The longest delay between commissioning and delivery in the world of poetry might be The Horseman’s Word, a memoir by the English poet Roger Garfitt, the first advance being given in 1969, the manuscript delivered in 2010, by which time the commissioning publisher had long since dissolved into a conglomerate, and the original staff were all dead.

This review isn’t quite up there, but was on the way. Two years ago, Pi.O. gave me a review copy of this 750-plus page volume, published like all his works on his own dime, and priced at $55, the cost was not nothing, the book needed all shoulders to the wheel, and I, I completely flubbed it. I carried the damn thing round for weeks then months, without being able to come to grips with it. Heading overseas, I tore a bunch of pages out at random, knowing that the type of book it was meant that it didn’t matter which pages I grabbed.

Still, I could not sit down to it, and I’m only writing it now because he’s launching something else tonight, and thus has completely lapped me. Still, the book resists encompassing in review, and it has barely had one, apart from a long and considered piece by Ivor Indyk in The Sydney Review of Books, which some might say is the same as not being published at all. For the rest it’s been by and large the treatment Pio often gets — a feature on the whack street poet, Melbourne treasure, etc, and the crazy thing he’s done now.

Previous instalments have included a book of poems made entirely out of grids of numbers, poems of one-word lines, the head-spinning 24 Hours, a 700-page evocation of one day in the inner city. The crazy poet is, to be fair, an image he plays up to a little: coming out of the spoken word scene, long before it was called that — “performance poetry” was the go, a term that seems as archaic as parasols and The Don Lane Show — a self-and-other-publisher, relentless organiser, with the thrumming energy of three mortals, Pi.O. combines the bad craziness of the old performance poetry scene — the most prominent figure being the late Jas H. Duke, a man of huge chaos, gentle and a nightmare at the same time — with a quiet relentless application and focus that many of them lacked. He is a self-described anarchist, but no one’s really an anarchist — least of all someone who has worked as a draftsman and designed for the Board of Works and its subsequent iterations for decades.

Pi.O. wears the uniform of inner-city artists I remember from the ’80s, op-shop suit jacket and jeans, but he has the attitude and approach of what someone once called the “four grey-suited men of modernism” — Eliot, Kafka, Borges, Pessoa — who kept their day jobs, and made a revolution in the evening. Pi.O. turns up, and he turns out poems, and then he turns them into books. In 24 Hours and now in Fitzroy, the Biography he has taken the big challenges — a whole day, a whole place — that most other poets would quail before.

In an official UNESCO City of Literature, whose principal activity appears to be the funding of arts administrators, and amid “attack journals”, whose main target is the next grant application form, he’s produced, besser-brick size, its spine only just holding its contents together, one of the most moving, mind-blowing and significant Australian books of the last half-decade or so.

Fitzroy, the Biography is a history in poems of the suburb/city/principality to the immediate north east of the Melbourne CBD, and its focus is intensely that, every street, pub, cafe, forgotten moments dragged out of the archive, the general history flowing into the personal history of the poet, a Greek kid, plunged into an old Anglo-celtic, working-class neighbourhood, amid the process of great change, his family headed by a father who was cafe owner, gambling parlour runner and all-round hustler.

The book begins before the place existed as “Fitzroy”, or even “Newtown” its original name; as a place of the Wurundjeri people, and then as a badlands outside the Hoddle grid, without streets, shacks put up in the bushes. It ends, more or less, with an extraordinary moment from the now-long-gone Brunswick Street Fringe Festival Parade, a moment I saw too, and others, and which no one who was there will forget as long as they live.

In between, the book plumbs the depths of the city, with a draftsman’s thoroughness, how it rose as a proud, prosperous and independent place, working- and middle-class cheek-by-jowl, and as the suburbs spread in the 20th century, began a decline of sorts, into a place of boarding houses and brothels, the smell of lamb stew and news stories of runaway horses and publicans’ murderous love-triangles, before becoming a place for waves of “New Australians”, Greeks, and Yugoslavs mainly, who gave the city a street life and cafe culture it had never really known — and then yielded to the coming of the students and the artists, and then the knowledge-class, for worse and better, and worse.

It’s a haunting, extraordinary collection, a labyrinth of stories of heading towards two centuries of lives lived in the one absurdly small strip, from Victoria Street up to Alexandra Parade, and Nicholson Street across to Smith (I’m not sure Pi.O. acknowledges the existence of a place called Fitzroy North at all) — essentially a ten-minute tram journey which, for a century sustained its own league football team, council, choirs, libraries, music societies, a red-light district, department stores, theatres, cinemas, pubs-like-arenas-or-theatres of human passion, a place people could live in without leaving for years on end, and many did.

But were this book only that, it would quickly collapse into dutiful social history. Pi.O. is far too good a poet for that, and he brings to page-poetry a version of the shock doctrine techniques used in spoken word — chiefly via the perpetual interpolation of “interesting facts” thus:

A canary is a convict.

A sudden trauma, can cause the whole

body to tremble. A broken piece of glass, can’t

be hurt any further. 22 balls scatter across a billiard table.

George Hotton walked, with a wooden leg.

Conclusions, follow premises; he came

home after the pub, and assaulted his wife.

He assaulted his wife, quite often. 

This is one approach — interleaved with simpler, straighter poems, and the concrete poetry using typography to catch exact speech and sound — and it’s the dominant one. Indyk’s essay on the book is a study of how such a technique works in detail — is it random or calculated? Does the randomness create a sense of meaning by simple juxtaposition? — which I won’t replicate. What becomes clear as you read deeper into the work, and the character of the author emerges — a preternaturally bright, wordy, bookish kid in a world of milk bars, grills, sharpie girls, sly card schools out the back of caffs and all the rest — is that the frenetic diversion of useless facts is a way by which the poet is present right from the start.

