Revelators, Visionaries, Poets and Fools: the palimpsest of Sydney’s western suburbia

by Luke Carman

Ahmad-cover-for-homepageThe suggestion that Australia’s literary ‘centre’ appears to be shifting – or leaning, at the least – towards Sydney’s ‘suburban frontier’ is becoming commonplace. Perhaps the first (certainly the most emphatic) recognition of this decentring to find its way into print was provided by Sam Twyford-Moore, director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, who stated in an interview last year that ‘Western Sydney is the capital of Australian literature… if not already, then certainly it’s the future’. As someone with a sensitive ear for the minor tremors of our most aspirant and incubational writers, Twyford-Moore can reasonably be considered an authority on the subject of Australian literary nascence, which makes his declaration a little less hyperbolic than it might otherwise seem. A cynic, perhaps unswayed by the authority of a cultish figure like Twyford-Moore, might dismiss such a proposition as an instance of overstatement – perhaps pointing to Twyford-Moore’s caveat that such remarks were ‘very much a personal statement’ (ibid) as evidence that his commentary is little more than the loose talk of exuberant generosity and wishful thinking; but if so, then others are on record as suffering the same illusions. Maxine Beneba Clarke, a slam poetry champion and author of the celebrated short story collection Foreign Soil – in her extended review of a reading performance by myself and writers Peter Polites and Michael Mohammed Ahmad – described the shift in literary consciousness as one already realised. Referencing the backdrop for the performance – in which a map of Australia with the words ‘Under New Management’ was on display – Clarke ends her assessment of a new era of Australian literature with an exhortation to ‘Buckle in tight, ’cause… Australian literature is indeed ‘Under New Management’.’ The cynic, ever unmoved, might suggest that Clarke’s remarks are nothing more than the usual expression of comradery that characterises our cloistered national literary scene demands of every player. But the winds of change are being registered by critics as well as writers (and festival directors). Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic of The Australian, described the inexplicable appearance of fiction set and styled by Sydney’s western suburbia in the following terms: ‘It is as though a Madagascar-sized island suddenly materialised off Sydney Heads’. Most recently, Matt McGuire, senior lecturer in English Literature at the University of Western Sydney, detailed the developing situation in an article for The Conversation, calling the publications that came from Sydney’s suburbs in 2014 as an ‘…important moment in Australian culture’.

I admit, there is something shameful about advertising these sentiments on this blog, not least because my own name features heavily in most of the above links. To this criticism, I can only ask – what is the point of a blog post if not to celebrate the self?
(In this spirit, here are even more examples of reviews that make me look really, really good: can all these people be wrong?)
Besides, this post and its links are no more about me than they any other individual writer’s new ‘voice’.

Brown cover frontFor one thing, literature has little to do with voices, despite what contemporary criticism and ‘creative writing’ culture would have us believe. Writers and their voices come and go, they are ephemeral things, and in a better world, they would be of no public interest whatsoever. It’s the writing that remains, it’s the work that matters – and what we see in the work is not some new, enervated form of life, but a message – as the philosophers say – from the land of the dead. However ingratiating it might be that my name is in the above links, my intention is not to indirectly bring your eye to me, or indeed any other names in the recurring cohort listed above – after all, these people don’t need the emphasis: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s book was short-listed for the Stella, Omar Musa was long-listed for the Miles Franklin, Felicity Castagna won a Prime Minister’s Award, Michael Mohammed Ahmad is up for the New South Wales Premier’s – clearly these folks don’t need to be underscored. After all, if you’re reading this blog you know these names already. You know their works. But then there are some that seem to have gotten lost in the mix, to be missing from the above accounts. The first that comes to mind is Lachlan Brown – a poet and the author of Limited Cities (which can, and should, be purchased here). Brown’s book was, I think, the first of Giramondo’s Western Sydney Project titles. I don’t see it mentioned anywhere at the moment – unlike Brown, who is popping up all over the place, here as critic, here as poet – which is shame, but, being a collection of poetry, it has the bad luck of being too culturally obscure to deserve an entry even within the narrative lineage of literary mutation for which it is progenitor. Brown’s effort also had the misfortune of being – like all good poetry – ahead of the curve, too sensitive to the shadowy movements of a changing conceptual landscape.

