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The Mastery of π.o.

Fitzroy the biography cover
Fitzroy: The Biography
by Π.O.
Collective Effort Press
740pp
$55.00 AU
Published September, 2015
ISBN 9780958772679

π.O.portrait Les Murray is the contemporary Australian poet one most associates with the celebration of a particular place, but with the publication of the monumental Fitzroy: The Biography, that mantle must surely pass to π.O. Murray’s 40 acres at Bunyah on the north coast of NSW is one-sixth the size of the inner city Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, though considerably larger, and much more sparsely populated, if you take into account the memory of the larger family territory commemorated in poems like ‘Their Cities, Their Universities’, and ‘Aspects of Language and War on the Gloucester Road’. At little more than 240 acres, π.O.’s Fitzroy is the smallest suburb in Australia, and the most densely populated.

In 740 pages, and over 400 biographical and autobiographical portraits, Fitzroy: The Biography covers a period of over 150 years, from the surveying of the area, then largely forest, and inhabited by the Wurundjeri people, to recent times. Fitzroy is the place to which π.O. was brought as a child by his father, from the displaced persons camp at Bonegilla – the place where he grew up, and made his name as a poet and publisher, until rising rents and the gentrification of the suburb, forced his relocation. This new book is a companion to π.O.’s equally monumental 24 Hours, published 20 years ago, which subjected Fitzroy to a similarly detailed scrutiny, over the period of a day rather than through its history, also in exactly 740 pages. To this massive oeuvre – massive by the standards of prose, let alone those of poetry – we need to add the many poems set in Fitzroy and gathered in earlier collections like Fitzroy Brothel, Fitzroy Poems and Panash, and magazines like Fitzrot and 925. Statistics of this kind are one of π.O.’s favourite compositional devices in Fitzroy: The Biography, so it is appropriate that the claim made for his determination to render the sense of this place, should refer, not just to the intensity of his obsession, but to its scale as well.

It is in the nature of the provincial poet to see the whole world in the details of the place he or she celebrates. This place is the world, that is the assumption from which the poet proceeds. In the case of Fitzroy, where the population has been drawn from everywhere, the presence of the larger world in the smaller needs no special demonstration. The four hundred biographies, which constitute the biography of the place itself, cover a vast range of lives, occupations, histories, identities, classes and cultures. The material for these, drawn from public archives, court records, newspapers and other historical documents, ensures that gangsters and thieves take their place alongside politicians, footballers, artists, businessmen, local identities and more generally, ordinary people, whose distinction was that they crossed the law at some point, or dreamt of a better life, or were victims of violence or theft or misfortune or poverty. There are biographies of libraries, banks, hotels, cafés, ‘the flats’. π.O.’s own background emerges more fully from this broad canvas in the later stages of the book – with its experience of war, migration, poverty, gambling, the criminal demi-monde, madness, anarchism and poetry, the book seems to contain the multitudes it portrays, rather than simply to offer them as subjects.

The range of characters presented, and the poet’s involvement with each figure in turn, is remarkable in itself, but the real principle of totality lies elsewhere, in the manner in which each biography is presented. At the beginning of a biography, and in the course of its development, the reader is suddenly subject to a cascade of facts, which may be statistical (‘there are about 6,000 miles / of veins in the body’), proverbial (‘Truth has a good face, but / a bad set of clothes’), take the form of a riddle (‘A chair’s got / 4 legs, but can’t run’), or be drawn from slang (‘A basin of / gravy, is a baby’), dictionary definitions (‘a comet, is a star with a tail’) or other kinds of reference books, like concordances, the Guinness Book of Records, the Encyclopaedia of Comparative Iconography (‘Folly is a man, biting stones’) and even household manuals (‘A bowl of cool water, and / eucalyptus oil, will repel a cockroach’). Though these are not necessarily facts in the empirical sense of the word, they all make assertions about how things are, and draw their mandate from common sense, or the stock of common knowledge.

