Near Believing: selected monologues and narratives 1967–2021 by Alan Wearne, Puncher and Wattmann 2022, was launched by Jurate Sasnaitis on 30 June 2022 at the Chesterfield Lounge, Orient Lounge, Fremantle.
To paraphrase Alan’s own words, you can imagine what the publication of over five decades of work means to the author. For the reader, Near Believing is a timely opportunity to revisit, or to visit for the first time and hopefully be inspired to pursue, the work of one of Australia’s most celebrated poets – I was about to say ‘illustrious’ but could imagine Alan grimacing at that.
Critic Martin Duwell has called him a ‘one-off’, better than our novelists at evoking time and place. Peter Craver wrote, ‘Wearne is like no one else in Australian poetry’ and likened his style to ‘nothing on Earth’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 9/04/2013). Most recently, Geoffrey Lehman in his review of Near Believing for The Australian, called Alan ‘the great taxidermist of Australian life’, which made me laugh – I can imagine Alan bent over his worktable gutting and stuffing the carcass of Australia.
Perhaps taxonomist would be a more appropriate term? Sorting, classifying, and satirising the complexities of social interaction, Alan gives voice to a gamut of characters, from snobs and bogans to paedophiles and priests, drug lords and petty crims to “ordinary” suburban housewives; characters derived from newspaper articles and recognisable public figures; others loosely based on friends and acquaintances. Beware, I say, lest you find yourself at the mercy of some poet’s disordered imagination!
Regardless of how we label him, Alan is a master of the extended poetic narrative, of characterisation and conversation, of the rhythms and rhymes of traditional poetic forms from the sonnet to the villanelle. For this facility, Alan credits his companions since youth: a “mate” called Geoff Chaucer, another chap from Stratford-upon-Avon, and many others: Milton, Dryden, Meredith, Browning, Kipling, Pope, Byron, Frost, Pound, Eliot, Auden, Koch, O’Hara, et al. In her erudite introduction, editor Michelle Borzi provides a more extensive analysis of Alan’s poetic development and achievements.
Several things stuck me in reading Near Believing. The first, an astonishing sense of the poet having arrived on the scene fully formed. I said as much to Alan’s partner Annie English and she agreed. Kris Hemensley, another Melbourne poet and proprietor of Collected Works Bookshop, also agreed. Kris remembers three Monash Uni lads, Alan, Laurie Duggan, and John A Scott, arriving at La Mama in the late 60s already knowing exactly what they were about. He also retains an imagine of Alan, like AC/DC’s Angus Young arriving in shorts. You only have to read ‘Saint Bartholomew Remembers Jesus Christ as an Athlete’ written when Alan was just shy of his nineteenth birthday and it’s all there – Alan’s confidence in transposing historical, or in this case biblical, material to a contemporary context, his ear for the cadences of vernacular speech and, of course, his wry humour.
It should come as no surprise that half of Alan’s characters are women or that the cover of Near Believing should feature a detail from Jenny Watson’s delicious painting of a scrappy redhead surveilling herself in the mirror (inspired by Sue Dobson from The Nightmarkets, 1986). As Alan notes, women do comprise 50% of the population and, as far as identity politics or cultural appropriation is concerned, he maintains that we’d be condemned to write only about our ‘boring selves’ were we prohibited from imagining ourselves into the lives of others. What is more surprising is the compassion and empathy with which he conceives of women’s interior lives: their tales of pairing and unpairing, of compromise, domestic boredom, abuse.
In his verse novels, the award winning The Nightmarkets (1986) and The Lovemakers, published in two volumes in Australia – ‘Saying all the Great Sexy Things’ in 2001 and ‘Money and Nothing’ in 2004 – dramatic impetus is derived from multiple viewpoints; from judicious interjections and digressions that reveal the characters’ inner workings and drive the narrative forward (or around); and from telling insights that are so casually inserted in the text you could miss them if you weren’t paying attention.
Peter Rose, poet and editor of Australian Book Review once remarked that relationships are a ‘grand tussle’. In Sue Dobson’s voice, Alan admits his addiction to that ‘most fascinating thing in the world.’
… All the skirmishes, battles,
truces, treaties, all the incongruous attrition
of civil war and reconstruction, as,
between flare-ups, we resume some spongey armistice.
Marvellous stuff! Unfortunately, I can’t give full reign to Sue’s monologue ‘Climbing Up the Ladder of Love’ or I’d have you here all night. But in a nod to our recent change of Federal government, I will just briefly quote Sue quoting her lover, former Liberal Party Minister John McTaggart in an interview with a journalist named Clive.
‘When problems loom, we’ll confront that loom!
I’m sure you’ll see more than a mere protest vote
against all established forces, Clive. Quote,
ordinary Australians don’t have to be poked, prodded
into action this time round Clive, unquote.’
…………………………………………………………….The interviewer nodded.
The politics of politicking and the politics of relationships go hand-in-hand in this seventeen page tour de force of rhyming couplets.
Also included in this selection is the twenty-six-sonnet sequence from Lovemakers, ‘Roger, or Of Love and its Anger’. These detail the lives of Barb and Roger Heath from happy beginnings, through Barb’s several infidelities, to the bitter end, in conversations with Roger’s shrink.
In ‘10 Games’ we are given:
Each lover coaches
for the next. Beyond each game lies art.
These are the way you have relationships.
‘21 Love’ goes in for the kill, insisting on ‘love’ against evidence to the contrary; praying that what was between the Heaths was indeed this thing called love.
