Review: Gig Ryanon π.ο.

‘Art requires, a long look’

So much has been written on the Heide group of artists, Nolan, Tucker, Hester, and their patrons John and Sunday Reed that it is hard to imagine anything more could be added. π.ο.’s Heide however, though holding this group of communalism, camaraderie, and free love as its centre, radiates backwards to the history that precedes the Reeds’ utopian endeavour, and continues into its aftermath. One epigraph from Oscar Wilde signals Heide’s intent: ‘The only duty we have to history is to rewrite it.’ Artists tumble out in artistic lineage from Buvelot to the Heidelberg School to Heide, along with numerous glancing biographies of influential patrons and politicians, William Barak, Ned Kelly, Albert Namatjira, Patrick White, Billy Hyde, Eliza Fraser, and many others. Through these intersecting histories, Heide also depicts the struggle between the conservation of the past and revolt against it, as epitomised in the Ern Malley hoax, with Angry Penguins magazine briefly funded by the Reeds, and the recurring compromises that swing between capital and art; ‘Only an Artist, can break out of / a straight-jacket.’. But it is his poetic technique that most energetically enacts these struggles, forging a dense amalgam in which past and present continually invade each other. Where π.ο.’s earlier Fitzroy: The Biography catalogued portraits of famous, notorious, and lesser known characters, Heide commences with ‘Terra Australis’ that cryptically lampoons its title, then to Cook’s voyage, and gradually progresses to the establishment of the State Library and the National Gallery of Victoria in 1850s colonial Melbourne, and eventually to the artists hammering to enter or exit those institutions. Escapee William Buckley and explorers Leichhardt and Burke and Wills are also among these seekers of the new: ‘On the horizon: / 23 horses, 19 men, and 26 camels on / a slow walk across / a blank slate.’ This imaginary ‘blank slate’ is equivalent to the unpolished metropolis without its establishments of arts and learning, and these doomed or heralded figures parallel the relentless pursuit of art.

          Cats were brought to Greece
from Egypt. A pond of frogs is deafening.
Ventilation is imperative. An anecdote is a short
interesting story. Cicadas are a kind of cricket.
“G” always ends, everything. A giggle house is an asylum.
Imparting knowledge is important. Redmond
Barry opened up his house to the public to
use his library to educate the Colony. Rats can swim
for ½ a mile without resting. Imagination can
see what’s missing.

‘State Library 1854’

It is interesting to consider that in 1867, the year that instigator of modernism Baudelaire died, Henry Kendall’s poem ‘Bellbirds’ was published. White Australia, that is, was determinedly constructing a new culture out of its freshly encountered environment as realised in poets Lawson, Paterson, Kendall, Harpur, Gordon, Gilmore, and in painters such as Buvelot and Chevalier, just as Europeans were overthrowing their old culture. Consciousness of a ‘new world’ can be seen in the proliferation of native flora and fauna emblems in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century architecture and artefacts, and later in the Jindyworobak group’s clumsy attempts to incorporate Indigenous motifs in their works. It was often newly-arrived Europeans, unfettered by patriotism, such as Yosl Bergner and Danila Vassilieff who perhaps pushed a more modernist aesthetic in painting. White Australian art had less history to overthrow.

            The end of the road in Europe,
signalled the beginning of the road here.

 When he first arrived in Melbourne, (at the end of
the roaring 80s), nobody cared about “painting” much,
you could have walked down Collins St with
a Van Eyck under your arm, and no one would have
given you £5 for it. 113634 is a Motzkin. To coil-up is to
go to sleep.

‘Julian Ashton 1851-1942’

A Motzkin is a numerical sequence and π.ο. positions mathematics as being intrinsically poetic. His earlier The Number Poems and Other Equations was composed entirely of numbers, a form of concrete poetry in design, but impenetrable to many. Typographical experimentation follows from Mallarmé and was first continued by the almost-forgotten Hope Mirrlees among others. Mathematical sequences, ‘number’ and concrete poems, various typographies and patterning are deployed in Heide by way of dates and quotations within the linear narration, while another descant encyclopaedia of facts and edicts pummels against it. Laurie Duggan has written that Heide almost resembles a Coles Funny Picture Book in its vast assemblage of information. Its edifying aspects remind me of a book owned by my Tipperary-born great-grandfather, an 1887 edition of The Universal Self-Instructor, with its ‘Epitome of Forms’ and ‘valuable vocabularies’, or the astonishingly knowledgeable and thrifty Household Hints (early 1900s). There is as well a Guinness Book of Records quality to this shooting gallery of Nolan, Tucker, Hester, Boyd, Perceval, Moya Dyring, and the Reeds, all competing artistically. Facts and dates seem to proffer an insistent rubric, but their proliferation also exposes them as comically inadequate impositions on reality. π.ο. reflected on this in an interview with Amy Lin earlier this year.

