The Sheer Skill of Assemblage


Laurie Duggan reviews:

Heide by Π.O.  Giramondo Publishing, 2019

Winner, Judith Wright Calanthe Award

Most recent Australian attempts at the long poem are verse novels of various kinds which, (unlike Alan Wearne’s work) seem to be composed mostly of filler like the ‘concept’ albums of late 1960s bands. Heide is a big book that needed to be a big book. At some 550 pages it is rivalled only by Wearne’s two volume work The Lovemakers. It is a compendium; a history of Australia (in terms mostly of its art) culminating in the artists and writers’ community around Heide in the 1940s and 50s.

How are we to read this book? It moves along at a rapid pace with its intercut ‘facts’ and mathematical conundrums. This would suggest a speedy oral performance in the manner by which Tom Raworth presented his work. It functions like this on the page too, urging us to read quickly. There is a lot of research presented throughout the poem, much of it important for the story but also a lot of items that seemingly complicate the narrative. These have the feel to me of the kinds of compendia that used to be produced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that would place a value on learning as the accumulation of ‘facts’ (e.g. ‘Galileo looked up at the night sky (thru a telescope / in 1610) and saw 4 moons orbiting a planet. / A catenary is a curve following the shape of a hanging chain’). ‘Did you know that . . .?’ might be the question here and there is as much detail crammed in as you might have found in a Coles Funny Picture Book or similar work.

It’s a disrupted narrative due to the insertion of these ‘facts’. They function as a kind of interference making us aware of the nature of history as a construction. There is writing going on as there always is, though some authors try to hide the fact. This book is very much about the process of reading itself and about how we might, through our reading, reconstruct history.

In the first section there is a deal said about the establishment of Melbourne’s art and literary institutions: the National Gallery and the State Library and Museum (all initially in the one building) and the University of Melbourne. This period of building testified to a philosophy of Civic Humanism (it would do us good to have these things at the centre of our cities). These projects are at one extreme of the spectrum that is occupied at the other end by the popular magazines and compendia.

The work itself is ‘scholarly’, but it is so in a manner of popular scholarship (say, Cyril Pearl) rather than any current mode of academic presentation. Some idea of the texture of the book might be given by this passage on the painter Tom Roberts:

In 1877, he enrolled

in the School of Painting, then under von Guérard.

The wheel crushes the rock underfoot over time.

A King and a 9 is a canine! If robots have rights, then

others have too. He supported himself

painting portraits for people; a 1/3 of his output.

The National Gallery of Victoria only ever acquired

one ‘minor work’ of his, during his life-time,

but a paying patron will pay good money

for a speaking likeness. Portraits put jam

on the kitchen table. Meridians, measure longitude.

He met S. T. Gill, loved glover, and (of course)

Buvelot, his mentor. A ‘Club banger’, is the song

that brings the bloody house down. Let the Bourgeoisie

settle their own problems . . .


We live in an age of diminished expectations. As I write the NSW bushfires make the atmosphere of Sydney almost unbreathable. And it’s the age of the ‘new lyric’, heaven preserve us. Heide, by contrast, doesn’t stay in the same place long enough to fall in love with itself. The art/artifice here isn’t as self-regarding as the ‘new lyric’; instead it’s the sheer skill of assemblage at work.

There’s also a good deal of wit in Pi O’s approach. For example, the passages on the nude painting ‘Chloe’ later to hang in the bar of Young & Jackson’s hotel:

some of the Boys got hold of some black’n’white

pictures of Chloe i.e a painting by Jules Lefebvre of Paris.

  1. R. Clarke (of Pitt St) a photographer, went

to the exhibition in Sydney, and photographed Chloe, and

began selling the photographs, to all and sundry

for a 1/- (1 shilling!). But he was totally undone, when

a large number of people – principally of the larrikin class

gathered around on the footpath, outside his

shop window, to ogle at the picture. The Police said, he was

pandering to the ‘vilest instincts’ of human nature


. . .

Chloe got

‘sold on’, to an ex-gold-Digger (turned Hotelier)

who fell in love, with ‘the clean immobility of her pause’


The fine texture of the work and the sharpness of observation might be evidenced by a passage on the domestic life of Heide:

Everyone who

lived with them (out at Heide) had to chip in.

Their palette ‘the environment’; a landscape (the

landscape and memorials, to long lost friends, made in

the shape of a garden. Inside the house, the smell of

freshly cut /// lavender and flowers, and freshly baked scones,

for afternoon teas on the lawn. Separate the cream, dig

the crops, cut the branches, pick the fruit, slice the cumquats,

clean the seeds, squeeze the oranges, scramble the eggs,

spread the marmalade, apples, pears, (drink a glass

of milk), go for a walk with the dogs, look up the birds, and

see the clouds . . .

Bring the vinegar to the boil, chop the mint, drain

the sultanas, salt the tomatoes . . .

. . . You are, you are, you are, (as

they say) what you eat


The question some readers might ask is ‘why Heide’? The Reed’s home in Heidelberg enters the story in the last third of the book (the short sections following seem more like an addenda than a continuation of the main themes). I think that for Pi O Heide and its community, for all their foibles and their sharply differing politics (e.g. the right-wing Alister Kershaw) represent an openness to experience and experiment that is gestured towards in the preceding sections. Australian history is in effect the back-story. But our patience is well rewarded.

This is a brilliant book. It is a long ride too. You can let it carry you through or you can drop in and out. Like a tape loop it will still be there to come back to.

It’s is a crazy book.

So was Such Is Life.

Laurie Duggan

Published October 2019

Paperback 560 pages

ISBN 9781925818208


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