Robert Wood: 3: From Wembley

  Robert Wood

  3. From Wembley:
  Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Carrying the World

  JPR 08

[»»] 0. Introducing Poetics for ‘Australia’

[»»] 1. Closer to Home: Omar Sakr’s These Wild Houses and the new suburbanism

[»»] 2. The Avant Garde in ‘Australia’: after Eddie Paterson, Philip Mead and Caitlin Maling

[»»] 3. From Wembley: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Carrying the World

[»»] 4. The Boys in Cambridge: Clive James’ Injury Time

[»»] 5. The Boys in Cambridge: John Kinsella’s Graphology

This file contains Endnotes. In the Endnote, if you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

Paragraph One follows: 1:

In Poetics for ‘Australia’, I have been writing back to poetry and the nation. ‘Australia’ is a place I care about but am not convinced by, a place I want to see as a world of possibility. Although I seem to live ‘in’ it, I think of myself as living in my body most of all, even though, at present, I live on Noongar land and know that I was born and raised in Wembley, which informs part of my locatedness in a way that Bunyah informs Les Murray or Fitzroy informs Pi O.


To know one’s place is to be materially connected with a self-awareness of community that encourages a distinct consciousness. So what then is the consciousness I am trying to share?


To explain, let me start with my childhood quarter acre block — chickens in the backyard, lemon fruiting, olive trees heavy, tomatoes trussed, companion planting, daisies pushing up; Shostakovich on the radio, world news beamed in, wood fired pizza down the road just near the bus stop, Blockbuster Video and industrial wasteland on the border with Subiaco. This home and land package was in ‘Wembley’, which is a suburb of our world.


By a ‘suburb’ I mean a material ‘style of life’ that coheres around an ecosystem of commodities as much as it does around ideas, ground and air. A suburb is also a negotiation and a type of definition that is still being made.


Wembley is one suburb among many. We start with Wembley because I start in Wembley. That is not to say I do not start in Mt Hawthorn or Subiaco or Lyneham or West Philadelphia or Montparnasse or Charlottenburg or Kalkaji or Redgate or Brunswick East or Fort Kochi. It is to say that I must start somewhere, which is here, in my body of memory, my muscle memory as it sits in me from time and being. Wembley then, or rather my Wembley, which is to say my surrounds as they organise themselves around my body are only one starting point, which is to say a recurrent ur moment in the historical understanding of suburbanism precisely because that word is deployed with fulsome potential.


What do we mean when we say ‘Wembley’? We mean 6014; we mean hills hoist; we mean veggie patch; we mean woodshed; we mean television; we mean concrete driveway; we mean porch; we mean bungalow; we mean wooden floorboard; we mean 4 by 2; we mean Easter Hat Parade; we mean fête; we mean Herdsman Lake; we mean library; we mean mulberry; we mean small bar; we mean book; we mean food court. It is as specific then as it is possible, in so far as it connects to all in a moment or to no one in a totality; similarity and difference, potential amid absence.


What are the implications of a Wembleyisation of life as it stands right now in this instance? It might be about balance — a little bit of city into the country, a little bit of country into the city. But, Wembleyisation depends on context as much as it does on text. What worlds are we talking to? What do we filter when we know that to do so means aligning our frame with our interests, which are suburbanist in a vast collaborative project that is all the more open source?


Who needs class consciousness when we can have lifestyle consciousness, which is to say, understanding a total system from production to consumption to leaving it in the ground frack-free and getting on with it as a ‘we’? However, any self-consciousness, including one of life style, is embodied — I speak from my liver, kidneys, stomach, heart as much as my mind alone.


I am what I am, which is not all that I am because we are tied to what is the 1% reached by the teachings that manifest in our embodiment. I see you face-to-face, not facetimed or facebooked, those digital technes of self. How then to occupy your being when you face the reality that you are grounded here which is not Wembley?


Where I am writing from is the home I grew up in. It represents, in the materialisation of its consciousness, a kind of utopian hope held together by a robust generosity. There are books on the shelf from the mid-century sociological and economic works on Australian nation to the magical realist texts of Latin America to the classics of world literature. There is ‘Aboriginal art’ on the walls from Gloria Petyarre to Rosella Namok to Jody Braun. There is a pile of records from Frank Sinatra to Tchaikovsky to Don Burrows.


This is the house my parents bought, right in the middle of Wembley, and my father renovated it with materials scavenged from industrial buildings all over Perth. The staircase comes from a Northbridge brothel, the doors from mansions in blue chip suburbs, the wood in the roof from the department store Boans that once stood in Perth. My mother chose the Moroccan tiles, the Vietnamese fishing traps and the Afghan rugs. But it is held together by the same yearning optimism that would enable a white man from country at the edge of the desert to marry a bourgeois Indian Singaporean in the days of Whitlam.