I learnt while I was writing ‘work poems’ how facts were being used against workers. So I began to use them myself, in the service of ‘us’ workers – I found you could use facts in a variety of ways, and in particular how a ‘fact’ could be used as a ‘metaphor’ or a ‘synecdoche’ or ‘metonymy,’ etc. So I began using them too.

Accumulation mirrors a history in which the café is as significant as the National Gallery, the artist as quixotic, or as heroic, as the funded expeditions, and one that debunks a hierarchy of worthiness, so that ‘To Granny Smith 1799 – 1868’ is followed by ‘Core of My Heart’, a poem that entirely eliminates Mackellar’s; old adages, slogans, songs, and common expressions are as integral to perception as any formal analysis. As Duggan observes, this is the longest Australian verse-novel (or rather, long poem) since Alan Wearne’s The Lovemakers; ‘Art requires, a long look.’ Duggan’s own The Ash Range was an evocative synthesis of poetic exploration and documentary history of Gippsland. But where Wearne explored poetic forms within his narration, such as a poem where every second line rhymes improbably with Tullamarine (The Lovemakers : Part Two) or a monologue voiced entirely in limericks (‘The Phil Price Limericks’, The Lovemakers : Part One), π.ο. follows no form but his own, a text for spoken performance punctuated by pop-up commas and slashes that pause or jolt. Rhyme sneaks in occasionally as synoptic sheen, as in ‘Patrick White 1912 – 1990’. o’Kaym-en-os! /  o’Kaym-en-os! /o καημένος means ‘the poor man’.

He loved all things Greek; o’Kaym-en-os!
When they came to Australia the //// light and glare of
ancient Greece, shone on the soil. Even the dogs
in their care (in their household) spoke Greek.
A dragonfly doesn’t stop to survey a creek.
A snake is discreet, and keeps to its circle.

The collage of lives in Heide splinters into Melvillean expositions, and the title perhaps more properly indicates that German word’s translation, pagan, than a specific tale of Heide, as here the idols would hang on gallery walls and their makers and patrons live communally as equals. π.ο. however does not deify artists, but wedges them alongside those catalysts to art that include cafés and bookshops. John and Sunday Reed do not fully appear until the middle of the book, at which point disagreements about artistic quality and style have exploded in Melbourne’s art scene.

                                                The trachea runs down
the front of the oesophagus. 678570 is a Bell number.
Everyone turned to George Bell (fresh from
Europe) for a way out of the problem, or
a way forward. He immediately saw the ignorance &
arrogance, & dangers of Menzies’s proposal.
Hayden’s string quartet Op76 No.2 in D minor opens
with a powerful theme of falling fifths.
Art (in Melbourne at least) was in danger of
being dictated to by Politicians, and Big Business.
Cézanne called Picasso “a man to consult”.

A handful of “experts” would
force their standards on everyone & the walls

It is in the nature of Art to distort distortdistortdistortdistort!
Playing it safe can only produce “mediocrity”;
it cannot be otherwise. The Stethoscope
goes down the throat.

‘Contemporary Art Society 1936’

This argument follows a biographical portrait of Phar Lap, ‘The only reason anyone ever went to / the National Gallery’, revealing the idiosyncrasy and randomness of official preservation. Some concurrent facts intermittently trace painting’s break from patronage-driven praise of god to rendering of daily life to self-expression to abstraction. It is the expectations of patrons that change, as the Reeds become entwined with those they patronise; ‘A good Artist paints / for his peers, a bad one for his Patrons.’

            A lot of money, can produce
a lot of money, or a lot of //// paintings.
But either the Artist snubs the Snob, or the Snob
snubs the Artist — Thank God, for hypocrisy! —
The Patron, is the one, who supports and approves
and the Wretch, is the one who responds
with insolence.

Ezra Pound said, that when a Patron buys
from an Artist, then they are in a sense, equal to an Artist
in that they are bringing new Art into existence.
John & Sunday Reed had inherited a lot of //// money, and
a lot of cultural baggage. The only purpose of nectar, is
to attract insects.

‘The Artist & the Patron’

All of the poems that comprise Heide can be read, though not as comprehensively understood, without the detail enwreathing them, such as ‘Guernica’, a type of ekphrasis that imitates as much as describes that painting, or ‘Platypus’, part definition, part anthropomorphic monologue that arises after mention of the word, or ‘Intercolonial Exhibition 1866’, a crammed tour de force, or ‘Albrecht Dürer’, that peers behind the Ern Malley hoaxers:

                         They had a mattress on the floor, and
a gramophone for a circus. They looked at the post card / and
dreamed of visiting Innsbruck. The scaffolding in
the watercolour, was sketched /// in. The tower yet to be
completed. The water looked so fresh, and cold,
and reflected the whole town. The people on the bank
stick-figures, Klee-like. Jacopo de Barbari told
Dürer (in Nuremberg) about the importance
of mathematics in Art, and in particular that of proportion,
and // perspective. The smell of an oil lamp
          betrays the dreaming.

