Wakeling, Corey, The Alarming Conservatory. Sydney, NSW: Giramondo, 2018. RRP: $24.00, 128pp. ISBN: 978-1-925336-61-0
Corey Wakeling was in Perth recently for the Festival of Perth Writers Week, speaking about his second full-length poetry collection. We asked Robert Wood to review this alarming new book.
Web Editor’s Note:
I couldn’t resist saying how much I enjoyed The Alarming Conservatory, and I’d like to thank Robert Wood for allowing me to intrude on his review. Hearing Corey Wakeling discuss his book at Writers Week confirmed for me the sense of joy in language that I’ve always associated with his poetry. Wakeling is always probing what can be thought, what can be said, and how the two relate. The Alarming Conservatory contains unique investigations of places and relationships, and displays a unique sense of humour: ‘Alfresco Dining Area Dining Alfresco’, for example, starts from its palindromic title and over a four page rough-ride of larding and logic (both spurious and common-sense), Wakeling imagines how such a thing might be come to be. Goad Omen is Wakeling’s first full-length collection from Giramondo, and I loved its imagination of place and its collisions with language and culture. This element is even stronger in The Alarming Conservatory, through poems like ‘Pupils of the Goat’ and ‘Available for Public Events’. Wood’s observation of Wakeling’s “authorial dexterity” is spot on: language, in Wakeling’s poetry, is never where you’d expect it to be, but it’s always in the perfect place.
Never Pressing the Snooze Button
Building on the unsettled landscapes of recent academic scholarship, Corey Wakeling’s second book of poetry The Alarming Conservatory is a slim volume that explores the territory of personal experience in a searching, fecund, rich language. Readers will immediately note the common presence of several difficult words, including: stertorous (1) nescience (4) anamorphic (4) epiglottitis (8) tumescent (9) symptomology (11) hegemonicon (31) reificatory (34) lobotomite (35) hagioscope (42). The cursory reader could be forgiven for thinking that Wakeling’s use of these conveys condescension of the ordinary, the everyday, the normal, which at the level of this content is often suburban. But this misreads Wakeling’s keening, youthful desire to impress upon the reader that ‘I have the smarts and can talk to you too.’ It is about making language expand, pushing the boundaries of the common, and widening the scope.
Wakeling is enthusiastic and wants to assure us that he can talk about where he has been as well as wear his learning on his sleeve. In that way, The Alarming Conservatory is an act of generous vulnerability cocooned within linguistic flights of fancy that rise, bend, arc, pop, fade, linger. There is also a rhetorical distancing that can be observant, a watching of the world even as it doubles back to engage, riff off, blow it all up. Nowhere is this clearer than in the afterword that concludes with a reflection on a photograph of the author with his brother:
Three yeas ago, for Christmas, Dad got me a mug with a photo printed into it that my Grandad took of my brother and me when I was eight and my brother was three. A strange gift, isn’t it? Look at my eyes, and the width of my smile. This is a foreboding photo. My enthusiastic eyebrows are arched, like I’ve been prodded to perform myself. I’m so keen on making a memorable photo for Grandad, and any adult can see through the earnestness on display. We’re on a track in Jorgensen Park, its ragged loveliness a sparsely chaotic Fred Williams-like background for our portrait. All the trees are caked in burn scabs. I’m smiling as if I would like to will the world to be different. But I also look artificially self-satisfied, as if I felt the decision to be happy were an achievement. Clearly, I love my brother. That’s one thing I do like about this photo. I’m tucking my head into his shoulder. But, again, look at me. There’s what makes this photo chilling. A fondly photographed image, with two boys staring at the lens, and one of them looks like he’s trying to smile the world away. (69)
This is a candid and self-aware admission, or is it? Is it a kind of confession that acts as a coda to difficult poems, or maybe a positioning? Or is it both? I do not want to answer those questions, to ask what is behind the mask, or to weigh up the relative merits of honesty, direct address, authenticity after the ironic, the savvy, the clever. Rather, The Alarming Conservatory asks us to think about the language of it, to consider what the surface tells us about place, cultural reference and sonic play.
Wakeling moves a lot, and if he has a ‘home’ it is in memories with ‘Dad’ and ‘Mum’ even as the volume as a whole is dedicated to his grandfather. Still, he takes us to High Wycombe with is ‘starchy’ Coles (2); Newquay, which = Portsea (3); a ‘panoptic’ New York (4); North Melbourne with its ‘plum duck’ and ‘snot’ (6); Dandenong with its ‘soak’ (15); the ‘unending’ Darling Ranges (16, 18); ‘Albany, you might say is heaven,/Kalamunda calls itself hell’ (18); the crawl-able Yu Yangs (22); and further afield with asides on Milan (38), Warsaw (41), Vienna (49). While we are taken to these multiple places, we hear about Marcus Clarke (9, 15); Captain Cook (15); Plato, Aristotle (17); Albert Namatjira (24); Le Corbusier (41); Virgil Thomson (41); Jackson Mac Low (43); Cesare Battisti (45). Although not dealing with his birthplace of Lancashire (https://www.kobe-c.ac.jp/english/kyoin/wakeling.html), this is a book of known Westernised locales with references that reach for the established. No Naarm here, no Maya Angelou, but a critique of what they critique internal to itself; a labour of negation from within the tradition, aware of an experimental constellation that has ambitions to be resistant.
Wakeling impresses when he allows himself to be caught up in language itself, appealing to the sonic with discordant phrases, pleasing rushes, re-writings of common sayings. Think here of:
Gum descent persimmon protect (17)
It’s late afternoon now and his shadow is long,
his festering paranoia ripens, and now the endgame
is a blinding migraine as the employment stakes heighten. (19)
for its psychedelia and heraldry. So too Mum’s duplex
and the baby palm invisibly putrescent in essence. (51)
One appreciates these phrases when read aloud for this is when one apprehends the authorial dexterity. One will note the content that Wakeling reaches for too–Australia, as it is understood in the language of white settlers; a reference to his metropolitan touchstones (Samuel Beckett with ‘endgame’); a suburban trope (duplex). Indeed, if these are poems that engage with the thematic of space, as highlighted by the blurb that situates them as being an ‘inquiry into language and the architectures of history and culture’, then we might say it is the family home that is being investigated most. It is the duplex that lingers longest, and it is these domestic and relational aspects of the volume that will resonant for many readers, who can take pleasure in the wryness, astuteness, self-consciousness that permeates The Alarming Conservatory as a whole.
Robert Wood is the author of History & the Poet and Concerning A Farm. He has been an Endeavour Research Fellow at Columbia University and is currently based in Western Australia. To find out more please visit: www.robertdwood.net