Language and Chatty Syntax: Andrew Burke reviews 1953: A verse narrative by Geoff Page

1953: A verse narrative by Geoff Page UQP Poetry Series (2013)

1953Geoff Page has written a rich-veined poetry novel entitled and set in 1953. I read it once over the course of many busy days and was so interrupted by daily events, I went back to it and read it again slowly, taking notes and writing comments. As a child, I picked flies to pieces and disrobed caterpillars, with much the same result. Maybe I’ll just tell you what I think.

I must tell you, openly and whole-heartedly, I enjoyed it. I read it and reread some poems that jolted my memory, and, as Frank Moorhouse says on the back, stopped me in my tracks. (Yes, I remember 1953.) I’ve read many ‘verse novels’ and liked only some of them: Seth’s The Golden Gate for his dexterous use of the sonnet form; Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid for its vibrant lively language and the great use of detailed research; Murray’s Fredy Neptune for its depth of narrative and strength of poetic; Amos Oz’s The Same Sea, for its sensuous writing and application of narrative to bring alive historic conflict. I’ve also read many verse novels that have been inspired by these successful works and found the majority of them wanting, the poetry weak. My vision of a successful ‘verse novel’ is a strong narrative written in good poetry. My version of good poetry may not be yours, but that’s the way the poetic foot rambles.

What makes a novel? Setting, characters and plot are the bare bones. So let us look at 1953 through these elements.

Geoff Page sets the tone and the pace in the first poem, skilfully painting a country town circa 1953 and setting up the ‘style’ of the book at the same time:

The stories here start everywhere,
already half-way through,
a web of roots, of nodes and networks

An interesting point-of-view is used here as the author takes the reader through the town of Eurandangee as through the lens of a cinematographer (as in Arthur Miller’s novel The Misfits) –

Our view is slowly moving right,
slow enough to count the houses,
roofs grey-white and galvanised,
gardens with their shrubs and lawns
that only just remember water.
Off towards the western edge
we see the brickwork turn to fibro
and campfires out the back.
The main street’s straight as parted hair:

Through his language and chatty syntax, we feel the love and tenderness Page has for a rural Australian long gone …

The people are from brush-strokes only;
We do not see their faces.
We recognise Akubras though,
bigger brims for smaller places.
We see the European trees
thirsting in the park
though not the damage underneath.
We see the marble digger,
musing on his column.

Throughout the book, Page’s wit shines through, with an affectionate tone in the portraits of big knobs, fringe dwellers, shearers, fettlers, diggers and returned soldiers, and skylarking schoolkids under the caring eye of their school teacher. I live in a country town in NSW now, and I can still recognise his characters as I shop with merchants and negotiate with tradesmen around this town.

The setting is stopped in time: ‘a Tuesday, right on half past two, / 17th February, / 1953.’ After WWII, but during the Korean War; before Queen Elizabeth’s coronation visit but after the first Holden had rolled off the assembly line; during the time of worldwide tension called the Cold War. World events do come home to play on some of the characters here, but many continue the quiet rural lives of those generations before them. They often question whether they should have stayed or not. Well, the clock doesn’t move, but the characters do interact and go about their daily lives, as in an outback version of Dylan Thomas’s Llareggub.

I don’t know in which order Page wrote the portraits of the characters that make up the tale, but he has shuffled them in such a way as to create webs of narrative as real as in any small, close community. Nothing much happens, but there again a lot is happening, if you get my drift: there’s an affair, with rich emotions to explore through three of the main participants; there’s the results of an earlier affair for a young girl and a shifty shearer – her parents, a child born, lives changed forever; the nightmarish aftermaths of war on returned diggers and wives; a story of a ‘half-caste’ family (as they were known back then), with the mother drinking and the kids tending for themselves. The Royal Hotel is one of the central social settings, and is the stage for much class distinction of the time.

The first word on the book’s back blurb is ‘suspenseful’ – and I can’t see that. Suspense doesn’t really enter into it for me. The town is a living breathing example of a country community set back then, 1953, when sheep and wool prices were at their ‘apogee’ and there was still a choice to stay home after school was done. There is tragedy at the end, misplaced love and sex along the way, the laying of the vital railways of Australia, war in action and reaction, and a rich and affectionate portrait of a country town – but suspense? No. If anything, the characterisations are mildly predictable, but executed in such a warm-hearted and witty way that they are fresh again.

The plot, as such, is already half-way through from the first word. And absolutely about to begin with the last – which I won’t quote because it would be a ‘spoiler’. It is a difficult task to set yourself as the author: a town stopped at two thirty on a Tuesday sixty years ago, with a multitude of characters busy in their lives of loving, warring, making life and making a living – stop-framed and backgrounded, loaded – as it were – with the next events in their lives about to explode. Page moves the characters through dramatic monologues and single-character point of view narratives. It is a kaleidoscope with all the pieces coming together to create a dynamic multi-faceted tableau.

I only have one gripe. One of the best ways to breathe life in characters on the page is to give them something to say. To my mind, there should be more dialogue in these stories. Someone wise once said, ‘A character comes alive when they open their mouth’. When this happens in these pages, the scene becomes alive. I particularly like the narrative mode of poem XV. Three young women, like a bored Greek chorus, are gossiping about Peggy with character assassination and hints of an affair but no facts – the lethal mixture for social trouble in any small community.

‘That Peggy, she’s a bit stuck-up,
Now she’s married Stan, I reckon.
She’s not the girl she used to be
Back at Doctor God’s.’
The speaker, maybe twenty-five,
Rocks a pram pulled in beside her.

They talk and sip shandies, light a smoke and gaze about, before continuing:

‘So, what’s the story then?
What’s she keeping from us, eh?’
‘Or who might be a better question,’
says Number 1 across her shoulder,
off to buy the round.
The other two see what she means,
check the baby as they wait,
half-annoyed there’s nothing yet
a girl can really get stuck into.

Today’s society with all its joys, ills and treacherous, luxuries took root yesterday in just such communities as Eurandangee, Tuesday , 17 February, 1953. Entire sections of your local library have texts that explore the historical, ethical, socio-logical, racial and economic themes whispered in the pages of this rich seedbed of a book, but this book has a tapestry of human emotions running through it. Go read 1953 and ponder what happens next – in 1953 and 2013.

– Andrew Burke


Andrew Burke is a leading Australian poet.His two latest nooks are Undercover of Lightness: New & Selected Poems (Walleah Press, Hobart) and Shikibu Shuffle in collaboration with Phil Hall,(above/ground press, Ontario). He blogs at hi spirits.

1953 can be obtained from UQP

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