Kevin Brophy Reviews Geoff Page

22 October 2013

3 Geoff Page books

1953 by Geoff Page
UQP, 2013

Cloudy Nouns by Geoff Page
Picaro Press, 2012

A Sudden Sentence in the Air / Jazz Poems by Geoff Page
extempore, 2011

In a 2007 review of one of Geoff Page’s previous verse novels, Lawrie & Shirley, Peter Goldsworthy names Page as a verse-novel ‘multiple offender’ in the excellent company of Murray, Porter, Wearne and Rubinstein. Goldsworthy approaches discussion of the form by reflecting, ‘If poetry is the most ancient literary form, as old as music, then the verse novel is surely the most ancient form of poetry, using the word novel loosely’ (Australian Literary Review, May 2007). The long and respectable polygamous marriage of poetry with narrative and history was, we might say, dissolved during the Romantic period, allowing the novel to find its ecological niche – and more than a niche, a whole territory. Poetry is nothing if not persistent as a literary form and as a literary impulse.

Geoff Page is still at it, and the verse novels are still coming from his imagination. 1953 is mythic in scope, though in narrative terms it is frozen within a moment of history. Its moment is one long, hot afternoon. Its place, the country town of Eurandangee, a town somewhere in mid New South Wales perhaps, beside a mighty coalmine and amidst endless plains of sheep farms.

This is an Australia without television, an Australia truly on the edge of the wider world. It’s an Australia dimly aware of the Cold War, but more vividly aware of the psychic destruction wrought on men in the recent World War, and that other war heading into its third year in Korea. Page was himself born in 1940, so he knew this Australia as a teenager, having grown up on a cattle station on the Clarence River.

1953 is composed of short poems that are sometimes monologues and sometimes portraits based on the characters who populate this town. The poetry’s current is driven hard by an iambic beat, salted with occasional rhyme and alliteration, though there is plenty of rhythmic variety and unpredictability of line length. The rhythmic effects are a seeming force of nature in the poetry. This rough craftsmanship tightens in the mind as you go:

Two hundred yards or so below 
The bottom of the sky, 
Down the drift, along the tunnel ...
... putting up the props is teamwork, 
time for wryness with your mates 
although he’s never less than cautious. 

He’s got a wife and little girl,
A house he’s paying off ...

It worries him a bit at times,
The slant of Barry’s humour,
The way when pit props don’t quite fit
He lets it go at that
And says, ‘No worries, Des. 

She’ll tighten up when the world turns over.’

The way that final languid comment from Barry marks itself as an echo against ‘humour’ is both rhythmically lovely, and foreboding enough to show this poet’s underlying felt tension between the natural and the crafted, and what might be at stake in deciding favour of one or the other.

We get the world of work in this town; its barber, its butcher, local copper, the doctor who eventually gets to know most townspeople’s problems. There are the miners, and then we get the fringe world of shearers. Aboriginal people out on the benches or under trees are people reduced to buying their grog from a hole in the wall at the back of the pub. There are wives and young women, affairs and seductions. Page makes acute psychological notes on the muted ambitions of those who might find an Australian country town a good fit with their ambitions (limitations). Dr Godfrey Baird for instance:

There was a time when Dr God
might just have taken those exams,
rehearsed his surgery a little 

and joined Macquarie Street.
The war, with its malaria,
had left him enervated, fitted 

more for smalltown practice than
the rivalry of peers.

What struck me here, beyond attention to the line and image and psychological truth, was the meticulous attention to historical detail. Each profession, each rung of the social ladder, each secretive life, has its authentic details embedded. This verse novel is a model piece of historical fiction, and it’s one that captures the Australian country in mid twentieth century, a sleepy moment before the onrush of music, teenage culture, drugs, war, mass education and, finally, social media … as we break through into this new century. I don’t know if 1953 tells us exactly what it was like ‘back then’ but it feels real, and the lesson seems to be that the very human questions of love and survival were there, just as they have been present in all mythic encounters with life and history. Recalling Goldsworthy’s claim for the verse-novel’s longevity, there is something about this one that seems timeless, and perhaps it has to do with the steadiness of Page’s poetic hand and the sureness of his mind. The danger he flirts with here is that his portraits will be so finely cut that they descend into archetypes and stereotypes when they need to be individuals.

The final section of the novel, its final poem, unfolds with a mounting horror for the reader, and I for one did not see that such a florid violence needed to be there as the concluding moment of the longer work. It felt too sensational in the otherwise restrained, witty, deeply subtle set of portraits and moments leading up to it. You read it, all the way through, and decide how you feel about ending the experience in this way at the end of the final poem.

Oh yes, and I love the cover of the book, Sandy Cull’s swirls on cream textured board. It’s full of energy. It’s casual too, and there is that suggestion of a small place being a universe to itself. The book – as an object in the hand – is worth a mention at the moment.

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About Kevin Brophy

Kevin Brophy’s latest book is the collection of short fiction The Lion in Love (Finlay Lloyd 2023). His recent poetry collection, Look at the Lake (Puncher & Wattmann, 2018) was awarded the Wesley Michel Wright Prize for Poetry. He is a past winner of the Calibre Prize for an outstanding essay. His poetry has appeared in many Best Australian Poems volumes and major national anthologies, including the recent Anthology of Australian Prose Poems (Melbourne University Press, 2020) and The Language in My Tongue: An Anthology of Australian and New Zealand Poetry (FarFlung Editions, 2022). He was writer-in-residence at the Australia Council’s B. R. Whiting Studio in Rome in 2015, and at the Keesing Studio in Paris in 2019/20. He was a co-founding editor (with Myron Lysenko) of Going Down Swinging and a managing editor at Five Islands Press. He is patron of Melbourne Poets Union, Director of the Five Islands Prize for a first book of poetry, and Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne. In 2021 he received an Order of Australia award (AM) for his services to education and creative writing. He has lived in the inner-city suburb of Brunswick, not far from where he was born, for the past four decades. These streets, his home, and his back yard have been the source of many poems.

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