On Suburbanism’s Open Matrix: birds in poetry of Jean Kent, Dorothy Porter and other Australian poetry

R. D. Wood

 

I think of myself as almost exactly half way between Les Murray and Peter Porter. Peter is an amazingly indoor poet, one who inhabits the world of poetry books and opera. I actually don’t like being indoors. I can’t stand being indoors for very long, and like Les, I know accurately things about kinds of trees, species of birds and natural phenomenon of that kind. On the other hand, like Peter and unlike Les, I have been brought up all my life in cities and suburbs, and so the matrix into which I fit is an open matrix.[i]

Chris Wallace-Crabbe

For social poetry to avoid being what Martin Harrison called a “narrow kind of talk”, it must respond to the suburbs, which are the real lived material conditions of the majority of the Australian population.[ii] For example, The Grattan Institute’s City Limits by Paul Donegan and Jane-Frances Kelly shows that more than half of recent population growth in large cities has occurred in outer suburbs more than 20km from city centres.[iii] This suburban lens is not to discount the fringe-dwellers (one percenters and bottom feeders) or the city-country divide, but to suggest that there is a dearth of poetic scholarship on the suburbs.[iv] Indeed, the appreciable body of work on Romanticism-Modernism, pastoralism-the urban is not matched by thinking on Suburbanism.[v] For example in his recent work Writing Australian Unsettlement, Michael Farrell often refers to the division in Australian poetics as being the city and the bush, highlighting the dialectical interplay between these two separated spaces.[vi] But nowhere is there a consideration that there is a third space that mediates such heuristics in an ongoing fashion and that settlement today often manifests in a suburban type of occupation in denial of sovereignty. There is though a minor consideration of suburbia and the eco-poetic, particularly with regard to place-making, including work such as Freya Matthews “CERES: Singing Up in the City” and the ongoing interdisciplinary Suburban Ecology project run by Brandeis University.

Suburbanism is not simply a study of the suburbs, but is the determinate negation of the suburbanite. A suburbanist way would recapture the original geist of the suburbs, the “country living, city benefits” mantra to achieve a type of enlightened, self-aware balance about the possibilities of a permacultured life. This way we could oppose what Robin Boyd called the “featurism” of suburbia.[vii]

In speaking of Australian architecture in the post-war period Boyd highlighted the pervading “ugliness”, owing in part to Featurism and a confusing assemblage of Anglophonic traditions (“Austerican” for example). Boyd, in echoing Karl Krauss’ statement “the root lies on the surface”, stated that “the ugliness I mean is skin deep”.[viii] Featurism was, “not simply a decorative technique; it starts in concepts and extends upwards through the parts to the numerous trimmings. It may be defined as the subordination of the essential whole and the accentuation of selected separate features.”[ix] This quality is evident in built Australian life and Boyd chronicles its presence in Melbourne’s urban setting (churches and public buildings particularly); Canberra’s planning; the work of pioneers and agoraphobes; as well as other social phenomena. However, he does highlight that:

… the Sydneysider pictures his city from the Harbour or the Bridge, its new white offices piling up against the sky they are trying to scrape. He does not see nor recognize the shabby acres of rust and dust and cracked plaster and lurid signs in the older inner suburbs. The Melburnian thinks of his city as Alexandra Avenue where it skirts the river and the shady top end of Collins Street, which are indeed two of the most civilized pieces of urbanity in the world. He dismisses as irrelevant to this vision the nervy miscellany of the main commercial artery, Swanston Street, not to mention the interminable depression of the flat, by-passed inner suburbs.[x]

Although this comment may have rung truer in Boyd’s era, suburban life is disproportionately absent from critical and cultural debate, from national imagination as a sort of present absence. Despite being the space where most live, the suburbs are not thought of, or thought through, by the official intellectual discourse concerning poetry in Australia, which has tended to ignore the suburban as a category of analysis as suggested earlier.

A critical engagement with featurism can be part of aesthetics and politics outside of architecture too. In relation to poetry, it suggests a lack of thinking structurally, of the whole poem as the case may be, let alone the entire body of work. For Boyd:

The symbol or the image, the miniature of the new aspiration, is applied to the old thing in the hope that it will tinge the whole old thing with new colour. And, to unalerted eyes, indeed a feature can succeed in suffusing the whole of the thing to which it adheres … . The weather-board shed takes on a new aura with a wooden cross attached to the point of the front gable.[xi]

Featurism in poetry specifically could refer to a type of internal defamiliarisation. Rather than the whole poem reacting against an assumed context of intelligibility, whereby the poet is aware of some sociologically unlocated and general habitualised language and writes a complete poem (or linguistic artifact) against it, we might begin to think about a post-structural sort of defamiliarisation.[xii] In this case, the feature of the poem is a moment of interruption. The context, or even voice, has been established and a specific word or phrase breaks the pattern. For example, if one has written: I went for a walk / believing myself to be alone / dithyrambic raiment / of days in sun. The turning point of the poem (dithyrambic raiment) is its feature in so far as it takes us out of the established habit of the poem, which is enabled by the plain direct speech of the first two lines. This is about form, style and content as well as context.

