Philip Mead Reviews Corey Wakeling

By | 1 July 2014

That’s because this is the beginning to an ekphrastic translation of Albert Tucker’s 1941 painting, ‘Spring in Fitzroy’, but again not in the expected descriptive mode. Inspired by what is an ugly and disturbing scene, Wakeling imagines his way into it as a fuller and more eventful urban moment than that presented from behind Tucker’s male figure and the heavily restrictive door-frame. ‘Cottage’ is working-class inner Melbourne and real-estate perfect. But generally reading Wakeling’s poems is like the experience of playing with a linguistic slide rule: the calibrations (words) are marks that belong to a system of normative or agreed-upon meanings and relations, but the actual instrument can go any which way and the combinations of signs is never predictable. I couldn’t help thinking, in this connection, of that statement of O’Hara’s from The New American Poetry which seems analogous to Wakeling’s poetics in so many ways:

It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me an restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.

This kind of insouciance seems to apply to Wakeling’s lack of inevitability too, his disorderly sentences, his sometimes tempestuous sounds. It’s an insouciance with its heart in language, not in ideas or tradition.

The other remarkable effect is that this resistance to predictable meanings doesn’t appear at all like word salad, or Vogon poetry. This poetry is not strictly speaking experimental in that sense; it’s artisanal, the order and placement of words matter. You don’t feel there is anything aleatory here, or any primary driver like the dream logic of surrealism. Wakeling isn’t saying: here are my experiments with language, now it’s over to you, reader. In that sense perhaps the most accurate description of Wakeling’s poems is unorderly syntagms, chains of words and lines where the relation of part to whole is constantly disrupted, unexpected, interrupted, by an invisible grammar. The approachable meaning is a load of dingo’s kidneys. There is a serious attempt to communicate here, it’s just that the communication is coming from a different linguistic quadrant. The ‘universal’ translator is having problems with it. But as John Ashbery said of John Wheelwright, whose poetry he doesn’t always understand, ‘his conviction is contagious’.

I was interested to see what was going on in these poems in terms of their version of place, landscape and locale, given Wakeling’s recent co-editing (with Jeremy Balius) of Outcrop: radical Australian poetry of land. In that anthology’s introduction the editors made some interesting points about the ‘possibility of recuperation and efflorescence of land’s multiplicity in a theatre of language.’ I think what they were aiming at here was a kind of advance on the bioregional paradigm in its various guises, the often worthy, if positivist emphasis on ideas of life-places and the communities and ethics that grow from them. It’s the word ‘theatre’ that’s important in that sense, the virtual space of entertainment and performance that the poem creates for the language of place. Language isn’t in the service of ethics, it’s in the service of poetic consciousness. There are numerous little red markers for place in the poems of Goad Omen, and there are noticeable strands of connection like that between places in the south-west of Western Australia and Carlton, Melbourne. ‘The Character’ for example shifts between ‘that division of waters at Cape Naturaliste’ (referring to the confluence there of the Indian and Southern oceans), Albany and Boyup Brook, and ‘May in Melbourne’ where ‘all the fireplaces are attractive.’ ‘Walk the Plank!’ swings between Pelham Street, Carlton and the Toodyay of the Avon Descent. ‘The Swan River’ presents a multiply faceted landscape around Bassendean, a now built-up satellite of Perth out towards Guildford: ‘Bassendean days/are empty but jagged with intent,’ a sentiment probably arising from a suburban barbeque (at ‘James and Carol’s’). Paint factories, sandtracks, a bridge over the upper reaches of the Swan, blossoming ghost gums, the Tonkin Highway, all create an impressionistic and unsettled sense of place, but within the theatre of language, not as a branchline of the McCubbin-time-lapse tradition of representation about the original bush, settlement, urban anomie, etc. So, as the commitment of the Outcrop anthology suggests, acknowledging the impressions of place, locale, country is important to Wakeling, and the evidence of the poems in Goad Omen is that at the centre of this commitment is the idea of consciousness of place as embodied in the performative resources of toponymic language, a poetics of GIS.

Among the remarkably energetic, contrapuntal and dissonant orchestra of Wakeling’s generation of young Australian poets – Astrid Lorange, Toby Fitch, Kate Fagan, Michael Farrell, Duncan Hose, Jessica Wilkinson (to mention a few only) – this collection of poems, a first full-length volume, is all cadenza. Goad Omen is a new music, and a new awareness.

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