Taken from January 2013, this review of Geoff Page‘s 1953 (University of Queensland Press) was first published in The Melbourne Review.
1953 – Geoff Page
University of Queensland Press
1953 is both a pulse-taking and a cross-sectioning, a feeling of the heartbeat and a peering into the layered veins of Australian social history. In this volume poet Geoff Page visits the remote (semi-fictional) Australian town of Eurandangee on an apparently quiet Tuesday afternoon, February 17, in 1953, at precisely 2:30pm in the afternoon. Taking that singular point in time, his eye and ear casts around the town to uncover the dense textures of life as it is being lived – in the council chambers, the high school, the Greek café, the mine, the farm, the pub, the railway line, the drawing rooms and waiting rooms, the wasteland where groups of Aborigines stretch out under trees to drink sweet sherry. This was the Australia that rode on the sheep’s back, with the clip famously worth a pound a pound. We all know the sensation of passing through sleepy rural towns mid-afternoon, under a blazing sky, squinting from the light, walking into the deep cool shade of retail spaces and wondering whether much ever happens there. What Geoff Page has done with 1953 is show, through a most brilliantly executed series of monologues and verse portraits, that indeed there is life, and beauty, and courage, and desire, and frustration. The heart beats here as strongly as at any other point in time or space.
Post-war Australia is now a very faded time. In 1953, Page’s Australia is a world before our new technologies of communication, before multiculturalism, before the enlightened social engineering of the present. It is an Australia white, mostly male and rural. From the moral heights of the present day it could be easy to sneer at this lost world, but Page is far too deft. This is a love letter to an Australian society superficially very different but as deeply complex and as richly layered as today; where surface uniformities masked buried webs of ambition, love and pulsing, restrained desire; class envies, rules of behaviour and respectability. This is the Australia from which many of us, or our parents, emerged, and this book does us a service as valuable as any social history of the 1950s in explaining, and celebrating, without the need for academic analysis, the beautiful currents that rushed through our towns like dark underground streams.
1953 operates as a kind of poetic anthropological study, without judgement or analysis of the flaws of its actors. From adultery to war vet trauma, to fettlers and cops and country doctors with their receptionists, from the telephonist with a handle on every town conversation, to frustrated housewives looking to the exotic world of distant Sydney, this tender yet thrilling portrait celebrates the rich human drama of a society and time for which now, all too often, condescending terms such as ‘heteronormative’ are invented. Not quite the ‘redneck’ world of Les Murray‘s famous poems, yet this is all white bread, milk, potatoes and carrots and mutton Anglo Australia. Not an immigrant in sight beyond the token Greek marooned in his café serving steak and chips, having banished baklava as something locals were not yet ready for. Uncovering layer by layer, Page’s narrative poem reveals many of the foundations on which contemporary Australia was built – sacrifice, an understanding of isolation, fear of the outsider, and bloody hard work.
Once again, UQP fly the flag of Australian poetry. This stunning volume must be an early contender for many a ‘Best of 2013’ list.