…………..But hate is never the risk love is; and I shall love.
…………..There are those who, sliced to the quick-of-it/
shying from the thick-of-it,
demand (not even the odd kid glove)
nothing but the barge pole option. They’re allowed.
My life has just one law: somehow I must
keep this faith: she took me and I her, on trust;
till we more than lashed that braying crowd
predicting our demise, we made this: our family and its home.
It has to have been love, what else frees you from errors
you’re meant to commit? Oh my wife might sling me cheek
(and I tolerate this as I always will the foam
of Barb) but she knows I’ll never get conned by the terrors
of failure, seduced by their bravado and mystique.
Of his more recent poems ‘They Came to Moorabbin’ is one of my favourites. I had the misfortune of being a teenager in Moorabbin in the 1970s. Set in the 1950s, the era of Menzies and the 1956 Olympic Games, ‘The Came to Moorabbin’ is the story of put-upon Iris and her pompous, demanding, ultimately insecure husband Keith, and their three boys.
…………And being adaptable Iris could adjust
(that’s what she knew Keith liked in her)
as his plans became their Post War plans,
and the Post War plans turned opinions, his opinions,
then reactions, then demands, particularly demands.
With those few lines Alan sets up the two main characters and their relationship, and introduces, a few lines later, the spoke in their wheel, the widowed Nancy Bliss (not named Bliss for nothing); an acquaintance Iris recognises from ‘Cipher’. With that single reference to her war-work, Alan indicates that Iris is not the numbskull her husband makes her out to be. These days we’d called Keith’s behaviour gaslighting.
They bump into Nance at Half Moon Bay, and a friendship of sorts develops. The death of Nance’s diplomat husband Tony has left her stranded in Moorabbin with four kids; might as well be Mars, as far as Nance is concerned. I remember that feeling – ten years out there was enough to send me scuttling off to Prahran at the earliest opportunity. Keith, of course, enjoys being the handyman in Nance’s life, though she can’t stand the way he calls her Toots – it’s enough to make your skin crawl.
…………..Then Keith started visiting, weekdays
(the taxes and what else) telling Toots
she looked like Lauren Bacall, which was nice.
…………..‘I’m no June Allyson,’ she mock-confessed,
nor Mitzi Gaynor even less.’ ‘True Kay Kendall
might’ve been auditioned, but with her strong, worldly,
wise eyes Betty Bacall sounded fine. ‘And why not,’ she riffed,
‘Celeste Holm or Glynis Johns for Iris?
And if you want a star for Tony, think Trevor Howard
all that officer’s necessity to play it correct
with just a hell-raiser’s touch, then possibly not,
probably not, till one day just as surely never.
I loved him, nursed and loved him…’ and she
would never love-and-nurse another,
since Nance loathed dying, Tony’s dying and sometimes
even him for dying.
Again, with a few well-placed film-star names, Alan evokes the period and Keith’s creepiness. Keith, of course, makes a play for Nance, but she sees right through him. If she really took him on, Nance wonders, if she called him out on the way he speaks to Iris, who would suffer. Iris, the wife, she concludes.
The friendship lingers on another ten years or so until it peters out in ‘the annual women’s ritual of greeting cards’ that ends with Iris’s death. Keith vanishes from the scene with ‘some aging bowling club girl friend/ no-one guessed he had.’ And Nance ends in the way of so many of Alan’s narratives, with a sting in the tale of life, on a poignant note.
……………………………..With or without Mr Menzies
Tony has been stored away and Nance is telling her family:
‘Let me leave Moorabbin, leave it to the Martians…’
which she does and how she ends,
tubed-up for emphysema, a granny in a granny flat,
out the back of her daughter’s.
I will conclude by quoting the words of a young poet, barely twenty-one.
… like any honest manufacturer, the poet must have the consumer in mind, or at heart. He might not give them what they want, but he should give what he thinks is in their best interests. Whether by shocking the reader into submission, or more underhand methods, he must try to establish a broad affinity with readers who are to come.
Without wishing to degrade, then, the philosophical or moral basis which many poets have for their poetry, I feel that the ultimate task of poetry – as with any art form – is enjoyment. A reader – no matter what the moral basis of the poem – will only give it true respect and attention if he has enjoyed it. Readers need not be rolling on the floor in a laughing fit; if the poem never bores and constantly keeps the reader’s wits on edge, then it could be said that the poem is enjoyable.
Alan wrote that statement for the Australian Poetry Now anthology edited by Thomas Shapcott and published by Sun Books in 1970; a statement that holds as true today as it undoubtedly did then.
You won’t find the poet in this volume, except in a cameo appearance as a character in ‘Operation Hendrickson’; a Wearney who ‘you needn’t believe because he’s just making it up’; a Wearney who loves annoying. What you will find is plenty to enjoy, even a laugh or two, and enough ‘meat’ to satisfy the most voracious appetite.
With that I declare Near Believing well and truly launched. Congratulations Wearney!
– Jurate Sasnaitis
Jurate Sasnaitis was named after the goddess of the sea in Lithuanian mythology. She was born on Wurundjeri country | Melbourne and currently lives on Whadjuk Noongar Boodja | Perth. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia and writes about memory, myth, heritage, and discordant relationships. Her poetry, short fiction, and essays have been published in Cordite, Meniscus, Southerly, Rabbit, Vilnius Review, P76 and Westerly amongst others.
Near Believing: selected monologues and narratives 1967–2021 is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/product/near-believing-selected-monologues-and-narratives-1967-2021/