π0, Heide. Sydney: Giramondo, 2019. ISBN: 978-1-9258-20-8
First, my confession: I love the poetry of Ted Hughes and Les Murray. But, does this exclude me from also appreciating the anarchist poetics of π0?
In his satirical essay on ‘The Genius of Les Murray’ π0 proudly recounts the time he publicly confronted Hughes at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival, accusing him of having ‘murdered’ Sylvia Plath and wondering if he was travelling ‘while out on bail’; in this essay he also fat-shames Murray. Now, I have also written on Murray, interrogating his conservative values while celebrating his poetry, but I find the personal nature of π0’s character assassinations of Murray and Hughes shocking in their incivility. So, with regards to the Oz Poetry Wars, I would not count myself as a member of π0’s gang (I am far too conventional in my expectations) and was ready to cultivate an antithetical reading of Heide, weighing in as it does at over 550 pages and with all the privileged prestige of the Giramondo imprint. But only a dozen pages in I was totally seduced. Heide is an incredible book.
And what makes it startling? This is not an easy question to answer. Many lines in Heide are breathtakingly prosaic. The first poem in the book opens with: ‘When/you go to bed (of a night)/the hands of the clock go whizzing around/((while you go into a frenzy/of tossing and turning and thrashing about (followed by/periods of inactivity))/so why do you “um’n’ah”?’ Now, this is dramatic stuff (I guess) but it certainly doesn’t sing to my ear. And a little later, in the same poem, we are told/asked ‘How loud was the Big Bang?!’ This is a pretty obvious joke, and hardly novel, so what is going on? There is a deeply sly and irreverent comic energy to Heide that is irresistibly engaging. As a consequence, we are informed one moment that ‘Captain Cook had his hair swept back in a pigtail’; that ‘Resistance is always measured in ohms’; and that a ‘flea in a bad bed, is just a sleepover’. There is also much subverted logic: ‘There are 148 000 windows, looking over Sydney Harbour’; ‘The moon, is the biggest/object in the night sky’; and that ‘Going from/this swan is white, to all swans are white, is a grave error’. This final image, of course, also introduces a more serious side to this book. Heide is a searing interrogation of Victoria’s colonial history and treatment of First Nations. ‘Captain Cook 1728-79’ concludes:
took a trip to New Zealand. A boat to New Guinea.
He travelled to the desert, and shot an Aborigine
A crocodile does a lightning roll. The water sizzles (around
its body. Captain Cook stood on the edge of
the seashore — calling out to the boats to stop firing.
He had his gun (under his arm) and his hand behind his head,
to protect it against the natives, throwing stones.
Of course you can’t do everything!
The universe is a network of relations. Penguin is the name of
a flightless bird. Cabriolet the name of a one-horse carriage.
China has centres for the recycling of toothpicks.
The last train stopped at midnight. Cicadas produce
a loud and almost continuous background sound
listen to the bells
on the upsidedown waters, and to the double and
of the ship’s log: “…carefully observe
the true situation
…and if you find the country uninhabited
take possession (of it)
for his Majesty…”
This text is typical of π0’s strategy: one moment savagely serious, condemning the abuses of colonial power, before next, flipping to the statement of obvious facts (for comic effect) and the whimsical, idiosyncratic juxtaposition of incongruity, before returning (yet again) to the (deadly) serious postcolonial imperative. This book is brash, playful, momentous, compelling. And it is always subversive.
A book called Heide would suggest to most of us that we are about to encounter a work of ekphrasis. Yet another text responding to Victoria’s bohemian arts centre: the Reeds, Mirka Mora, Joy Hester, Sidney Nolan, Max Harris (even Ern Malley)… And it does, eventually, touch on all these subjects, but in its own time and according to its own impulses. This is not a collection to squeeze into boxes. So, early on we are told that ‘what counts as Art, is not/always something you can hang up’. And that ‘Often, i leave an Art Gallery, or a painting, feeling/uncertain, about what i/ just saw’. ‘Uncertainty’ is a frame that this book joyfully, insistently embraces.
Now, approaching this book, and remembering what gang in the poetry wars it belongs to, we might expect antipathy towards that ‘dirty’ little conservatism sometimes mistaken for nature poetry. But this is another expectation jubilantly shot down in flames. Heide is not a work of nature poetry in any of the ways that we might expect, but then nor does it easily wear the technicolour cloak of ekphrasis. In Heide there is a sensitive, if always subversive and light-hearted, appreciation of place (including those of scenic beauty). There are poems called ‘Kookaburra’, ‘Parrots’ and ‘A Platypus’. And we told that: ‘A housefly can react/to something in the air, and instantly/change direction’; that ‘A centipede in a bad dream, runs backwards and forwards’; that ‘A bird flies, in a curved line’; and that ‘A peafowl, sure can make a racket’. This is all wittily comic, but also seriously informed by the values of environmentalism. If everything is a joke, then the punchline is (deadly) serious.
Subsequently, what is Heide? It is a work of ekphrasis, but it is equally an (unusual) work of place, of the non-human world, of postcolonialism and environmentalism, it is always slyly comic but equally committed to big and important convictions; it pirouettes on the appearance of facts, proverbs, numbers, meanings and the scattering of typeface across the page; it is joyfully subversive of its own meanings; it is epic. But if you choose to read Heide, be careful, because foremost, it is utterly seductive.
Phillip Hall lives in Melbourne’s Sunshine where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. His publications include Sweetened in Coals (Gininderra Press), Borroloola Class (IPSI), Fume (UWAP) and (as editor) Diwurruwurru: Poetry from the Gulf of Carpentaria (Blank Rune Press). He has a new collection forthcoming from Recent Work Press in 2021. Phillip publishes the e-journal (Burrow) at: https://oldwaterratpublishing.com.