In Limited Cities Brown plays many roles with astonishing versatility. The back blurb describes the poet as ‘…personal, political and revelatory in turns.’ Of all Brown’s poetic talents, it is his role as revelator that I find most thrilling. At times there seems in the poems of Limited Cities to be a tone of barely restrained eschatological ecstasy, as in the poem Burn:

A bus passes its shadow over driveways and
unfinished gardens.
You agree there will be flames:
the shards of a broken bottle directing
light to the heavens and the earth
and cigarette ash twitching in the grass.
There are days when civilisation will end. (p.6)

Lachlan_1This is an example of the apocalyptic tendency that can be found in Brown’s work, and there are much subtler instances of this same mode – a mode which is descriptive of the charged atmosphere of western Sydney itself. The awed giddiness of expectation is a palpable characteristic of the ‘suburban frontier’ of Sydney’s outer suburbs – an electrified sense of the histories that can be felt, as Brown puts it, ‘on the edge of your skin’ (p.3). In at least one sense, this is the revelation that Brown first decoded about the eerily unpresentable landscape of the unwritten suburbs – a place where the ordinary is ripe with an alarming portentousness; where the left hand blinker of a silver hatchback points, eternally, to the problem, and a kid on a train twirling a pen lid becomes the pivot upon which the meaning of life depends.

There is something radical about this dimension of Brown’s poetry. Where Australian poetry traditionally insists on the easy retreat into effortless eternities of allegorical landscape – which by its very ‘nature’ defies articulation, remaining silently indifferent to the complexity of human life – Brown’s poetry, emboldened by a faithfulness in the sacred, inverts this reflex. Where people are helpless, desperate in their inability to articulate their plight or wilfully blind to the significance of their position, Lachlan redeems them in his reading of the landscape, in his decoding of knowing birds, watchful blackberry bushes, zealous self-immolated trucks, and jacaranda trees that even in the face of death will give up their blessings. To take this one step further, I return to the line from Burn: ‘You agree that there will be flames’ (p.6). In my reading, this sudden shift of perspective is the dreadful voice of the divine, forbidding the baring of false witness – refusing you the freedom to pretend that you do not understand what is right before your own eyes.

wright-cover-frontIn this very uniqueness resides at least some explanation for Brown’s collection being left out of the public considerations above. There are many other reasons, and the situation is complex, but but as everyone knows, poetry is just born to lose. Evidence of this is that the second writer to contribute to the Western Sydney Project was Fiona Wright, whose collection Knuckled, while, like Lachlan’s, it found critical acclaim, also warrants no mention in the above biographia of western Sydney literature.

In no way am I taking the biographers to task for their omissions. I doubt that even the poets themselves would feel inclined to addend their names to the trickling account of west suburban literature if given the chance. Indeed, my intentions here in referencing the poets is not so much to celebrate the forgotten as to get the guilty back into frame. Lachlan Brown, for instance, is guilty of writing poems about an unwritten world, which is an act of wanton recklessness, and Fiona Wright, too, is guilty of thinking about a very similar, and likewise un-articulated part of the country.

Wright’s collection, if I remember rightly, begins with a poem called Inner West and its first line reads: ‘the things you notice when you leave’ (p.1). Looking at that line now, I cannot helped but be astonished, once again, at the poet’s knack for prescience; it seems Wright was able to foresee her absence from the post facto critical mapping of a place that she had in mind even as she wrote about her distance from it (you can, and should, buy her book here). At a recent poetry festival, I heard someone on a panel say, ‘Most people don’t care about most poetry because most poetry doesn’t care about most people’. That seems an unfair assessment of poetry to me, not because it’s untrue, but simply because it lets the rest of literature off the hook too easily. The same accusation could easily be made of most fiction. The much-talked-about dedication for Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Tribe, reads: ‘To my family, who will never read this…’. Whatever commentary this might be on the intimate specifics of the author’s familial relations, there is, I suspect, also in it a declaration of being painfully aware of the obscurity to which most fiction, particularly literary fiction, is addressed. It is a radical question of intent to begin a work of fiction in this way – to deny, or at least, to revise longstanding presuppositions about a universal, and persuadable, audience into which a work is introduced. Ahmad’s dedication begs the question: who is the work of fiction for? What audience is out there for these words, and what in the world will they make of them? In the case of The Tribe, much has been made (here and here, for instance) and more is surely coming. I may not have a poet’s visionary gift, but you don’t need foresight to see what is right in front of you.

All images from Giramondo Publishing