Connected to Boyd’s idea of featurism is sprawl. If the Australian home is made ugly because of its ornaments, we might also say the landscape is made ugly by the sprawl of the ornamented home.[xiii] Boyd is at pains to suggest that Australia is best viewed from the air, for then it has a pleasing uniformity, as land, as geography. The suburbanite’s creep into the natural surrounds is not a cause for celebration, not a sort of “at-easeness” at odds with the tidiness valorised by schoolteachers and urban planners, but a cause for ecological and cultural concern.[xiv] Against these concerns we might propose both to retrofit and to contain, which might mean to re-master old buildings and words (like a cento) and to be spare, which if not quite minimalist then considers reigning in an unfettered, individualist maximalism (like a gleaning).[xv] This way we could re-imagine the suburbs as something other than “god forsaken” and “ugly” in the poetic imagination, might not have to retreat into a nostalgic lyricism about “nature” or import a discourse of urbanism that is unsuited to a place lacking density.[xvi]

What then of a poetic feature? What of the role of birds in the poem whose contents are the suburbs? As John Kinsella wrote “a parrot isn’t simply a parrot”, so too a bird is not only a bird.[xvii] They bring colour, life, meaning; they connect with nodes of association and reference other poems; they reflect experience; they are ecological as much as political, cultural and social symbols and things-in-themselves.

As Boyd writes, “every Australian is not, of course, a featurist”.[xviii] Indeed, in many poetic works, the pastoral impulse needs to re-assert itself in a suburban tabula rasa of ennui, boredom, soullessness, and ultimately death. Jean Kent’s “In the Hour of Silvered Mullet (Kilaben Bay, Lake Macquarie)” is a four part reflection on life in the suburbs: “the land of the bland, a stranger might sniff”. But in Kent’s hands this becomes a reflective reverie on nature, people, task, labour, holiday. To take only the first part, where we read of the poet walking the quiet streets at sunset: the speaker is drawn from her home by birds. In the first stanza Kent writes:

It was the tink of king parrots in the native frangipani –

then the white sail-rip past my windows of cockatoos –

sounds of the day on its final tack

which spinnakered me out into this twilight.

Birds here propel the “I” out of the house and into the street for an evening constitutional. They are lively and alive – they “tink” and “rip”, compounding each other through their shared vowel. This contrasts with the suburb, even as they are constitutive of it. The suburbs, which “accost” her at the beginning of her walk are seen as “quarter acre mausoleums, / bungalows mugged by the dinner hour”. Save for a P-plated car that “erupts” with “expletives” that ‘fart then fade, strange as circus elephants’ trapped hoots’, the streets are quiet. People are inside eating while the poet walks “this twilight trail”.

There are specific images – “a Volvo, shiny as a buttered knife, rests beside / its long loaf of house”; “fibro weekenders / not dolled up (yet); new Taj Mahals, curtained with sheets” – but these aid her memory of “inland towns of childhood”. The memory, the thought, is interrupted by currawongs crying, “Come home now! Come home now!” For Kent the currawongs’ voices are “like sunlight on pewter water / dazzling away an entire suburb’s saucepan lids – / just as the bitumen turns a corner and swoops me wrapped in everyone else’s dinner, fragrant as bait”. What then are we to make of the birds here? They offer not only life in the face of the dead, built environment (the tomb of the Taj, the mausoleum), or the inanimate buttered knife, but they also offer us a way for the poet to be led.

If a sailing vocabulary (“sail”, “tack”, “spinnakered”) connoting journey, travel, movement draws her out of domesticity, an allusion to the kitchen (“saucepan lids”) draws her back into the home. Birds then have a position of knowing when to come and when to go; nature knows in some sense. We could deduce from this, especially when read alongside Kent’s other poems in this volume, that there is a desire to regard animals as part of a “group spirit”, a sort of redemptive and knowledgeable way in the world that informs the poet’s memory and subject position. We are in the suburbs, but dead as they are, we might prefer to be in the national park, the field, the ocean.