Sometimes the catalogue of facts provides a larger context for the biography it introduces, as in this collection of details associated with the various stages of road building, which opens the portrait of Sam Brailsford, who laid down many of the roads in Fitzroy, and ‘left his mark, all over / the Municipality, in his time’:

        One loose pebble can
cause a landslide. Geometry is at the root
of everything. A road, is a thoroughfare.
Road construction, the creation of a continuous
right-of-way. Old shoes, are easiest to work in.
A work in progress, is posted with a sign: MEN AT WORK.
The process begins, with the clearing of
all the vegetation on the site, then earth, and rock –

Elsewhere, the application is oblique, the creation of a certain kind of impression or anticipation, rather than a specific context, as in the portrait of the murderer George Hotton, who later suicided in gaol:

        A canary is a convict.
A sudden trauma, can cause the whole
body to tremble. A broken piece of glass, can’t
be hurt any further. 22 balls scatter across a billiard table.
George Hotton walked, with a wooden leg.
Conclusions, follow premises; he came
home after the pub, and assaulted his wife.
He assaulted his wife, quite often. A mantis leg
slashes / down, on an insect. A habit at 3
can continue until 60. Terror causes the body, to tremble.
There are 13 muscles, in the human leg. George was
arrested, for assaulting his wife.

A caged canary is carried into a coalmine to warn of danger; to the extent that it is caged, it is a prisoner, a convict. This allusion to danger combines with the subsequent references to disturbances of different kinds – the trembling body, the broken piece of glass, the scattered billiard balls – to create the sense of a gathering crisis. The convict reference points to the prison to which Hotton will be committed (for all we know he may already have a record). ‘Conclusions, follow premises’: he has a wooden leg, potentially a weapon of assault. What really drives these implications home is the analogy, through Hotton’s wooden leg, with the praying mantis, only it is not praying here: ‘A mantis leg / slashes / down, on an insect.’ You feel the violence of it even more strongly than if it was Hotton’s leg, wooden or otherwise, with or without the 13 muscles, that did the damage. This is because the analogy, indeed all the ‘facts’ cited, bring their own resonances to bear on the situation, though they are not causally connected with it. It is as if all the worlds from which these facts are drawn register the shock that is about to be brought down on Mrs Hotton’s head by her inebriated husband.

‘Discovery, is the result of / seeing an analogy, where none / existed before’, as π.O. notes in the poem ‘William Moonby’, echoing Arthur Koestler. Though it is illogical to assert identity by analogy – the fact that something is like something else, doesn’t mean it is alike in all respects – nevertheless an analogy, once it is accepted as such, does encourage you to draw conclusions. Indeed, it is difficult not to do so, particularly in poetry, where disjunction and elision are normal to the process of understanding, as is a willingness to cross the gap between elements through the interpretive acts of metaphor or association. Even where you feel a conspicuous lack of connection, you still make the attempt.

π.O.’s biography of Harry Evans, the champion billiards player, is a case in point. The first of two cascades of fact in the poem registers, in a comic way, his pride at being the champion, and also the sense that he is about to take a fall. ‘To show one’s form, is to show how good one is. / There are 31,000 quills, on the back of a porcupine. (No / doubt) but no one’s that great! Everything, is always / up for grabs. A battle royal, is a free for all. (The koalas / get restless, around dusk). Kookaburras are famous / for their laugh. Yabbies stick their eyes, on the ends of stalks / and have a good look around. A barracuda can strike with / a mighty force…’ And sure enough, along comes a challenger for his title, Charley Memmott. The second cascade occurs in the middle of the game, when challenger and champion have been sparring and have reached something of an impasse:

                                                               A powerful punch, can
shake the foundations of a building. A healthy rat will
stand up and sniff the air. “R” is 2½ times louder, than “Sh”.
An isosceles triangle, has 2 equal sides. To break
wind, in polite company, is not the done thing.
Nice work is an expression of humour. Bankrupts, are broken!
Idiots, cracked! Its bad luck to see a cross-eyed man
before placing, a bet. Men change their minds, 2, 3, times
a day, more often than women. Sometimes the toupee, is too
big for the head…

With the best will in the world, the reader will be hard put to apply these disparate facts to the matter in hand. Yet there is an application here, which becomes clearer when the poet finally observes, ‘The game / between Memmott + Harry wasn’t going anywhere’. You know the truth of this observation because, as far as the list of facts is concerned, you aren’t getting anywhere either. That is to say, even when the facts don’t add up, they still serve an expressive function, holding the beat, marking an impasse, enacting frustration.