π.ο.’s three epic-sized books merge into an impressive trilogy. Each employs a different register: 24 Hours perfects a technique he first used in the 1970s, phonetically transcribing Australian migrant voices and thereby validating a new ‘lengwich’, somewhat related to Afferbeck Lauder’s  Let Stalk Strine. Just as the pseudonymous Lauder casts some Australian accents as amusingly affronting, but assertive, strays from ‘proper’ English, so Π O too authorises a new way of seeing language not only in its origins and phonetics, but as fundamentally inextricable from spoken emotive tone and social context. Fitzroy: The Biography continues this practice in some dialogue, but mostly uses a recognisable though distinct register, with unexpected staccato commas that choreograph its vocal performance. Greek language is transcribed in this way in Heide, such as ‘p’Neuma’ for πνευμα / pneuma, ‘the very essence (and stuff) of Life.’ or Manoly Lascaris exclaiming ‘a’H….hhh… /  ti a’ll-o, tha aa’koos-oon / ta maatya maas?!’, τι άλλο θα ακούσουν τα μάτια μας, that roughly translates as ‘something our eyes will hear’, or ‘what else will our eyes hear’. Each book expands in both time and locale, from the small community plotted across 24 Hours to that community’s suburb in Fitzroy: The Biography to this voracious network of Melbourne’s art and other history that subsumes the earlier books, stretching into a smorgasbord of everything. The language embodies this expansion as it broadens in scope from the particular, of migrant accents, to the illuminating dramatised biographies in Fitzroy: The Biography, to the vocabulary of government officials and artists’ cranky or loving letters, manifestoes, and directives in Heide. Through refined decrees, quotations from Browning and other poets, to cartoonish asides, each period of art is conveyed across a century and more. ‘Take away the language, and / you take away what can be expressed.’

π.ο.’s anarchist aesthetic locates the scurrying phrase, the overlooked figures, the extraneous observation in epic scale as Joyce, in modernist commandment, had displayed throughout Ulysses. Each filament of thought that leaps from one thing to another churns into a π.ο.-vian fabric of connection. No social or political hierarchy can be acknowledged without some mockery, and so there is little that cannot belong. ‘The Courts are a natural place / for a verbal stoush. Those sitting down, / listen to those standing Up.’ The individual is embedded in his or her era, as in ‘Herbert Read 1893 – 1968’, a poem that places the art historian among the beginnings of World War 1 in which he served:

Economic determinism leaves little room for the individual.
Banging a nail / into something, indicates
a brief unhappiness. John Etherington invented
the / Top Hat. Kierkegaard said, we experience life
either ethically, or aesthetically. Herbert Read preferred to
read canvases, like a series of comics

This is the cure: a home made bomb, a long beard.
The fuse ——— ! is set. — Wait for, the explosion —
This is the explosion “ * ”. We are all children.
Bad is good, but only when worse, is worse.

Anarchism isn’t an act, it’s a process, a living
organism in the act of developing. When politics is local
it’s all about us. The opposite of Realism, is Idealism.
“Be a Realist, demand the Impossible” is an Anarchist slogan.

While European migrants energise some of the surrounding painting and music, the Heide circle is predominantly Anglo-Australian. European influence seems to hover on the sidelines of painting but infiltrates the jazz bands where common purpose overrides prejudice or linguistic ability (‘Graeme Bell 1914 – 2012’). ‘Everybody / once loved, a vibrant Ethnic. To shoot one’s bolt, is to waste / everybody else’s time. No one wants to buy / a painting off an old Russian Cossack. A lonely man / was our Vassilieff .’ The artist then is naturally akin to the new arrival as neither can be easily corralled. As in Fitzroy: The Biography, the autobiographical comes like a fourth wall break towards the end. π.ο. describes his first meetings with Overland editor Barrett Reid, and a narrow escape from being sexually preyed upon by an acquaintance of Reid’s inside the State Library. His ire at this breathtaking example of racism and attempted abuse never subsides, but soon through Reid’s encouragement and tutelage, through intellectual patronage, he broadens his interests from poetry to music and painting, and becomes acquainted with Sweeney Reed, the son of Joy Hester and Albert Tucker adopted by the Reeds.

