Robert Wood, Suburbanism: Poetics, North Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2019; pp: 119; RRP $29.95 AUD.
Born and raised in Western Australia, the young historian and poet Robert Wood travelled across continents. Having visited small villages in South India as well as metropolitan cities in the United States, he returned with fresh eyes to his home suburbs. These experiences helped him produce a book about suburbanism as a poetics; ‘a consciousness, a language and a lifestyle’ (115). Since his first collection of poetics, History & the Poet (2017), Wood has developed his poetic as a poet living between country and city, nature and culture, indigeneity and diaspora, journalism and philosophy, history and poetry, and the living and the dead. Suburbanism presents a poetic praxis that reflects on, revolts against and refashions the current way of living in the suburbs. Acknowledging that the suburbs are the ‘banal expression of occupation in settler society’ (86), he points out that the suburbs also contain utopian possibilities:
To see the suburbs now, and suburbanisation as a process, and suburbanism as a poetics, means thinking through what the place and consciousness of lifestyle enables. (34)
To converge these ‘utopian possibilities’, Wood believes, one is bound to be a ‘suburbanist’. From the beginning of the book, in ‘Dear Redgate’, Wood composes a nostalgic love letter to his home. He juxtaposes the suburb of Redgate with New York—the ‘capital of the world’: While people think of New York as the centre of the world, they pass by each other with no time for a glance; yet in the suburb of Redgate, ‘strangers pause and comment’ (4). With rich emotions for the beautiful nature in Redgate, such as the spider orchid and the jarrah trees, he claims: ‘I’m a suburbanist.’ ‘The suburbanist is the thinking subject who negates the Othering suburbanite’ (30), and suburbanism is ‘a poetics that is philosophically informed and responsive to the daily’ (xii). It must recognise the past and also show a contemporary consciousness that leads on to a hopeful future:
[Suburbanism] offers us a way to critique any such polity that is predetermined to be suburban, and not simply as a new intellectual commodity to be suburban, and not simply as a new intellectual commodity that can be assimilated, reified and fetishised by unresponsive and unchanged structure. (89)
This collection consists of two parts, each with six short essays. Between them is an interlude entitled ‘Suburbanist 6014’, where Wood pictures his childhood life in Wembley—a sample of suburbanist life. To me, if the first six essays tell us what suburbanism is, its past, present and connotations; the second half of the book is more about how Wood practices this poetics. It seems to me that the two parts form a certain symmetrical (or dialectical?) beauty: It begins with a letter to Redgate and ends with a monologue back in Redgate; ‘Notes of a Gumbarli’ takes us to the genre of folk songs called tjabi
in the indigenous language of the Pilbara, Western Australia, and ‘Notes of a Malayali’ brings in Australian diasporic voices in poetry. They shed light on Australia’s past and present, either as ‘a settler society’ or as ‘a migrant country’. ‘Heavy Journalism’ and ‘Theory Ordinaire’ can be viewed as echoing each other too. They are both the most heavily theorised and abstract pieces of the whole book (and frustrating for common readers too). He writes in a heavily journalistic style, which he defines as ‘well thought common sense reportage deeply responsive and philosophically disciplined’ (114). Wood is greatly influenced by Hegelian dialectics, and his poetics attempts to open up a liminal space ‘between darkness and light, between philosophy and journalism, between theory and theordinary’.
One thing which fascinates me about the book is Wood’s historian’s perspective in his poetics. To him, ‘history sees and poetics interprets’. (9) In ‘Big Box Island’, Wood refers to Walt Whitman’s and Allen Ginsberg’s poems to show how suburbia emerged after World War Two, first in America, and then became a widespread phenomenon all around the world. Starting with suburbia’s stereotypical image as a ‘Big Box Island’, Wood reflects on late capitalism, globalisation, consumption, lifestyle and identity. Following this, ‘The Next Suburb Over’ refers to suburbia as a typical Australian lifestyle and traces its emergence and sprawling growth as well as its flaws and potential. Besides, he does not forget to deal with the colonial heritage of suburbia. To him, the question of decolonisation for the poets is far more than a matter of land (such as its nature, landscape, undeveloped frontier), but an endeavour of language; hence suburbanism is also a post-settlement poetics.
Suburbanism is a bold attempt in many ways. Although it is intellectually informed, Wood deliberately avoids scholarly reference, so it seems to me that it could be read as a contribution to the philosophy underpinning literary criticism, rather than an act of literary criticism itself. The whole collection touches on multiple issues in diversified styles and speaks ‘on the outskirts of philosophy and sociology and history’, and it is both challenging and fascinating to read.
The University of Western Australia