What is this obsession with facts, so insistent in Fitzroy: The Biography, that their enumeration appears to be fundamental to the composition of the book? One obvious explanation would be that the foregrounding of fact dramatises the encounter with history, which after all presents itself primarily in the form of documents and testimonies. But this can’t be a full answer, first because while the outlines of the featured characters are drawn from historical sources, the facts that embellish them generally are not; and second because π.O.’s interest in the poetic use of facts and statistics goes back decades, well before the writing of Fitzroy: The Biography. The kind of poem that makes up the bulk of this new book π.O. calls ‘the everything poem’, which is an accurate description, because everything has the potential to appear in it. Earlier versions, collected as parts of a sequence called ‘The Everything Poem’, appeared in Big Numbers, π.O.’s New and Selected Poems, published in 2008. In that sequence you can see the poet exploring the possibilities of a new poetic language – some of the poems are concerned with history, but the main interest is in the power and variety of the material itself, the statistics, definitions, proverbs, empirical descriptions and the like, and what they can be made to do.

A larger explanation for the appeal of this material, which includes history as one of its sources, is that it constitutes the substance of our social life, our general knowledge and our common sense, and the assumptions which influence our actions. These ‘facts’ – conjectured, assumed, postulated or proven – compose the milieu in which we live. To parade them, to bring them into the foreground of the poem and to display their potential for transformation and reinterpretation, as π.O. does, suggests a political purpose, not only the desire for an aesthetic that might prove all-encompassing. His first ‘everything poem’ occasioned by a visit to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 1985, and collected in Big Numbers begins, ‘I’ve studied the situation / I’m not sure we can win’, and then gives a list of things that could be surveyed statistically (including ‘Gas / Gates / Geese / Gherkins’), before culminating in a set of dramatically presented figures which suggest the subjugation of women, discrimination against migrants, and the exploitation of the unemployed.

π.O.’s education as an anarchist is documented in Fitzroy: The Biography, and his political sympathies are clear, not just in portraits of fellow-anarchists like Chummy Fleming and Geoffrey Eggleston, but in his sympathy for the poor, the eccentrics and dreamers, those who live outside or against the system, the Indigenous inhabitants of the suburb, and the many women who are the subject of violence and abuse throughout Fitzroy’s history. But there is also a more general wariness, in his writing, about the domination of facts, which goes beyond the suspicion of how they might be used for the purposes of coercion, surveillance or intimidation. ‘The mind, is graffitied all over by the facts’, he writes in his portrait of the poet Frank Williamson, referring to his occupation as a teacher, and then by contrast, goes on to celebrate his achievement as a poet, quoting Williamson’s words, and then adding one of his own, in affirmation of a kind of fact that speaks for itself, without making any claim for its validity:

Where is Marie? Where is Rose? Ah…
        the robber years… those.

Fitzroy poems the poet goes backstage before a Tom Waits concert and discovers his hero in congress with a groupie. The shock is registered with a spilling of fact – ‘Mercury makes a full circuit of the Sun / every 88 days. Headlines: RUNAWAY COW / LANDS ON ROOF.’ – and then by another spillage when Waits appears on stage minutes later, to the poet’s astonishment:

An audience at the movies, blinks ////// in sync. 
Marcel Marceau once released a record – 40 minutes of 
silence, followed by ////// applause! We are being 
buried alive, under an avalanche of information. 
An octopus has 8 (and squid, 10) tentacles, 
each with 100s of suction cups, powerful enough to 
burst an artery

