Wood, Robert. Suburbanism. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2019. RRP: $29.95, 121pp, ISBN: 9781925801965
Suburbanism is Robert Wood’s second volume of poetics from Australian Scholarly Publishing, following History & the Poet (2017). Suburbanism’s essays propose a way of reading suburban existences and “how we can live with joy, clarity and respect through a poetic consciousness that articulates, celebrates and reflects our daily lives” (53). Wood’s suburbanist isn’t quite the suburbanite, someone that lives in the suburbs. Suburbanites include those with a stony and inflexible thinking, “who would be passive, the white settler who would simply occupy” (26), whereas the suburbanist is attuned to the everything that inevitably passes through the suburbs on its way to the city or the country.
Many of Suburbanism’s highlights come, for me, in the second part of the book; in particular two essays of close reading through the suburbanist lens: ’Notes of a Malayali’ and ‘Birds of a Mirror’. The latter draws together a wide range of poets—Jean Kent, Dorothy Porter, Geoff Page, and so on—to read how birds function in Australian poetry. Through careful reading in fine slices, Wood builds up an argument that birds act as mediators in the collision between city and nature that’s part of suburbia:
They offer not only life in the face of the dead, built environment (the mausoleum, the tomb of the Taj), or the inanimate (the buttered knife) but they also offer us a way for the poet to be led. (71)
Suburbanism’s essays range across styles from the literary-critical to the allegorical, and that’s part of Suburbanism’s appeal. The suburbs are imagined as an archipelago—little islands of family, ethnicity, ways of living—and so it is for the structure of the book. Essays might look very different on the surface but Wood surrounds them all with the same warm currents: ways of reading the fish and microplastics. ‘Archipelago Republic’ allegorises the book’s structure and Wood’s story:
From the sea, the sea of his dreams, he learns how to speak. And when he wakes on his island, he goes to thank it, to kneel down and speak to it in the language it gave him, in the language the sea taught him when he was sleeping.
When he speaks to the other islanders in the language of the sea, they say he is speaking a dead man’s tongue for they cannot understand him. (101)
‘Archipelago Republic’ reminds me of History & the Poet’s title essay. I look forward to these fictocritical moments in Wood’s books: they’re always beautifully written and help to demystify some of Wood’s symbols. In Suburbanism, ‘Suburbanist 6014’ serves as a useful guide for some of Wood’s images. Wembley and Redgate function as icons for the styles of living that Wood promotes, and ‘Suburbanist 6014’ paints a vivid picture of Wood’s experience growing up in Wembley; its cultural context and emotional tenor.
With the variety of styles, there’s bound to be something that the reader struggles to connect with. In my case it was ‘Theory Ordinaire’. Take this as a failing of the reader: I don’t have the background in philosophy to fully appreciate the moves that this kind of essay is making. ‘Theory Ordinaire’ is self-consciously dense; it has a sharp sense of humour but its beginning is so deadpan that I wasn’t sure what was happening until quite near the end. That said, there are times that its density congeals into some concise and astute observation:
[…] That is why suburbanism is an ecosystem. That the ecosystem appears to be in peril due to global warming means that the problem is one of incommensurability between timescales of political action and scientific thought, as if defining those two was possible at all, which is not to say we cannot do it all. (99)
It’s an essay that, like a good poem, is sure to pay re-reading.
Suburbanism signals a journalistic mode of writing, consciously so with its ‘Heavy Journalism’ essay and more generally in its lack of referencing—something that not everyone is going to appreciate in a book of criticism. To risk misrepresenting Wood, I’ve heard him speak of working in different modes—his scholarly writing is differently conceived than the journalistic mode that he employs when writing, for example, for The Los Angeles Review of Books. Wood describes this journalistic mode as intellectually and philosophically grounded, but not necessarily as meticulously researched as a scholarly article. I think it’s important for work like Suburbanism to be written and made available for readers; there are many ways of working and many ways to express a useful idea—the scholarly genre is only one of them. As long as the ideas are responsibly positioned in dialogue, these are opportunities to try new ideas and different epistemologies.
One of the things that disappointed me in reviewing History & the Poet was that I couldn’t scratch the surface of the book’s discussion points. Suburbanism is no different—it seems remiss of me not to write about Wood’s experience of demonetisation in Kerala or the tjabi of the Western Pilbara. Whether readers agree or disagree with Wood’s suburbanist thinking, this book is sure to prompt interesting conversation.
Chris Arnold is Westerly‘s web editor.