Review: David Musgraveon Alan Wearne

Fasten your seatbelts: Prepare the Cabin for Landing by Alan Wearne

If I were selecting a Modern Australian Poetry XI, Wearney, like his near-namesake in another kind of XI, would be one of the automatic choices. To my mind (and ear), he is one of the best formal poets writing in Australia today. His prosody is daring and virtuosic, and he is one of the best rhymers in the game. Additionally, his verse novels The Nightmarkets (1986) and The Lovemakers (2001-2004) are major achievements which stand head and shoulders above all other verse novels produced in Australia, with the possible exception of Π.Ο.’s 24 Hours: The day the language stood still (1996) – an exception Wearney himself would insist on.

Prepare the Cabin for Landing does not disappoint on any count. Alan Wearne’s formalism is as innovative and as flexible as ever, and the novelistic tendencies of his poetry are in evidence in the the collection’s two long sequences. The book contains much that one would expect from a poet who is unashamedly influenced by nineteenth century models – Browning, Meredith and Clough come immediately to mind – and he also draws on the previous century’s Dr. Johnson, whose ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’, based on Juvenal’s tenth satire, is the model for ‘The Vanity of Australian Wishes’, which makes up the last section of the book. In fact, it seems to be an increasingly dominant feature of Wearne’s poetry that it is preoccupied with the past, drawing on it for much (though not all) of its subject matter and for its most salient influences (although how one’s influences could ever come from the future is a mystery, unless the inventiveness of this collection is such that one poem, ‘Love is in the Air’, suggests such a way). This is not a weakness; on the contrary, it is what gives the book its obvious energy. It is refreshing to read poems that are not afraid to talk on familiar terms with the past.

The prosody of the book, on the whole, has a kind of virtuosic roughness, which is just right for this kind of satire. Take, for example, the first stanza of ‘Dysfunction, North Carlton Style or, The Widow of Noosa’:

I’d love you to meet this exemplary couple
swinging and sexy and very well liked.
Here in a suburb where values quintuple
over thirty plus years and they still haven’t spiked

I read the first line as amphibrachic, the second dactylic (with a masculine stress ending on ‘liked’), ditto the third (with a final trochaic foot), and the last perfectly anapestic. The overall structure is that of the ballad, but there is a controlling ear with a more nuanced understanding of what makes a stanza work. Elsewhere, the variety is pushed to further limits. Take this example from ‘“All these young Australianists…”’:

And yes sometimes I fear it’s shuddering beyond control: this Creative
Industries / that Arts Practice,
and I do yearn to return to those days when all it required was just loving
the stuff,
and though I’m up for supporting each delegate whatever their act is,
‘JYW,’ I say to myself, ‘enough’s decidedly enough …’

These extremely long lines – I make it, in terms of stresses, ten, eight, eight and ten, but you might make it otherwise – dare us to stuff it up, and one of the pleasures of this book is reading lines with the stresses of conversational speech and then re-reading with a scansion that suggests other emphases or meanings. For example, the first line above could be taken to be iambic pentameter up as far as the colon, becoming trochaic after that (it’s possible – try it), thus enacting the distrust and frustration of the narrator at the level of prosody.

Mixing and matching your meters could be, for some readers of poetry, a sign of a lack of control, but I reckon Wearney pulls it off. The feeling of heterogeneity and, oddly enough, imperfection, which permeates many of the poems is, in fact, the result of his minute attention to prosodic detail, and I feel that this is one of Wearne’s distinctive achievements in this book. He gives the appearance of an occasional looseness, or haphazardness, or writes lines which seem to exceed the space which should have been allocated them, but which somehow just manage to work, to scan on a re-read, and then to make sense. It is not often, in recent times, that I have read a review that necessitated a discussion of the prosody of the work in question. It is a sign of Wearne’s skill that, to do justice to his work, I seem to have no choice other than to do just that.

The book is divided into four sections. The first consists of four poems, all more or less dramatic monologues and satires. These range from ‘A Portrait of Three Young High School Teachers’, which deals with a group of female school teachers in the early 1960s, to the jaunty narrative ‘Dysfunction, North Carlton Style or, The Widow of Noosa’, which charts the story of a swinging couple from Carlton, who open their marriage, grow old and (in the case off the husband, at least) die. ‘The God of Nope’ is narrated by a ‘onetime junior partner’ of the notorious Nugan Hand Bank, and ‘“All these young Australianists…”’, an amusing satirical portrait, is narrated for the most part by Janice Y. Wilde, an Australianist academic and ‘partner’ of ‘critic, novelist and naturally poet Ted Tucker’ who observes with some bemusement the goings-on at this year’s conference:

Indeed. Who was last year’s silly girl (Bree Mumby? Simone Wigg?)
that allowed herself to be churned into gossip’s hideous anti-matter?
Wouldn’t wish to deny any child her trophy jiggety-jig
but to leeech onto Tristram, Tristram Heyhoe, Trans-Tasmanist and decades-perpetual satyr,

a throwback’s throwback, beyond misogyny…

Academia has always been an easy target, but Wearne enlivens his satire with a feisty ottava rima ballad, penned by Ted and inserted into the middle of the poem, which features the jaunty refrain ‘We’re both on a Fellowship, ho!’ We can read the poem as a satire of academia as it is now (or was just a little while ago), or as a curious celebration of the ‘cultural strut’ which in some areas has replaced the cultural cringe. Either way – or both – it’s a romp of a read.