We know more than we need to know – more is known about us than needs to be known. The welter of information is represented, in the poems, precisely as a cascade or an avalanche. The multi-tentacled octopus appears repeatedly in the book, to suggest both the pervasive reach, and the power, of this over-heated information economy. The widespread anxiety about ‘information overload’ presents it as a contemporary phenomenon, but the 12-page poem ‘Suburbicide’, which is entirely made up of the slogans, invocations, proclamations, regulations, memories, opinions, sayings and all the other forms of assertion and avowal that define the life of Fitzroy, suggests that this kind of oppression has always been the case, at least in the modern period. One of π.O.’s most fertile sources of information is the newspaper, particularly in the nineteenth century – its power, as an encyclopaedic medium, now that it is waning, is not sufficiently recognised. The poem ‘1875’, composed of newspaper snippets from that year, portrays the suburb in terms of assertions about hats, drains, transvestites, thistles, boots, snake-oil cures, dogs and haircuts, the last of which Professor Higginbotham, of 215 Smith St Fitzroy, respectfully offers in the following compendium of fashionable styles: ‘Rifle Corps, Garibaldi, Palmerston, / Horse shoe, Byron, Brutus, Oxford, American, / French, Cambridge, West End, Dandreary, and / // Military.’ There’s an octopus in this poem too, along with the assertion that it has plenty of rocks to hide beneath. I imagine that π.O. would see capitalism, rather than the internet, as the cause of information overload. It’s interesting, in this respect, that he specifically denies the internet as a source for his facts, preferring instead to garner them from books remaindered or dumped in second-hand and thrift shops as time and the internet wreak havoc on the printed word. Judging by the nature of the facts, these include encyclopaedias, popular science books, thesauri and dictionaries of various kinds (including slang, quotations and proverbs), concordances, and reference books on such subjects as etiquette, body language, flowers and animals, household hints, martial arts and so on. It is appropriate that the poet should find his materials amongst the remnants and cast-offs of the capitalist economy, since now that they have dropped out of use, their facticity – the assumptions that make them facts – becomes more apparent. Freed from use – or rather, crystallised out of use – they offer themselves to appropriation and recombination. No doubt the quaintness of the appearance of old books, and the second-hand shops in which they are found, also works as an incitement to curiosity and discovery. You can find facts on the internet, but you have to know what you are looking for. The facts to be found in second-hand books offer themselves with a power similar to that described by Walter Benjamin, who saw quotations as fully-armed highwaymen, ready to leap out and rob the reader of their convictions. π.O.’s quotations aren’t really like highwaymen – or bushrangers – though they have plenty of energy, and they leap out at you at unexpected moments. Given the poet’s pride in his Greek antecedents, particularly Homer and Aeschylus, it would be more suitable to see them as particularly dynamic versions of the epic simile (in the sense that they offer a series of evaluative analogies), or as a chorus whose voice is that of common sense or common knowledge, providing moral perspectives on the action. It’s surprising to think of π.O.’s facts in this way, because they are, after all, usually inert, deposited in dictionaries and handbooks and reports, brought out occasionally to embellish a speech or an argument, when they seem to verge dangerously on cliché, or to serve only to bolster the authority of the speaker. On the other hand, π.O.’s design, in foregrounding the citation of facts in Fitzroy: A Biography, seems calculated to set them free from the orders they belong to, and to give them an expressive power that they cannot otherwise claim. (They are presented as assertions of fact after all, and even a proverbial assertion – ‘a fire in the heart can make the eyes smoke’ – surrenders any emotional charge it might have for the sake of seeming right.) You’re made aware of the inertness of facts, if they are not invigorated in this way, when they are juxtaposed with an assertion you can’t deny an emotional charge to, because it is associated with a death, or an accident, or a particular case of injustice.

          A family of 4, washes a ton of
laundry a year. A lack of clarity, leads to confusion.
A supply of water, can either be constant
or intermittent. Walter Hume was 12 when
they told him, he no longer had a father.
On a level road, a small stone can upset an apple cart.

There is another example in the opening to the portrait of Anthony Crocker, one of the many characters in the Biography who are punished for the crime simply of being poor:

          When the streets, are muddy
shoemakers rejoice. There are 105 calories
in a banana: 20 yards of linen, in a coat.
Over the bags (with the best of luck) is a ///// charge.
Candles made of beeswax, don’t */”# gutter, or spit.
Anthony Crocker (of George St) didn’t have enough to eat.

In both cases, the emotion carried by the reference to a particular death or instance of poverty charges the facts before and after it. Regardless of whether Walter Hume’s father died in a road accident, the proverb about the small stone and the apple cart resonates with the father’s death, even as it maintains its more general application to the unfortunate turn taken by the life of the son. In the second case, the jolt given by the reality of Anthony Crocker’s hunger frees the surrounding facts, about shoes and bananas and coats, from the inertness bestowed on them by their generality, and charges them with concern – the 105 calories contained in a banana now seems like a taunt, to a man who can’t afford any food, let alone a pair of new shoes, or the 20 yards of linen in a coat. In this way, π.O.’s quotations, like Benjamin’s, make an appeal to the reader’s convictions, as well as to their emotions. Relocated in the poems, they take on an extraordinary power. This is best seen in their capacity to express strong emotions, like indignation and anger. In 1874, two Aboriginals from the mission at Ramahyuck, one of whom, Blind Bobbie, had been denied food for a week by the Reverend in charge, knocked on the door of a nearby settler. A series of otherwise unexceptionable definitions register the settler’s, and the poet’s, shocked response to their condition. ‘All numbers are not created equal. / The eye-lens of a fish, is spherical. . . Air passes up the trachea, and / into the throat. Ellipses are a series of dots, that can / indicate an unfinished thought, a leading statement, a slight / pause or a nervous (or awkward) silence.’ When another Reverend comes to the defence of his colleague by arguing, in a letter to the Argus, that the blind Aboriginal had brought his misfortune on himself, the poet again employs a definition to bring judgement down upon him. ‘Penguin calls, consist of harsh braying, trumpeting, growls, trills, yelps, and duets.’ The abrupt association of priest and penguin demonstrates the power of fact, when it is used analogically, for it is not only the braying of the penguin which makes it similar to a certain class of Reverends, but the fact that, clothed in black and white, you can think of them as looking alike too. All sorts of other possibilities follow. I am reminded of Jonathan Swift’s swipe at readers in A Tale of A Tub, through a homely and unexpected analogy, which compared them to flies:

I am wonderfully well acquainted with the present relish of courteous readers, and have often observed, with singular pleasure, that a fly driven from a honey-pot will immediately, with very good appetite, alight and finish his meal on an excrement.

There are many figures who come in for judgement of this analogical kind in Fitzroy: A Biography – murderers, wife-beaters, criminals, stand-over men, racist thugs, corrupt police officers – but the poet’s greatest anger is reserved for those in authority who wield their power over the poor and the helpless. The portrait of the pederast priest Fr. Fasciale begins:

          Raindrops, turn rocks into dirt.
Fr. Fasciale was ordained by Archbishop
Mannix, in 1952. Australo-pithecus learnt, to
walk upright. Bully, once meant “first rate”.
A mirror knows how to reverse an image / from
left to right, but not up and down. The brain, of a rat
weighs about 2 grams. Fr. Fasciale forced children
to play with his genitals. The masculine, includes
the feminine. The origin of leeks is unknown.

The poem ends with a description of Fr. Fasciale’s funeral, at which George Pell delivered the homily, and with the comment, ‘Robert Gardner threw a 5 pound brick, 142 ft. / Fitzroy, is still hurting, from / that / prick.’ In 1938 Professors Agar and Wallace argued for the importance of instituting birth-control in the poorer suburbs, in order to control the reproduction of the inhabitants – a recommendation which, as soon as it is announced in the poem dedicated to the professors, is followed by the assertion, ‘A troglodyte, is a cave-dweller.’ The proposal itself, to issue contraceptives to those ‘unsuited’ to becoming parents, provokes a howl of derision:

                                                            “Four legs good, two legs bad”.
8 arms good, 2 brains bad. 4 toes on each fore,
4 toes on each hind! A crooked nose / is best seen, side on.
The upper limit of hearing, is about 20,000 Hz.
Breeding by any standard, is a matter of heir; but…
breeding by the poor + Blacks, resembles “farmyard” sex.
Dick Browning did a double take, then a back-
ward somersault / over a 7 foot fence.

The last detail may need some explanation (it is of the same order as the reference to the brick-throwing prowess of Robert Gardner in the previous poem). There is a Dick Browning, and in the early 1950s he made an historically high backward somersault over a bar – the feat earned him an entry, as ‘the world’s greatest tumbler’, in the Guinness Book of Records (which is likely where π.O. found him, as well as Gardner). Relocated in the poem, however, the fact functions as a cartoon-like ‘double take’, an exaggerated gesture of disbelief at the moral implications of the Professors’ plan. These judgemental uses of fact, to convey scorn, outrage, anger or condemnation, are at the moral end of π.O.’s expressive range, though none of his applications is ever without a moral dimension. More often, though, it is the expression of emotion itself which is paramount, as if the main task were to capture the emotional registers of history, to restore the cry, the laugh, the voices of protest and grief, the shock and comedy, to an otherwise soundless procession of figures; and to make poetry resound with feeling, something it is not known to do readily in this country. π.O.’s fondness for the thesaurus definition works especially well to give his portraits a percussive effect, as in the biography of Geoff Moriarty, the fullback for Fitzroy in the premierships of 1899 and 1905, who gambled, drank to excess, and beat his wife:

Blow: thump, hit, / slap, cuff, box.
Turn: spin, revolve, reverse, spoil, change, tap
Cajole: persuade, urge, wheedle, coax.
Knock: thwack, tap, thump, run, rap.
Welcome to the House of Violence.

There is a biography of the footballer-bully right there, in the thesaurus repertoire of aggressive and evasive actions. The percussive effect is not unlike that of cartoons or comics, with their exaggerated physical gestures and outbreaks of violence, their strange uses of language (more evident in 24 Hours than here), their mixture of pathos and comedy. π.O. learnt English through reading comics, and they seem to have remained an influence. In the poem called ‘Olive Cuppies’, Olive is ironing her husband’s clothes when the iron goes ‘phut’ and she hands it to him to fix.