In “In the Hour of Silvered Mullet (Kilaben Bay, Lake Macquarie)” birds are the Romantic, pastoral trope that tells us there is life inside the catacomb that is suburbia. We see something similar, namely that the suburb is dead and the bird is active, moving, alive, in Jamie Grant’s “Yacht Harbour – Stillness” (“silence embalms / the suburbs”); S. K. Kelen’s “Saturn” (“suburbs died of fright”); Robert Adamson’s “Drawn With Light” (“suburbs of living dead”); Tim Thorne’s “Advice” (“waste”, “sick”, “cancer”); Henry Lawson’s “Interlude. Next Door” (“a suburb that hasn’t the soul of a louse”); John Kinsella’s “Conspiracy” (bird death), “Exotica at Lake Joondalup” (“empty circulatory systems”) and “Letter to Anthony Lawrence” (“raven garrotes / the suburbs”); Dorothy Porter’s “Gossip” (“death / is a boring smell / in a room / in a suburb”); Alan Gould’s “Kosciusko Essay” (“downward, / deathward”); David Rowbotham’s “The Birds of Berkeley” (“the suburbs of stoned Stephens”); and Ouyang Yu’s “Sex Notice” (“your suburb is too dead”). [xix]

In contrast to this Romantic sensibility, a suburbanite rendering of birds is seen when they are presented as a form of ornamentation within the poem. They are there to add colour, to decorate without recourse to the fact that they are there to be life-giving amidst deadness; that is to say they are “featurist”. This is clearly demonstrated in “O, Kingfisher” by Dorothy Porter.

I’ve heard

your singing.

Every morning

it’s the same

azure kingfisher;

exotic for my suburb

as if

the jungle had

snuck in.

It’s your singing;

stunned, quiet

fatigued

I’m resigned

to each wild,

rich guise.

Even

as the sky

turns belly-up

you sing.

Porter is aware that the bird is “exotic”, but the reader also apprehends the word “azure”, which in the plain speech of the rest of the poem seems exceptional if not defamiliarising. “Fatigued” works with “resigned” and “guise” – they are words apart but together in their apartness. “Azure” may correlate with “jungle” because of the vowels, but both only compound azure’s separateness. It is the striking, featurist word of the poem. We also get a $64,000 word amid plain speech to describe birds in Gig Ryan’s “Past” (“plangent”) and Thomas W. Shapcott “In the Town” (“melisma”). These are the words I needed a dictionary to understand.

In Porter’s “Scenes from A Marriage I” the suburb itself becomes “swish”, “dangerous”, “glamorous”, “gamey”, “golden”, “exhilarating” because of a bird:

How fantastic are these

familiar suburbs

when the night parrot

is driving my car!

 

The ovals, the churches,

the school playgrounds

the hardware stores

 

all swish

like the high skirts

of a Kirchner prostitute;

the seedy glamour

of memory

at its most piercing

where dangerous old perfume

from an old lover’s skin

hangs about

the streets

like a saucy hoodlum

snapping his fingers

smoking an unforgettable cigarette

turning this milk Bar

this boring suburb

into El Dorado

where the streets are gold

at its most gamey

like gory Celtic jewelry –

 

when the night parrot

is at the wheel

the Top 40

becomes hot ice,

and I throw these burning songs

from hand to hand

with my pulse

ticking like a gaudy grenade;

it’s the jumping blood’s answer

to happiness

the night parrot

drives slowly

to counterpoint

my exhilarated heart’s speed.

Paradoxically, the night parrot, a symbol of nature, mystery, perhaps extinct, brings the suburb into a sort of modernist, urban dangerous realm. As Kinsella writes:

… the parrot becomes an alter ego, a conscience, counter-point, antagonist, most-often indifferent companion, of address. In Porter’s work this is more literal – the bird is a “character” in the internalised dialogue with a shifting persona. … Characteristic of Porter’s poetry in general is the play between the casual, familiar language and a razor-edged intensity. Her night parrot is no mere empty signifier.[xx]

When the night parrot is considered as a counterpoint to Kirchner – a German expressionist painter whose work was considered degenerate under the Nazis and who committed suicide in 1938 – and El Dorado – that searched for golden city in the Americas – we have a complex interaction between country and city, nature and “man”. The suburb though is a flashy thing because of the parrot. If the parrot was not driving the car – symbol of the post-war suburban – one may assume we would not think either of Kirchner or El Dorado. This is a question of the suburb as a consuming, sprawling entity that builds on the featurism of the previously cited Porter poems. Whether she engages critically about the possibility of post-human relations to nature from a Boydian perspective is contestable.