I do, of course, live to retrofit the city and as a bulwark against suburbanite expansion from Witchcliffe, but this is my Historic ur suburb, this is Wembley as I know it, having, of course, also supervised the area in the 2011 Census. And from this place, what might it be to extend suburbanism into fields of poetics as they exist in ‘Australia’?


That is the question that still matters for these review essays and an unfolding present that might enlighten us towards what is possible as an aesthetic and ethics as well. Submerged in that is the other question of how to express high culture pride in the life that comes from suburbia when one assumes that it is inter alia a no go zone for the intellectual alone? This question still stands despite the fact that in the suburbs one can find cultural expressions that are regarded as elite, to which I cite Ben Shewry’s restaurant Attica in Ripponlea, a daggy if wealthy suburb in south-east Melbourne.


Not only does it perform ‘award winning’ work where the labour is ratified by a selection of metropolitan tastemakers in the multinational, mainly transatlantic, space, but it has also made a contribution to the aesthetic richness of a post-national project. This has happened through participating in the movement for sustainable localism in haute cuisine that finds its apotheosis in Noma.


Shewry uses a variety of Indigenous ingredients including saltbush and kangaroo, and riffs on other dishes such ANZAC biscuit marshmallows. While never arriving at it, Attica attempts to appeal to universal good taste while also being a repudiation of the prison that shares its name. To read its accomplishment one must acknowledge that the foundation of culture is in local suburbs here, which could be (mis)read as similar to ‘country’ even as that differs between Ripponlea and Wembley.


The apprehension of that is made possible by Shewry precisely because he can be seen outside ‘the nation’ and relies on personal memory and experience to convey what it is to make ‘good food’. This is then a type of stomached reading that allows us to glimpse what suburbanism may look like in fields of cultural production other than poetry. That we each have a stomach may turn us to liberalism, as though the individual allows us to reify what political movement is when it comes to action like this. But that does nothing to extend the question as to what is the body politic and solidarity within it.


That identity politics is still having its left liberal paradigmatic moment is evident in the discursive apparatus of poetics. Perhaps we could decry this by resting on the laurels of past theoretical models — Communism for instance — or turn to a different source base to suggest that there is resistance to theory by people of colour themselves. But opposition never seemed so futile such is the paradox offered by class conflict and intersectionality when read dialectically.


We could oppose too the affective attachments to the one drop rule which now struts about the PC roost through the reclamation of negatively privileged status groups. This is the case with the overused phrase ‘finding our voices’. When though does privilege stop being so? When does it engender a distinct habitus that is concretised?


In saying that I do not know through my body alone, but through empathy, through imagination, what it is to be a suburbanite even as that is the negation of what I work towards in earnest. I gather this through conversations and statistics, accumulated evidence about what it is to be Othered, which is a continual process of historically accumulating denial.


My objectivity is my subject then, which, depending on story, could be seen as person of colour, third culture or some such hybrid admixture that nevertheless reifies and categorises without due process and cause. I challenge this through a prolix self defence that would have me suggest my own biography is never quite detailed enough if only because I need know myself in a repetitively compulsive way. The strength comes then in solidifying resistance in the collective entrainments that are habitual in the face of total institutions that are projected.


That the punishment is a rhetoric of yet more discipline is what ails us. Hence, we cannot mourn our freedom too much if only because there is no true liberation only an approximation of limits, not in an absolute sense yet nevertheless in the sense of absolution. This is not to suggest that life incarceration is not a linguistically disreputable style of life, but what we see as discipline need be extended to daily habits on the outside where we may live. Freedom then is infinite just like resistance.


The presupposed alienation, anomie, disenchantment associated with suburbia might then be a welcome relief for the sharecropper, the inmate, the casualised franchise labourer. We cannot know though until we drill down in specific detail and even as we do, interpreting the frame of our source language games will complicate any notion that we have solved the issue once and for all. This is the unlimited regression of endless dialogism.


The sulbaltern and its Other are only silenced when a symbolic death enters, be that a period of a sentence or a pragmatic decision made because of influence. That is to say our talking is stopped both by repressive and ideological state apparatuses as they appear in our mouths and by the end of reality itself. We may speak of any experience then, say ‘the intellectual experience’, and we can break it down into different possibilities that regroup our existing categories, and being based on distinct sources and the tools of dissection in addition to the materialised geist of the thing itselfness.