Apart from this brief episode, little is unknown, but this connection with the remnants of Heide has perhaps catapulted the book. π.ο. does not completely rewrite history as Wilde directs: rather, his uniquely layered presentation that spruiks its amazement and never ceases to entertain, reimagines its, or more exactly poetry’s, capacity. Encapsulated lives are interwoven with etymologies, facts, mathematical statements that traverse the esoteric and the vulgar. These seemingly peripheral interjections slyly exaggerate or satirise the narration, forming an alternative commentary and counterpoint to each scene.

The only recourse is, to organize an alternative
with a different structure; an “Arts society”.
A pullover is a sweater you pull over your head.
The longest cave system in the World, is
in Kentucky (367 miles). John and Sunday Reed
distributed a pamphlet //// addressed to
all “Art Lovers”. Subscriptions now open — from
Leonardo’s bookshop. There is nothing on Earth
stronger than gravity. — ALL WELCOME —

‘Contemporary Art Society 1936’

Heide is a massive ‘everything’ poem, as π.ο. describes the aesthetic of many of his poems, and all stabs at perception, from primary sources to overheard jokes, bear equal weight. Somewhat influenced by the Russian Futurist poets Mayakovsky and Khlebnikhov, who celebrated speed and revolution, rejecting what they considered to be the sanctimonious subjectivities and sequestrations of formal poetry, π.ο.’s writing is a fusillade of acquisition that dazzles and sometimes exasperates as it leaps from narration to dialogue to boldly stated obscure or common facts. Where Duggan’s epic achievement was partly influenced by William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Ezra Pound’s crowded Cantos have some relation to this theory of the ‘everything‘ poem. As Ivor Indyk surmises in his review of Fitzroy : The Biography, interjections act as a type of Greek chorus commenting on, or summarising, the action; their constant presence is even perhaps reminiscent of responsorial psalms and the call and response liturgies in the Catholic mass that affirm faith. This underwater mountain of equations and awe, knits and accelerates Heide’s concept of history, as raucous, ludic, multi-dimensional, and profoundly empathetic in that nothing is disqualified and everything, no matter how fanciful, is affirmed. ‘We look at our beliefs / and only see ourselves’, ‘Representation absorbs, the object’, ‘What the old chew, / the young spit out’. What initially seem like distractions, like a fly on a candidate’s glistening head, are as integral to the poem as any linear, or rather circling, narration. Heide then is all-encompassing and its circuitous interrupted chronology can seem almost subsidiary to a style that embodies its own theory of knowledge, and of how temporality can possibly be commemorated or even assaulted. Matter and style are inseparable. ‘The future isn’t a “style” / it’s an impulse’, ‘History is the memory of / a people.’ Like all art, Heide is also thought itself, a portrait of the author’s mind, and perhaps more aligned with another Wilde dictum, ‘It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.’ As Indyk has noted of Fitzroy: The Biography, the documents, letters, and facts cited have been sourced mostly from old newspapers and books rather than from internet search engines and, as Heide concludes in a paean to Shakespeare, it can be read at least partly as homage to the Book itself, and to the spoken or performed, rather than the digitised, word. A Shakespearean empathy also drives the protagonists’ composite portraits, remodelled and enlarged by each discontinuous encounter.

There have been many impressions of artists’ lives in Australian poetry, including most recently John Scott’s Shorter Lives and Laurie Duggan’s ‘Afterimages’ in Homer Street. π.ο. however does not psychologically reconfigure the Heide artists but places them within a fuller history envisioning what that narration can possibly be, unconstrained even by time as pop songs and movies timelessly infiltrate the text. 24 Hours spectacularly sculpted migrant experience and language, and Fitzroy: The Biography exhumed the spirits of that once impoverished suburb, here Heide moves into the realm of art that seeps through history and time, a dream unlocked from the street.

Works Cited

Laurie Duggan, review of Heide, forthcoming ‘Tears in the Fence’.

—, The Ash Range, Picador, 1987; Shearsman Press, 2005.

—, Homer Street, Giramondo, 2020.

Ivor Indyk, review of Fitzroy: The Biography, Sydney Review of Books, 2015.

Afferbeck Lauder, ‘Let Stalk Strine’, Ure Smith, 1965.

Amy Lim, interview with π.ο. Blarb, Los Angeles Review of Books, 4.13.20.

Stéphane Mallarmé, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, Imprimerie Sainte Catherine, Paris, 1914.

Hope Mirrlees, Paris, A Poem, The Hogarth Press, 1919.

π.ο., 24 hrs: The day the language stood still, Collective Effort Press, 1996.

—, The Number Poems and Other Equations, Collective Effort Press, 2000.

—, Fitzroy: The Biography, Collective Effort Press, 2015.

Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, New Directions, 1996.

Alan Wearne, The Lovemakers: Book One, Penguin, 2001.

—, The Lovemakers: Book Two, ABC, 2004.

Oscar Wilde, ‘The Critic as Artist’, Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, HarperCollins, 1994.

—, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Penguin, 1966.