A suburbanist rendering of birds is demonstrated when there is a pleasingly homonymic ambiguity to the interpretation, which is to say that the suburb is not dead and that the bird is not there as an antithesis rendered as life. In other words, birds are part of the suburbs.[xxi] As Boyd writes, “forms and spaces can be a delight in themselves without an observer feeling any needs for features”.[xxii] Nowhere is this clearer than Geoff Page’s “The Birds”:

The birds today

have shifted in on him,

an aviary

about the house.

Cockatoos

ride windy branches;

currawongs

foregather loudly

in the pine trees;

grey sparrows

leap like mice

among the shrubs.

All conspire

against his silence.

The air is birdsong.

He watches them

too much, the way

they prop so fast

above a branch

and drop their claws,

the magpies

strafing the house.

 

A short campaign.

 

At night he flaps up

to join them,

takes the new perspective

from a moon-grey gum,

and, feeling

the buoyancy of air

beneath his feathers,

glides off over the suburbs.

Although he may “flap up to join them”, it is a suburb that is run by birds (“an aviary about the house”). He does “glide off over the suburbs”, but we can reflect on whether he will return with these birds. We are unsure whether the person wants to identify with the birds as an escape from the suburbs or whether he simply wants to engage with being about the house. In either case it collapses his humanimality into the Othered position – he becomes them, able to escape. It is not so much about remaining a suburbanite then, but escaping from it in such a way that he allows himself to get deeper into the structure; it is after all “their” home.

This suburbanist ambiguity of separation from and connection to is also evident in Adamson’s “Drum of fire” (“In the park / I flew with rainbow lorikeets / and hung upside down in the branches of flowering coral trees”); Julian Croft’s “Suburbs” (“the boyfriend hurtles past bird-bodied”). There is also a sense in the following poems that the birds are an integral part of a suburb that is living: Philip Salom’s “Planes” (stanza one); S. K. Kelen’s “Creatures”; Rowbotham’s “Coorparoo” (“the cottages are cotes”); Jill Jones’ “April’s Rescue” (“the second nesting since we’ve lived here”; “we adopt their nurturing”); Adam Aitken’s “The Reply” (“like the silence between trees / filling slowly with the songs of birds / you could transcribe as the happiness /of the woman my speech could never keep”); Kinsella’s “Ornithology” (“this refuge in the suburbs”); Douglas Stewart’s “The Dreaming World” (stanza two); Pam Brown’s “Seven Days” (“Home” to “installed for them”); Vivian Smith’s “Early Arrival: Sydney” (stanza one); Katherine Gallagher’s “Entente” (stanza one); Murray’s “Equanimity” (“More natural to look at the birds about the street, their life / that is greedy, pinched, courageous and prudential / as any of these bricked tree mingled miles of settlement”; “bird minds and ours are so pointedly visual”).[xxiii]

We could encourage a Suburbanist, as opposed to suburbanite, aesthetic with regard to birds. If the Romantic and Modernist and the dialectic framed as city-country are all but exhausted, the suburbs have really yet to begin. They have, it seems, being a hybrid form that finds no negation and hence cannot be represented. Indeed, as much space as the rural takes up in the poetic imaginary (the Murrays) and as challengingly urbane as the inheritors of modernism are (the Tranters), Australia is for many a suburban nation. If parrots enter into the work of many poets as “Nature”, which if not uncomplicatedly Romantic at least refers to the real, what are we to expect when the frame is not Bunyah or “the city” but the Western periphery of Sydney? The critical work that need happen is a further interrogation of the modes of address, contents of possibility and recognition of how the suburbs as a lived ecological reality manifest in our writing.


[i] The quotation is from Sasha Grishin, “Bruno Leti’s Collaboration with Chris Wallace-Crabbe”, Imprint 34, no. 4 (1999): 18.

[ii] MartinHarrison, Who Wants to Create Australia? Essays on Poetry and Ideas in Contemporary Australia (Sydney: Halstead, 2004), 14.

[iii] Paul, Donegan and Jane-Frances Kelly, City Limits: Why Australia’s Cities are Broken and How We Can Fix Them (Melboure: Melbourne University Press, 2015), x.

[iv] Peter Monacell, “In the American Grid: Modern Poetry and the Suburbs”, Journal of Modern Literature 
35, no. 1 (Fall 2011): 122–42.

[v] Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).; Arnold Alanen and Joseph Eden, Main Street Ready-Made: The New Deal Community of Greendale (Wisconsin: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2014).

[vi] Michael Farrell, Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetics Invention 1796–1945 (London: Palgrave, 2015).

