Out Here

Bloodaxe Books Ltd, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, 1987

It was like this. Brett Viney, 17, knifed himself in the school toilets. A botched act, never really suicide.
His teacher speaks first: how Brett staggered into her room, clutching his stomach.
Then there’s the family. His grandfather, sounding off about the parents, their rows. And Lorraine, the commie aunt. Oh, and Cheryl Browne of course, his father’s mistress. Tracey too (the so-called girlfriend), and her father, all have their say.
So does Brett.
That’s how it was. It happened out here, in Melbourne, Australia. In this house, this room. We hear them talking. It’s hot. Passions and tempers flare. Frustrations too. Out here eavesdropping on the break-up of the Viney family.
Ordinary people. Ordinary lives. Extraordinary poetry.

FOREWORD by Michael Heyward,

As the Yarra River runs down into Port Phillip Bay it splits the city of Melbourne in half. Away to the west lie plains and the factories, the traditionally working-class suburbs which still get the   meanest share of the city’s dwindled riches. In the opposite direction, extending in an arc from the neat rectangular grid of the business district and the terrace houses of the inner city, are the suburbs of old money, their grand Victorian and Edwardian homes tucked away into quiet tree-lined streets. As the arc widens they give way to a vast expanse to newer houses, brick veneer or weatherboard, built by the likes of Athol McNab in the land boom of the 50s and 60s; and we are in the heart of the eastern suburbs out here, the spiritual home of the swinging voter, the corner milk bar, and the weekend barbecue, the setting for Alan Wearne’s compassionate critique of a family trying to fathom the crisis in which it finds itself.

            Australia is an overwhelmingly suburban society: in each state the population is densely concentrated round the capital city, yet the centres tend to be small and self-contained, places to shop or to see a film: it is out in the sprawl of the suburbs that most of the living gets done. And yet there is nothing in Australian poetry which might be said to have anticipated Out Here, no poem so comprehensively focussed on our domesticity, no work which could be considered a recognizable catalyst for its style; even Wearne’s earlier verse gives little indication of Out Here’s scope and range, its emphatic and unmistakable realism.

            The poem was finished in 1975 when the brief era of change which Gough Whitlam presided over was sadly and sensationally disintegrating, and the achievements of the young poets whose work it helped to foster were slowly beginning to be acknowledged. But while Wearne is sometimes linked with that so-called “school” of “new poets” whose history dates from the late 1960s (and which includes such writers as John Tranter, John Forbes, and John A Scott), his developed work is stunningly unlike anybody else’s. Like many of his generation he felt the influence of post-modern American poetry. Early on Wearne was attracted by Ted Berrigan, and his extraordinary verse novel The Nightmarkets (Penguin Books Australia, 1986), which follows in the wake of Out Here and shows how rich was the potential of the earlier poem, arguably reveals an affinity with the Berryman of The Dream Songs. Yet it is the Victorian experimenters in narrative verse and dramatic monologue – Browning, Meredith, Clough – who seem the truer precursors of the ambitions manifest in Out Here.

            This perhaps surprising combination of writers provides a partial literary context for Wearne’s poem; his social context though is unambiguous. What scores of story tellers and poets, much earlier, had tried to do for the Australian bush, Alan Wearne has done for modern Australian suburbia: he has given us the voices of its inhabitants in intimate relief, without condescension, without aggrandisement, creating his characters from the inside so that as the narrative of Out Here unfolds it becomes plain that Wearne has come to grips with an aspect of social life in this country which, in its very ordinariness and inescapability, has rarely inspired Australian poets to produce their best work.

            Wearne takes the tawdriness and banality of his apparent subject matter in Out Here at face value — an adolescent boy has stabbed himself in the toilets of his local high school – and weaves around it nine points of view, the voices of these nine characters whose lives are shifting under the pressure of the complex domestic situation which has helped to precipitate the central event. Yet if these characters are easily recognisable (the mixed-up kid, the housewife who’s fed up but will always care, the middle-class radical) it is all the more remarkable that Wearne gets at the detail of the problems they keep sifting through without resort to cliché or stereotype. This is largely the result, I think, of his compassion for the figures he creates, the writer’s humility before the people he imagines to be real. In formal terms Out Here is a sequence of dramatic monologues but the homespun flavour of the dramatization, and the effort the characters make to explain as best they can their proper sense of things, means that the poem also reads as a series of conversations between these people and their author – by extension therefore between the speakers and the reader – until they have talked themselves out and have no more to say. And even though the characters mostly reminisce about what has led them to this fault-line in their lives, Wearne’s control of dramatized speech is so proficient that the sections read not as calculated set-pieces nor as closet confessions upon which we eavesdrop but as free-wheeling discussions, intense and honest which testify as they inter-relate to form a whole, to the writer’s self-appointed task of trying to understand.

            The social focus of Out Here is extremely defined, but in this radical commemoration of his parish Wearne does not fall back on any merely parochial celebration of the language his characters speak. The Australian dialect is on display, to be sure, but Wearne is not interested in transforming it into a showpiece of the national culture. The sophistication of his achievement is to have produced a credible range of voices out of the dross, the rawness of spoken language; characteristically the words sputter off the page in a syntax that careers according to the speech rhythm of the particular voice. But if Wearne’s poetry is apparently rough-hewn and rugged that is because his attention to the intricacies of speech, its quirks and unpremeditated eloquences, is acute and lively. Strange as it may seem he has given Australians an authentic (if jazzily refracted) image of the way they speak; and it is Wearne’s refusal to narrowly stylise speech, his uncanny ability to dramatize the words we throw away every day, which has ultimately given him the freedom to create what Chris Wallace-Crabbe has justly called the most original style in Australilan poetry.

Michael Heyward is the Melbourne based Publisher at TEXT and former

Co-founder/Editor with Peter Craven of Scripsi.


A note from Alan Wearne about the cover:
“The cover features an artwork by Australian artist Jenny Watson:
House painting, Blackburn, 1977

Dimensions: 179.5 x 213.5 x 5.1cm
Medium: oil on canvas
Collection: Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased in 1994.

For this 1986 UK publication of my verse novella Out Here, I was delighted that Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Patrick McCaughey suggested a work from Jenny Watson’s 1970s Houses Series for the cover. In 1985 this 1977 artwork was still in the artist’s studio collection and Jenny Watson granted copyright approval.

Subsequently, this artwork was acquired by the MCA Sydney, in 1994. Further information about Jenny Watson and the significance of her Houses Series is available on the MCA website under the heading Artists and Works, MCA Collection.


Contact the Author, Alan Wearne: info@alanwearne.com.au


‘Eating Out’ was inspired by the late adolescent adventures of my friend Robin Rattray-Wood and myself. Of the protagonist Robin is about two thirds and I’m about one third. Written within a year of my writing one of the worst poems I’ve composed, it is still a piece to be proud of.

‘Midnight Thru Dawn’ is the final section in my verse novella Out Here written in 1975. Centred around nine monologues reacting to a schoolboy’s self-mutilation, this poem is spoken by the boy’s girlfriend’s father.