Cover of book: The Tour

The Tour

Π.O.’s two most recent books were epic in scope and heft. Fitzroy: The Biography was a sprawling history of the Melbourne suburb; Heide, a kaleidoscopic account of art-making and patronage. Both books wielded dizzying accumulations of disparate, sometimes incredible, facts and stories against monolithic authority.

Rather than the radical inclusivity of the “everything poem” found in those books, in The Tour Π.O. returns to the immediacy that characterised much of his earlier work, including the iconic 24 Hours. This isn’t surprising, given the book is set in the mid 1980s with the protagonist on a reading tour of the United States with three other poets and a tour organiser, “sponsored by the Literature Board and the Guggenheim Foundation”. He asks, “what’s a nice Anarchist Greek Poet like me doing (going / to the States) on Guggenheim money???? / / FUCK KNOWS!!!! / Stay tuned! / I DENOUNCE ME!”.

The book recounts the hotels, bars and streetscapes, the everyday poverty, racism and hustle of American cities, with Π.O.’s signature ability to conjure the bodily sense of being in the middle of things. Aside from anachronistic depictions of people with dwarfism, the language of these encounters is finely attuned to injustice. His invigorating use of punctuation and phonetic spelling reminds us that language is always vocal, accented and political.

Rather than the voice of someone who knows deeply the place they inhabit, as in Fitzroy: The Biography, here the poet is the fascinated, appalled traveller, drawn to uncanny juxtapositions. The Tour also plays a much straighter bat when it comes to how it inhabits nonfiction, determined to speak honestly about the politics of aesthetics.

Early on, the Tour Organiser tells Π.O. to change his T-shirt. “They said, I was going to ‘make all of Them look bad’ ”. He becomes an outcast in the group, spending his time engaging with people and place, while the other poets are buying souvenirs or “practising their poems” and “discussing what ‘They’ were going ‘To Do’ for each other [in order to] ‘goad’ the audience into reacting (erupting?) into //////// applauds”.

The other poets on the tour are not named but are easily discoverable. No doubt their versions of the tour will differ, but the experience of reading the book, as the judgements and barely suppressed internal quarrels accumulate, is increasingly disarming and affecting.

Above all, The Tour is a kind of ars poetica, an implied manifesto of engagement and dissent. 

Giramondo, 192pp, $29.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2023 as "The Tour".

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