[vii] Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness (Melbourne: Text, 2012).

[viii] Boyd, Australian Ugliness,  3. See also, Timothy Youker, “‘The Destiny of Words’: Documentary Theatre, the avant garde and the Politics of Form” (PhD Thesis; Columbia University,  New York, 2012).

[ix] Boyd, Australian Ugliness, 19.

[x] Boyd, Australian Ugliness, 11.

[xi] Boyd, Australian Ugliness, 66.

[xii] See Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”, https://paradise.caltech.edu/ist4/lectures/Viktor_Sklovski_Art_as_Technique.pdf  (accessed 20 December 2015)

[xiii] For an advocate of sprawl see, Bob Day AO, “The Quality of Sprawl” (The Tom McKenna Memorial Lecture, 31 October 2005), http://www.nationbuild.com/docs/pdf/Quality-of-Sprawl.pdf

[xiv] J. M. Coetzee, “The Angry Genius of Les Murray”, New York Review of Books (29 September 2011): “Sprawl is to Murray what loafing is to Whitman: an at-easeness in the world that upsets the tidy minds of schoolteachers and urban planners. ‘Reprimanded and dismissed / sprawl’, ‘listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail / of possibility'”.

[xv] See, for example, the Stelton Colony Commune in New Jersey, an intentional community developed by anarchists in the Modern School Movement in the U.S. in 1915. It is within commuting distance of New York City and many residents retained factory jobs in the city. See also, the Transition Town movement, which was started in the UK and includes some retrofitting of the suburbs. One resource is John Barry, “Resilience, Transition, and Creative Adaptability”, in The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 78–116; Conor Cash, “Decomposition and Suburban Space”, Affinities 4, no. 1 (2010), http://journals.sfu.ca/affinities/index.php/affinities/article/view/26  . For Australia, see David Holmgren, Retrofitting the Suburbs for the Energy Descent Future, Simplicity Institute Report 12i, 2012, http://simplicityinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/RetrofittingTheSuburbsSimplicityInstitute1.pdf

[xvi] See Australian Poetry Library,  the  quotations come from A. D. Hope’s “A Northern Elegy” and Evan Jone’s “Leaving Again”.

[xvii] John Kinsella, Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 17.

[xviii] Boyd, Australian Ugliness, 125.

[xix] See Australian Poetry Library online, http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/

[xx] Kinsella, Disclosed Poetics, 19.

[xxi] This is not to say that the night parrot is not part of Porter’s suburb, but that the focus is on the mundane rather than the mythical, the material rather than the conscious. I would, of course, acknowledge that these categories bleed into each other, that they have crossover and overlap.

[xxii] Boyd, Australian Ugliness, 263.

[xxiii] See Australian Poetry Library online, http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/

References

Alanen, Arnold and Joseph Eden. Main Street Ready-Made: The New Deal Community of Greendale, Wisconsin. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2014.

Australian Poetry Library online,  http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/

Barry, John. The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Boyd, Robin. The Australian Ugliness. Melbourne: Text, 2012.

Cash, Conor. “Decomposition and Suburban Space, Affinities 4, no. 1 (2010):  http://journals.sfu.ca/affinities/index.php/affinities/article/view/26 

Coetzee, J. M. “The Angry Genius of Les Murray”, New York Review of Books (29 September, 2011).

Grishin, Sasha. “Bruno Leti’s Collaboration with Chris Wallace-Crabbe”, Imprint 34, no. 4 (1999).

Harrison, Martin, Who wants to Create Australia? Essays on Poetry and Ideas in Contemporary Australia. Sydney: Halstead, 2004.

Holmgren, David. Retrofitting the Suburbs for the Energy Descent Future. Simplicity Institute Report 12i, 2012: http://simplicityinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/RetrofittingTheSuburbsSimplicityInstitute1.pdf.

Jackson, Kenneth. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Kent, Jean. The Hour of Silvered Mullet. Sydney: Pitt Street Poetry, 2015.

Kinsella, John. Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007.

Moncell, Peter, “In the American Grid: Modern Poetry and the Suburbs”, Journal of Modern Literature 
35, no. 1 (Fall 2011): 122-142.

Porter, Dorothy. Night Parrot. Wentworth Falls: Black Lightning Press, 1984.

Youker, Timothy. “‘The Destiny of Words’: Documentary Theatre, the avant garde and the Politics of Form”. PhD Thesis. New York: Columbia University, 2012.

 

R. D. Wood is the author of two books, most recently loam-words (Electio Editions, 2016). He is on the faculty of The School of Life and lives in Melbourne.

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