Suburbanism is not then inter alia anti-intellectual but it accepts that the recourse to a base materialism (the body) need be individualised in such a way that takes seriously a strategic rhetoric, which is, of course, essential but never essentialist in the construction of its perceived to be context. In that way we must make peace with the world as well as define what that is as much as it surely depends on the fact that every formalism is historical. And so what is our historical moment now? Where are we as we move towards speaking our moment in our world?


Wherever one looks in Anglophonic, institutional poetics mapped onto ‘Australia’ one notices the persistence of romanticism and modernism as organising heuristics and paradigmatic legacies. This only betrays a certain Europhilia and mimetic colonialism that need to be overthrown from within itself but with help from fellow travellers ‘outside’ that tradition. Given the predilection for post-graduate education, modernism does seem to have the upper hand in ‘Australia’, something demonstrated by the heavy citation of metropolitan theorists (French in particular to which one need only to point to Owen Bullock’s uncritical mention of Ferdinand de Saussure in his short review of Alan Loney’s Melbourne Journal) and the topical choices for dissertations (American at large with a focus on the New York School).


For example, Corey Wakeling’s review of Puncher & Wattman’s Contemporary Australian Poetry resuscitates Ern Malley, claiming him, through very clever twists and turns, as a figure for the suburbs, a kind of fixed origin point. This is neither genealogical nor philosophical nor sociological, and while Malley may well be one location of the suburban, Wakeling’s review is more interesting as a symptom of his preference for modernism’s colonisation of suburbia rather than apprehending suburbia immanently. We need to see the possibility of reclaiming suburbia as a poetic act not simply yoking it to an established field.


That necessitates a re-theorisation of suburbia in ‘Australia’ from within itself, which I have elaborated upon in a piece for the Journal of Poetics Research of March 2017. Needless to say, this is a complement to that work aimed at continued liberation. That means one needs to define terms, see the paradox and find the direction and that holds no matter what kind of theory one is doing from the simplest review to the most complex monograph. The question is: how do we find the higher synthesis, which is to say, discover a new language game that brings us philosophical status?


For this, we must not only apprehend the thesis and antithesis truly in a lexicon approaching the universal, which is a Historical exercise, but we must have a process of elevation — you might know this as dialectics. For example, to create a strong Left in Australia we might want a coalition between the ALP and the Greens in practical terms, which means finding their shared common root (say Communism) and re-futuring a lineage towards shared ground for a given context. In other words, synthesis can be a reverse engineered process or a future direct post teleological hope.


How this might happen in poetics is in the quotes that follow, which are a type of citation ritual that is intelligible to someone who might listen to Wittgenstein, Hegel, Weber more than to Ernie Hunter or themself. For the insiders though, we need to throw away the ladder, wait for the owl to return and tell our mates that they are heroes. In that way, as theorists and practitioners, we need to ask ourselves:


 — whether our language is complete; — whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language. (And how many houses or streets does it take before a town begins to be a town?) Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.[1]


The new borough with straight regular streets and uniform houses is suburbia. This is not the shock of the new with its declared separation from the old, as if it was an entirely distinct and separate town, but rather an addition to that which already exists. But what does suburbia enable as a consciousness? As most commentators and poets of suburbia express, this is about the ‘alienation’ of the suburbanite. Wakeling and others might want to reach for the paradigmatic ‘unhappy consciousness’ of this place:


We see that this ‘unhappy consciousness’ constituted the counterpart and the complement of the perfectly happy consciousness, that of comedy. All divine reality goes back into this latter type of consciousness; it means, in other words, the complete relinquishment and emptying of substance. The former, on the contrary, is conversely the tragic fate that befalls certainty of self which aims at being absolute, at being self-sufficient. It is consciousness of the loss of everything of significance in this certainty of itself, and of the loss even of this knowledge or certainty of self — the loss of substance as well as of self; it is the bitter pain which finds expression in the cruel words, ‘God is dead’… The ‘unhappy consciousness’, the soul of despair, is just the knowledge of all this loss…


The statues set up are now corpses in stone whence the animating soul has flown, while the hymns of praise are words from which all belief has gone. The tables of the gods are bereft of spiritual food and drink, and from his games and festivals man no more receives the joyful sense of his unity with the divine Being. The works of the muse lack the force and energy of the spirit which derived the certainty and assurance of itself just from the crushing ruin of gods and men.


They are themselves now just what they are for us — beautiful fruit broken off the tree; a kindly fate has passed on those works to us, as a maiden might offer such fruit off a tree. Their actual life as they exist is no longer there, not the tree that bore them, not the earth, and the elements, which constituted their substance, nor the climate that determined their constitutive character, nor the change of seasons which controlled the process of their growth.[2]


This ‘soul of despair’ is the calcified, ivory tower way of understanding suburbia. It is the typical suburbanite. Yet the suburbs, because they are a historical moment and a material place, also allow one to come into a true consciousness of identification, one that synthesises ‘city-country’ no matter how those terms are defined. This is what we might call suburbanism.