Alongside a dream, is a nightmare. He grabbed
the iron; 16 is the 4th power of 2; the first message
transmitted in Morse code (in 1844) was: “What hath
God wrought!” The ring-finger, is the 3rd finger (on the left
hand). In an emergency, 4 horses cannot overtake the tongue!
The iron burnt all the skin off his right hand. 15 is the sum of
the 1st five numbers; he dropped the iron, and
punched her down. The only difference between
a Chimp and us, is 1%.

It is remarkable, the way numbers, abstract in themselves, can be used to register shock, as here. The effect is similar to that achieved through the deformation of syntax, spelling and punctuation, in 24 Hours, where a café acts as the focal point for the pent-up emotions of the migrant inhabitants of Fitzroy who come there for the company or the gambling. As is often the case, a game of cards suddenly erupts in anger

Mahooma puts down his cards . . . . . . . . . . . .
            Rong kaala !
RONG KAALA! , a bloke sez :
            WAI YOO . . . POOT?
Wai yoo POOT??? N-O YOO TORN !
            Wai yoo POOT? ? ? ? !
[He doesn’t know].
            Hee n-o!
Hee N-O! , the bloke sez: (Sssmaarti).
            Hiz SHITMEN!
BROK mai NERV!
            Wai yoo
poot him to plai? !
            Eye POOT him to plai ? ? ? ? ? !
( ( ( ( Eye ) ) ) ) POOT HIM? ? ? ? ? ? !
            ( ( ( Eye ) ) ) ) POOT HIM TO PLAI ? ? ? !
Yoo MED! Yoo MED! he sez .
            Yer .
                         (Yer).
                                             Eye giv yoo mai PRIK!
Giv it ! !
                         ( ( ( Giv it) ) ) ) !

In one of the poems in Fitzroy π.O. notes, ‘The Latin verb “cogito’ (for “to / think”) etymologically, means “to shake together”. / To smash, to break, to kick down stairs…’, and you have a strong sense that his determination to shake up both the facts and figures of an essentially empirical culture, and the language by which it hopes to govern its affairs (and keep its emotions under control), represents a deliberate expressive assault on its restraints and inhibitions.

π.O. has the reputation of being a bit of a wild man, so it is worth stressing the tenderness, affection and humour he is able to capture in his biography of Fitzroy and its characters and situations. If you compare the shock registered when a man prone to violence is scalded by an iron, and beats his wife, to the awe felt by the poet when he enters the Fitzroy library for the first time as a child, to borrow a book, and is overwhelmed by the wonder of the place, you get a sense of the range and complexity of feeling that his analogical use of ‘facts’ can convey:

                                                                              I walked up
the bluestone //// steps, and saw all the chandeliers
on the ceiling and thought it “magical”.
Courage goes on ahead, and the wind (some-
times) gives you just enough of a push to
get you in thru, the doors. Beethoven’s 32nd piano
sonata in C minor, represents the opening of
the Gates of Heaven. Valentino’s funeral
resulted in scenes of mass hysteria. When someone
looks up at you, the rule is they generally focus
on your eyes. The Old codger, behind the wooden counter
saw me, and went back to what he was doing.
A lizard closes its eye ( ), and blocks out the World.

The facts are deliberately over-stated, I would say – there is a comic self-consciousness mixed in with the fanfare which announces the poet-to-be’s first entry into the world of literature, and very quickly a familiar note of protest too, for ‘The Old codger’ who guards this world picks the boy as the son of a Fitzroy tenant, and refuses him borrowing rights, since they are only accorded to property-owners. There is a similarly complex reaction portrayed in the poem about the Fitzroy-born sculptor Bertram MacKennal, who after a stint in London with Tom Roberts, and a successful commission to do the relief for the façade of Parliament House in Melbourne, sets up a studio in the city, only to find himself completely ignored. That’s a feeling – of withheld recognition, and the puzzlement and self-doubt that comes with it – the writer knows well. ‘To raise one’s “eye-brows”, is / to be ))) surprised. “I don’t know” was the most / amazing piano-solo ever waxed. To delude, is to “befool / the mind”. To know one’s groceries, is to know the score. / The moon, does not heed the barking of a lone dog. / So he went back to Europe, where he was hailed for his skills.’

