and
‘Geelong checks its modernist warranty’

1 May 2018

Broadly, Poets and Poetasters of Geelong presents its reader with quite a deal of stirring rhetoric about the beauty of Geelong’s landscape, such as the opening two stanzas of ‘Lines on the Bay – Evening’ by Sanders Trotman:

I love thee, Geelong – be it foolish to boast,
But of all the fair features I love the Bay most;
Like a mirror of glass in reflection divine,
And, Geelong, I rejoice that the beauty is thine. 

With rapture I gaze round the marge of the Bay,
And the musical ripples, they bear me away
On the fanciful pinions to scenes of old time
But none of them boasts such as enchantment as thine.

(1967, p, 46)

Trotman, who may be one of the ‘poetasters’ referenced in the book’s title, was also – according to the poem’s marginalia – the first rate collector for the wealthy Geelong suburb of Newtown.

Other poems in the collection notably activate or engage with spaces similar to those evoked by contemporary Geelong-based poets, albeit in ways that demonstrate considerable differences in style and sensibility: the You Yangs’s granite ridges, as seen from the highway, and the Geelong-to-Melbourne (or vice versa) train commute that figure in this collection call to mind the likes of Maria Takolander’s ‘Driving by the You Yangs’ sequence, and Anthony Lynch’s ‘Night Train’. There is similar iconography despite the poems’ and poets’ diverse or dissimilar milieux and poetics.

Poets and Poetasters of Geelong’s John Bechervaise, in ‘The You Yangs’, describes ‘a full hour’s drumming for the train’:

A black worm crawling now, beyond the boulder,
Fuming its way from Melbourne to Geelong;
From towers, shimmering, a pool of stars
In daylight, over scorching span
Of hot, white grass, sparse townships, silvered tanks
And gaunt grey silos to the second city.
Only the silent hawk, poised overhead,
May fit the dreamer in a wider frame.

(1967, p. 86)

Takolander’s You Yangs sequence, while distinctly unalike Bechervaise’s, with contrasts in mood and – if we can surmise – in sensibility, is also strikingly framed by birdlife: ‘Driving by the You Yangs: 1. Day’ opens with starlings ‘above the railway line’: ‘ … always panicking, / Their tiny hearts like ticking bombs’ (2009, p. 4). In the poem’s second part, subtitled ‘Night’, the You Yangs are ‘Inexplicable, bird-less’ (p. 5).

Lynch’s ‘Night Train’ is oneiric, evoking science-fiction in its defamiliarisation:

The carriage sashays and groans,
freeway lights arc
and you pass the outer rings of suburban Saturn
the depopulated moons of stations.
Pods of luggage drip from racks,
The passengers are in suspended animation.
Upon reflection, the dark windows clone you.
Outside, the foggy anachronism 
of steam, a raised flame—
refineries manufacturing industrial gothic.
The carriage follows a line
drawn beneath the You Yangs,
then the lights again, banking 
in take-off.

(2011, p. 12)

The poem concludes:

Entering Geelong, as if you’ve clicked

Start slideshow, you see chain stores,

shopping plazas, empty car yards.

The hospital you were born in.

The school where you were clapped

and buggered, the church

where you begged forgiveness.
Your whole life.

Friends who grew up and went to school here insist that ‘Geelong’ is shorthand for ‘poverty’ (they’re really inferring a ‘working class’ experience) – one friend recalls often going to school without lunch, and walking home with her sister in order to each save their bus money for two McDonald’s soft-serves; another remembers being sent with a lunchbox of frozen vegemite sandwiches that didn’t tend to fully defrost by lunch time: white bread firm and cold with ice crystals.

No doubt it’s natural, to an extent, to feel ambivalent about one’s hometown – if not to sneer at it, with or without some degree of affection. These are purely anecdotal accounts, and perhaps amount to little – certainly they don’t speak ‘for’ Geelong, and were we to ask other long-term Geelong residents (former and/or current), experiences and perspectives would undoubtably differ widely. What these anecdotes do speak to however are the social interactions and the experiential elements of being in a particular place: of the spatial dynamic that builds on and complicates singular notions of setting, per Michel de Certeau’s notion of space as a ‘practiced place’ (1984, p. 117).

‘Geelong has a yacht club, you know,’ a friend at birthday party in North Melbourne calls out jeeringly. We do know: yachts sometimes pass on the water visible at the end of this street. Once, a neighbour – whose children are apparently cadets at the Geelong Yacht Club – asked, ‘Do you sail?’, which at the time seemed laughable (both of us part of the academic precariat, and often between short-term contracts). But our vantage point is also a fortunate one, which is to say comfortably close enough to middle-class – and in a more literal take on perspective: it’s a beautiful street and outlook, close to the water, and to Geelong’s Botanic Gardens. The space where we live and write includes a balcony with pots of cyclamen, palms, pansies and tomatoes; cats pace the trench-like gutters of the roof spaces of the townhouse block in front of this flat, and passersby offer plenty of ‘found’ poetry, audible from the street (on Boxing Day, 2017: ‘It’s a little bit raining’; ‘You fucking cunt, I’m hungry’).

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