As an analogue, if the core of Negritude was the belief that ‘Black is beautiful’ this is about the depth of suburban life and its potential. How one encourages this consciousness depends on the suburb itself and the individual, but, needless to say, the process of awakening involves a break in subjectivity, a positively privileged type of enlightenment, or a slow dawning of what is possible as it materialises in a given context. This, however, needs to be sustained in what we might call ‘tarruru’, that deep peace of mind that comes in the evening glow around sunset.


Poetry is only a symptom of this not a result. This is because it is a whole way of ontological being that is possible in suburbia. Hence, a suburbanist is not only about the synthesis of love (common sense populist gloss of romanticism) and a movement in culture at large (modernism’s best attribute), but a total system where one might be a politician, chef, critic, ethnographer, spouse, gardener. What unifies them is a conscious ‘style of life’ that understands the role of honour. This is to say that:


the chances of attaining social honor are primarily determined by differences in the styles of life of these groups [suburban being one], hence chiefly by differences of education… social honor very frequently and typically is associated with the respective stratum’s legally guaranteed and monopolised claim to sovereign rights or to income and profit opportunities of a certain kind.


Thus, if all characteristics are found, which, of course, is not always the case a ‘status group’ is a group societalised through its special styles of life, its conventional and specific notions of honor, and the economic opportunity it monopolises. A status group is always somehow societalised, but it is not always organised into an association.[3]


Style of life relies on education, notions of honor, and economic opportunities. Many critics are so immersed in a suburbanite frame of reference that they fail to see the available truth content of suburbia and nostalgically write out of modernism or the avant garde or romanticism. The ‘education’ is the actualisation of the learning made possible in suburbia, which can manifest in various forms of expression. Suburbanism in its true form resists associational organisation but is the antithesis of the tortured liberal (romantic artist such as Thomas Chatterton) and the leveraged status group (modernism’s use of low culture into high). It is not a sad man alone at a bus stop or a Communist party. Suburbanism should be seen as a historical condition then rather than an emotionally affected sensibility. That means one can come into a true consciousness and change over time.


In this essay, I have tried to present an alternative to that of Maxine Beneba Clarke who looms as unconsciously suburbanite. This essay is not necessarily a critique of her oeuvre but a paratext situated after and alongside it. Clarke’s current celebrity can be read as a symptom of the neo-liberalism of the diversity discourse in the literary bureaucratic establishment even as we must recognise that the paradox of silence around Australian Black women only further highlights her unique if tokenised hypervisibility.


In other words, and particularly from reading The Hate Race, she has no empathy for suburban life and plays to a smug urban elite without a structural alternative for ‘Australia’. But Clarke simply points us towards the possibility of a ‘rebellious establishment’, of how we might buy in without selling out, of how we can maintain the rage as well as the love by working against her at the level of totality. Lian Low and Timah Ball only got it right to some degree then, when they said in their review of Carrying the World:


The poet Lia Incognita wrote in the Overland article ‘Four perspectives on race & racism in Australian poetry’ that writers of colour are ‘largely ignored by publishers, critics, prize judges, anthology editors, curriculum writers.’ Carrying the World begins to redress this imbalance and for readers like us, it is thrilling to read someone who speaks a truth that is often silenced.


As thrilling as it is for friends to do well, acknowledging this doesn’t mean we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater even if the baby is pale, male, stale, which is something suggested by Clarke’s poetic take on Shakespeare (‘if: a rewrite’).


But it might mean we can ask more of our poetics and poetry in attempting to make the establishment not only accommodate and assimilate us as ‘people of colour’ but as suburban dwellers and resistance warriors as well. We have to dismantle and critique these forms of power with help from the inside, to open up various fields to be full of good fortune for those who follow, to contest the truth that our suburbs are nothing special or only hate filled.


This project is one focused on re-reading the unfolding archive, and review culture in general, in such a way that we view suburbanism as fundamental to our way of being in ‘Australia’ even though it will prove to open up new fields in other nations or countries that think of themselves as having suburbs.


That might not only be on the landmass we share with Ngarluma or Wardandi people, but our empirical masters in eighteenth century Cambridge, mid century Paris and our contemporary next door neighbours no matter where we find ourselves from Wembley to Japan or Footscray to the Caribbean.


This file contains Endnotes. In the Endnote, if you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.
[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Section 18

[2] Georg Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Section. 750-752

[3] Max Weber, Essays in Sociology, p. 300


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