Fitzroy: The Biography has many such moments, delicate in their expressions of feeling, though the choice of elements through which they are conveyed may at first seem surprising. One example is Tom Trudgeon’s attempt to evade custody by doing a runner while on the way to the lockup – ‘The Constable took / off, after him. 23% of the Cosmos, is composed of / dark matter. Tom disappeared down a lane.’ Tom is a petty criminal, hounded by the cops – but the juxtaposition of the Cosmos and a dark laneway in Fitzroy, has all the hallmarks of sublimity about it. The effect is comic here, but in another example, the description of Gertrude Kane mourning the death of her half-caste son, sublime perspectives of a similar order produce a completely different set of feelings. There is a whole story here which π.O. compresses with great skill at the same time as he attenuates the moments of emotion, so as to draw out their implications. As a younger woman Gertrude had been abandoned by an Aboriginal man, who left her with a crippled child. ‘Unmoral, amoral, non-moral, immoral.’ is π.O.’s unequivocal comment. She takes up with a man called Kane, a fighter and a ship’s steward, who doesn’t want a half-caste sullying the purity of the family he then proceeds to have with her – so the boy is sent away to an orphanage. ‘Conclusions / follow, from premise. A day of sorrow, is longer / than, a month of pleasures.’ Logically speaking, that makes years of sorrow, longer than an eternity. Kane dies at sea, and although she is now living with her eight other children in extreme poverty, Gertrude immediately retrieves her first-born from the orphanage. But the damage has been done to him, and he soon dies, too. The description of the mother’s grieving is one of the most powerful moments in the book.

She sat down beside him, and as the sun set
she gently washed his body, and put
a clean white shirt on him. A capella is singing
without accompaniment: The Earth follows
an elliptical pattern. The Moon, is 5,594 miles across.
Darkness is light, without a fire in it. (The work of God, has
a blemish on it). (Life was brought to Earth
by a comet). Moths at night, blunder into street-lights.
To rabbit on, is just to talk nonsense.

And so the narrative resumes, in simple terms, without elaboration. ‘At midnight (under the cover of darkness) she / put his body into a pram, and pushed him / up Alexandra Pde, up to a peppercorn tree / over Reilly’s drain (between Brunswick, and / Napier St).’

The boy’s death, and the mother’s grief, is given an extraordinary intensity by the juxtaposition of such large perspectives – from a standpoint in the solar system, observing the beginnings of life on Earth – with the fragility of moths at night blundering into street-lights, and then the note of personal embarrassment (‘to rabbit on…’), suggesting the poet should just stop, and let the scene speak for itself. The scene is a particularly contemporary kind of pietà, shrouded in the folds of fact. But what really drives the emotion home is the repetition and near repetition of ‘it’ – ‘Darkness is light, without a fire in it. (The work of God, has / a blemish on it). (Life was brought to Earth / by a comet).’ The repetition-rhyme on ‘it’ hammers home the particularity of this scene, insists on the grief and pain of this death, even as the definitions and quotations which allow the repetition open out their cosmic perspectives.

There is an interesting paradox in Fitzroy: The Biography, which has to do with the relatively late emergence of the biography of π.O.’s own family in the work. Since the family’s presence in Fitzroy dates from the early 1950s, and the book begins in the 1830s, the late appearance is chronologically appropriate. But these late autobiographical poems are also different from the historically-based portraits that come before and after, in that they are largely free of the expressive elaborations that are such an important feature of the book as a whole. Given their late appearance, unadorned, against the encyclopaedic array of fact and historical detail which is all about them, the poems about the family’s life in Fitzroy, and the poet’s life in particular, seem striking in their modesty. In 24 Hours the poet is largely absorbed by his role as meticulous observer and recorder of the life happening around him – he barely makes an appearance at all.

It may seem odd to talk about modesty or shyness in relation to π.O., given the provocative nature of his public persona, and his ‘crazy wog poet’ reputation – a reputation he addresses directly here in the poem ‘Adelaide Arts Festival’. Nevertheless, there is something in the way he makes ‘the facts’ talk for him, and the huge labour implicit in the gathering and sorting and placing of these citations, that suggests self-effacement. The disavowal of expressive elaboration in the family poems indicates that the personal details given here are of a different order. They do not require invigoration or intensification, because they are alive in the poet’s memory, they are essential to who he is, so the presenting of them is an open and expressive act in itself. But the ground has had to be prepared first: these direct acts of self-presentation draw much of their power from their surroundings, from the dramatic context provided by the other biographies in the book. That is to say, the self-effacement implicit in π.O.’s encyclopaedism is intimately connected with the self-disclosure evident in his autobiographical poems – the one gives licence, and force, to the other.