This isn’t a history of Fitzroy per se; it’s a record of the author’s consciousness of the history of Fitzroy. It’s phenomenological in a way — Fitzroy is there, as a transcendent element, stretching beyond consciousness, but never really pulling free of the obsessive attention and imagining of the word-kid who arrived there, aged five, one day in the mid-1950s. That technique is what lifts the book beyond, well beyond, dutiful chronicling, toward something much more.

That’s all the more so, because of one piece of bad/good luck, and that is that Pi.O. grew up in the Atherton neighbourhood of Fitzroy, which stood north-east of the corner of Brunswick and Gertrude Streets, and was demolished, eviscerated, to create the Corbusier-esque rolling grass and prefab panel towers of the Atherton estate. Anyone who retains any illusions about the Housing Commission process in Melbourne will have it finally retired here: the place was a living community, the building stock as solid as the stuff that survives on the other side of Brunswick Street and now goes for a million plus, for a cottage.

As Pi.O. notes, the decision to demolish a whole social world was probably made by one public servant who never got out of his car. The process took years, a vibrant neighbourhood, a life-world being slowly run down, social cleansing done as self-fulfilling prophecy. The whole thing was corrupt, connected to land sales by mates of the Bolte and Hamer Liberal governments, but beyond that it was done out of sheer withering hate of life, the barely concealed envy of those who had moved to the miles of deathful terracotta plains sprawling to the Dandenongs. As he notes, the last streets of Atherton came down and the towers went up “and everything I knew or loved disappeared”.

That was only one part of the change that occurred across his lifetime. By the late ’70s, students and artists were beginning to move into Fitzroy, having confined themselves to Carlton and St Kilda. But Pi.O. notes that he was already an artist — part of a loose anarchists’ scene, drawn to a degree from working-class, rather than middle-class kids — and what were these people suddenly coming in for anyway? What makes this last part of the book so interesting is Pi.O.’s ambivalence about the process. Somewhere in the middle he records the stray remarks in a ’50s street, of old Anglo lags, the men living in cheap boarding houses, the public bars their living room, who lament that you can’t get a decent stewed lamb anymore, with all that foreign food coming in, the food Pi.O.’s dad and mum, and Pio himself, were selling from their several cafes.

The recognition is of the paradox of memory and meaning: the destruction of your world is the only way its meaning discloses itself, but it can’t actually mean what it means unless, at some level, you absolutely refuse to consent to its destruction. Within that virtuous/vicious circle, spinning ever faster, is the poetry of place and time made. Hell, I was one of the people coming in, arriving in Fitzroy in 1984, and even I miss a place which has now gone, streets were a handful of consciously hip cafes were surrounded and dwarfed by actual shops, milk bars and wholesale leather goods, the ham radio operators’ association HQ, bank branches, and ratty old pubs, the doors breathing beer as you walked past.

There was a period, about a dozen years, maybe 15, when the place was in balance (and, of course, it coincides with me being there), still the place the New Australians made, but with the genuine extra dimension artists bring (though I suspect that wouldn’t be a universally held opinion). That cross-over provides the flashpoint where Pi.O.’s world meets mine, in a poem about Bruce Fenton. Bruce was a bloke who simply turned up in Brunswick Street in the early ’90s, with his pink car Christine, and HIV, when HIV was still AIDS waiting to happen. He parked Christine near where the Brunswick Street Bookstore is now, and he danced, badly, and sang, badly, to raise money for HIV/AIDS charities and ACTUP. It was funny, it was pitiful, it was confronting, it was Fitzroy still able to be louche and loose and a place of itself.

Bruce got weaker and thinner as the months and years progressed, until, one year, his last, his last days, covered in Karposi’s lesions, stripped to the waste, laid out on the bonnet of Christine (as I recall it), he was driven down Brunswick Street in the middle of the parade, waving a skeletal arm. Amidst the noise of the carnival, the silence rolled before him, and rolled after. Pi.O. was standing outside Boccadillo’s, the restaurant that seemed to have been there forever, but which I forgot about for 20 years after it was gone; I was standing a few metres south of that. Thousands of people would have seen this moving pieta that day; like Pi.O. and I, I don’t think one of them will forget it for as long as they live.

Bruce died, then the Fringe Festival Parade died, a victim of insurance liability, and the changing nature of Fitzroy, of alternative culture, of Melbourne — as half a dozen Fitzroys had died before. They are all recorded here, and much more, a passion, a history not just of the suburb but of being Australian, in a city, not at its centre, which is how most Australians have been for the past century or more. It’s a masterpiece, a stunning achievement, a work of triumph fusing page and performance poetry and utterly abolishing the distinction.

Pi.O. should be recognised, beyond the quirky news features, for what he is: one of our greatest and most important, and, above all, endlessly enjoyable poets, a poet whose sheer inventiveness and courage shines out from everything he does. Indeed, to my knowledge, no one else in the English-speaking world has so successfully combined concrete poetry techniques, with spoken-word style and traditional lyricism.

If he were from Idaho, Australian academics would be holding conferences on him, and if he were Polish or Thai, we’d all be reading him in bad translations. If a university press knew what they were doing, and he would agree, which might be doubtful, they would publish a collected edition in binding and on paper that would last a millennium. In the meantime, the book is available, at the cost of two other books. Don’t buy them; buy this one. You will have years of reading, and I can now go to tonight’s launch with a clear conscience.

*Fitzroy, the Biography is available from Collective Effort Press for $55

Peter Fray

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