculation is. ‘For suburban modernity to be evident,’ Michael Law writes in The Experience of Suburban Modernity: How Private Transport Changed Interwar London, ‘time-space compression must be evidenced within the suburb.’ And it feels the same with the compression of space and anxiety with suburbs. We overcome the anxiety by knowing that all suburbs are unique, and the preoccupation with definition rather than relation and ways of seeing is not new in Australian poetics. A suburb is a unit in scale, a calibration of centimetres, and so much life. There are Martin Mckenzie Murray’s northern Perth suburbs and the phantasmic Leederville which sparks in the best parts of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. These are not the suburbs I know, nor a placeholder for suburbia, but is someone else’s, and that is the reason why it comes alive.

In trying to pin down the suburb we miss it altogether. In his Notes, Marcel Duchamp wrote, ‘The possible, implying the becoming – the passage from one to the other takes place in the infra-thin.’ This becomes a poetic priority, to look at a ‘distance or a difference you cannot perceive, but you can only imagine.’ When asked for a conceptual definition of the term ‘infra-thin’, Duchamp replied that the notion is impossible to define, and that ‘one can only give examples of it’: – the warmth of a seat, tobacco smoke that also tastes like the mouth it has just left it. Infra-thin, then, is a separation, a difference between two things … the way that when you leave or enter a suburb that belongs to you or doesn’t, you are carrying yourself in and out of its reverb. The viewee (the suburb) and the viewer are both participants in making the finished art product, perceived or real and in maps. Our suburb is that which is never the finished object, nor is it simply the stages that a poet like Bruce Dawe might present.

But if a poem’s poetic voice is neither here nor there, what can or, indeed, does this voice sound like? McCooey highlights Dawe’s ‘Homo Suburbiensis’, wherein the suburbperson is ‘One constant in a world of variables’, listed indifferently as ‘time, pain, love, age … hate war, death, laughter fever’ against the timid backdrop of a suburban night. Here we are presented with a shopping list: what the suburban requires is the unique possibility set of those variables captured as a moment in their eternal flux. When the suburban can be dramatised into something that isn’t fettered to items, we can find it in Liam Ferney’s ‘Greenslopes in March’:

alternate versions of tom thumb’s blues
you’re done up like somebody’s dream and that band
next door makes young marble giants

of triple m evergreens a weekend blanking the present
while the salt water creek breathes under the highway
snorkellers fetch oysters and outboard cowboys

flirt with the vagaries of the bar the beautiful
traces of a lie taking a tennis court oath
a third date encounter of the suburban kind

The enjambed stanzas create the fresh rolling snap of knowing vision: on any other day it would be different.

Poetry suffers with infra-thin-ness because there are mediums which are simply easier to get away with the affect – Photoshop and the Myspace Display Picture – that easily show up even a deft creation of language. I think the first time I associated the possibility of poetry being something you find and see in your life was when some drongos in my year 11 class Photoshopped themselves into a Grand Theft Auto DVD cover. They posed in their leavers jackets. ‘Yes’, I thought, ‘that’s it.’ I loved them deeply for it and still do. Someone posted it on Facebook – jokes were made – and it was taken down. But this was a poem to me.

McCooey further identifies one kind of public poetry that suburbs enfold and engage: the notebooks of depressed teenagers, their scrawl – the peck peck pecking of chickens – on late night reports and page 4-5 spreads about their searchings, via whatever platform. It was the same for my mother – her mother tore up her notebooks – which she once admitted but never again mentioned. She read me Plath as a child, but felt she could never write, and didn’t … breaking my heart every day. As a teenager, I left my notebooks conspicuously around, but she would always return them to unread (you can tell) to my door. This makes me feel like the suburban voice is one unsure if it can speak in a shared language or if, in these scenarios and volumes, has been told repeatedly it cannot or ought not in anything more than a shush. A suburban ars poetica would begin with an unstated apology for being, and then go on explaining what it is to be. Sound that I know as being suburban feel irrelevant next to this – drum kit, Victa mower, motorbike, Subaru Forester 4WD, tattoo gun, frightened tabby. These are not sounds or voice, but nodes on the apparatus of feeling. Poetry is a hard thing to execute in the suburban, and one can sing of one’s suburb through this noise.

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