All of the poems in this section are in rhyme, with ‘The God of Nope’ organised into tercets and the rest in long-lined quatrains. The rhymes are generally tight and amusing: ‘Kama Sutra’d’ rhymes with ‘putrid’, ‘Ohio’ with ‘Clio’, ‘poet’ with (you guessed it) ‘know it’, and ‘satyr’ with ‘anti-matter’. These and other rhymes zing with a kind of trans-cultural brio, or at other times with a kind of knowing buffoonery, all of which is mightily entertaining.

The first poem could be a link to the second section, ‘Operation Hendrickson’, a long poem in which Wearney himself appears as a character. The narrator is Robert ‘Henn’ Hendrickson, and the story follows Henn and his chums – including Wearney, who is depicted putting together a ‘rag’ called ‘Proper Gander’ – from their early-1960s schooldays through to their later, disappointing years. There is the implication within the poem that Wearney is himself the author of this memoir of Henn, even though Henn narrates. The last words of the poem belong to Henn, telling Wearney his ‘ever-essential motto’: ‘Don’t like it? Don’t do it. For Wearney, that’s what it’s all about.’

The third section, ‘And the Hits Just Keep Coming’, consists of seven poems based on Australian pop-songs. These are a continuation of the Pop Song sequence from The Australian Popular Songbook (2008). Because Wearne is so good at what he does in the other sections –  dramatising, novelising and satirising – these poems do not at first appear as substantial as the others in the book, but the explanatory notes at the back give specific contexts for them and show them to be doing something different. Among them, ‘Love is in the Air’, dedicated to the speaker of the poem in 2040 AD, when she would be thirty years old, is the most appealing. It takes a fond, nostalgic look back at the present from the perspective of the future, a kind of paradigm for the narrative frame of many of the poems in the book. I also particularly liked ‘Howzat’ which, the notes tell us, is ‘the Shane Warne poem … what else?’

The final and most substantial section is ‘The Vanity of Australian Wishes’, which leap-frogs the Augustan sensibility of Samuel Johnson’s poem to embrace the more scabrous irritability of Juvenal. This literary opalisation makes it clear that we are meant to understand the poem as belonging to a tradition, and that its mode of operation may well be inhabiting that established by its precursors. This proves to be largely true. The notional setting of the satire is on board an aircraft coming into land, an allusion to the panoptic purview of its predecessors, and this allows the poem to range freely across time and space. The central characters are chosen from a narrow band:

Diggah, a multi-substanced sportzstar, V’roomv’room
some  ex-ex would be-would be supermodel,
Annabel-Kate this very former CEO turned opinion-piecer,
and Chad: that bankrupted motivational speaker poised
at the edge of the slammer. Plus big-noter, small-timer
I am if you are and you better be hahaha
bagman slagman liar thief…
thirty, forty, fifty years on from 6A,
our very own self-proclaimed King o’ th’ Rooters

At first, one might mistake these characters for mere caricatures of some aspects of popular culture, but their stories are more detailed, more personal and, dare I say it, believable than their typicality might suggest. Considered alongside ‘“All these young Australianists…”’, ‘The Vanity of Australian Wishes’ brings to mind Swift’s definition of satire as a ‘sort of glass, wherein beholders generally discover everybody’s face but their own’. But Wearne is one step ahead of us, and near the end of the poem, he recasts Swift’s phrase thus:

We may not be them but they are surely us,
and with that paradox we just might muddle on
to our survival knowing You are who you are not.
Get it?

We do get it, and this is what makes satire work. As with Pope’s use of proper names in The Dunciad, where a reader might initially think it is necessary to know who Blackmore, Cibber, Oldmixon or Milbourn actually were – even though it is not, in the end, absolutely necessary – one does not have to know who Wearne’s characters are meant to represent. In the hands of a talented poet-satirist, the satirical form is of as much interest in itself as what is being satirised, which is the case with this book. Having said that, I would not mind seeing someone like Wearne take on some targets closer to home (our defamation laws may make that too difficult, although he has already published a sketch in prose: ‘The Chart: a reply to Jamie Grant’).

The collection’s final poem also has another frame: that of the death of the author’s friend and fellow poet, John Forbes, and how this occurred on the same afternoon as the burial of Melbourne gangster Alphonse Gangitano, whose death sparked the gang war depicted in the television series Underbelly. The weaving together of these two events, in combination with the aircraft narrative, has an unexpected effect, which is what makes this section the best part of the collection.

Prepare the Cabin for Landing is a really impressive book. While it shares with Wearne’s previous collection, The Australian Popular Songbook, the quality that Pam Brown describes as being ‘nostalgic for decades-old popular culture’, this is precisely the energetic spine which runs through it and makes possible the construction of so many interesting and beautiful works of art.


Alan Wearne, ‘The Chart: a reply to Jamie Grant,’ Southerly, vol. 60, no. 1 (2000) 151.