This distinction, between orders of fact, and the relation between them, is best seen in the poems of tribute to people or places that π.O. holds in the highest regard. The tributes to his encyclopaedic mentors, the quiz maestro Barry Jones and the poet Geoffrey Eggleston, are, as one would expect, encyclopaedic in nature. The poem in praise of the artist Danila Vassilieff fizzes with detail, a suitable tribute to the immense vitality and creativity of the man. But then there are the literary tributes, and here, immediately, the facts are of a different, and more intimate nature. Phillip Hervey was an educated man sent to Van Diemen’s Land for the crime of forgery. The creator of the largest puzzle in the world and a lover of Aeschylus, he blew his brains out after being laid off work. π.O. marks his memory with a bouquet of quotes from Aeschylus, ‘Words are the Physicians / of the mind. Destiny will always / wait for a Free man, but not a Slave. / A great Ox stands upon my Tongue’. Frederick White was a Fitzroy bookseller, charged by police with having an indecent publication – Ovid’s Art of Love – on his sale shelf. π.O.’s tribute to him is almost entirely made up of quotes from Ovid, from the Heroides, the Metamorphoses, the Art of Love, and culminates with his famous claim, in the Epilogue to the Metamorphoses, ‘My name shall never be forgotten’. π.O. changes it slightly, giving it the intimate and resonant note characteristic of his personal poems.

Time, is the devourer of all things. I first
saw Ovid (in Fitzroy). His name, shall
not be forgotten, in this house.

‘Shakespeare & the State Library’ is one of the most moving tributes in this collection, offered in recognition of two of the most important influences on π.O.’s formation as a poet, as indicated by the title. It is a finely wrought piece, which begins with a brief fanfare of fact, to warn (not without irony) of the magnitude, and the personal nature, of the disclosures to follow.

          An avalanche, in Alaska (in
1958) caused, a tidal wave 1,740 ft high.
Diane Arbus’s work (in her photographs) violated
all notions of “privacy”. – Kennel-up – stop talking!
Bluish-black lobsters, are made red by boiling…

Thereafter, the dominant mode of citation is quotations from Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which are threaded through the poem, in intricate dialogue with its account of the poet’s ambitions, and the role bestowed on him as the ‘great white hope’ of his family.

I told the parents, i couldn’t study here i.e. at the back of
the shop – i had to go to the State Library (in the City), and
they agreed. (But not to make a famine, where
an abundance lies, it had to be, when the shop wasn’t busy).

Shakespeare might be thought of as a father-figure, since the Sonnets have a decisive early effect on the young poet (‘O change thy thought, / that I may change my minde – i was rapt!’), but there are two other father-figures in the poem: Barry Jones, encountered on the steps of the library; and a real father, the poet’s own, an altogether more pervasive and complicated presence, antagonistic and apparently uncomprehending, and addicted to gambling. When it comes down to it, you understand that the poem is essentially about π.O.’s relationship to his father, and his father’s expectations of him (hence the warning notes in the opening fanfare).

Over dinner one day, my father asked me, what i was reading.
I didn’t know what to say. How could i say, To thee
I send this ambassage, in Greek? Or mine this, mine thus,
mine thee, mine must, or why should i hast
my hence (or some such)? My father wasn’t anything like
Shakespeare’s, who as a decrepit father takes delight
to see his active childe do deeds of youth.
So i said, i’m reading this book by this guy
called Shakespeare…

The poet assumes that his father neither knows nor cares who Shakespeare is, so he explains the Sonnets to him in terms he would understand, as being ‘about a bloke / who’s in love with this woman’, and has taken twenty pages just to kiss her hand. His father’s reply is immediately appealing.

My father, looked up at me, and said “O”
we’re up to, that stage
          are we?

The response is funny, and deeply knowledgeable too, in its own way. It takes some guts, and a lot of skill, to open a door on a parent like that. It brings your whole background as a person into play. To allow that to happen, to develop a form which can house all the elements, to give them space and life, is a huge achievement.

Notes

An earlier essay by Ivor Indyk, on π.O.’s 24 Hours, can be found in Southerly, 55, 4 (1995), 66-72.
Copies of Fitzroy: The Biography can be purchased at independent bookshops and directly from the publisher, for $65 including postage within Australia, Collective Effort Press, GPO Box 2430, Melbourne VIC 3001, email: pioh(at)hotmail(dot)com