Abigail Fisher reviews Heide by π.O.
Reviewed by ABIGAIL FISHER
Trying unsuccessfully to write this review in June, I ride alongside the Eastern Freeway to Bulleen. The gallery is closed but I visit the bees, the bare trees, the corrugated cows. Plaques along the path by the river gloss over the Wurundjeri history of Bolin (‘lyrebird’, later Anglicised to Bulleen) and the process by which Indigenous custodians of the land were ‘driven out’ of the area throughout the 1850s, while documenting with painstaking detail the white settler casualties of severe floods in the following decades. That night I google the scar-tree, a red gum towering over the entrance to the kitchen garden, and learn its Woiwurrung name: Yingabeal, or ‘song tree’. Yingabeal is also a marker tree, situated at the convergence of five song lines and estimated to be between 600 and 700 years old. I am reminded of a line in Π.O.’s Heide:
A ceremony was held
under an old Red gum (in
the Botanic Gardens);
separation from NSW, was officially declared.
Without a verb
it’s impossible to make sense of a sentence.
A train of thought, doesn’t need a ticket
A honey-bee doesn’t need a compass.
A council is a group, of people
still there. (29)
Meanwhile, on Instagram, heidemoma reminds me ‘to be sure to pop in for a takeaway coffee and tasty snack’ when ‘taking a stroll through the Heide gardens and sculpture park’, and offers the recipe for Sunday’s Orange Brandy, a ‘simple aperitif that is popular in France’ replete with black and white image of Sidney Nolan, Sunday Reed and Joy Hester around the fireplace.
In Heide Π.O. tackles the sticky, cloying cocktail that is the myth of the Heide Circle — along with the more expansive clique that is the Australian cultural canon — with the same disciplined anarchism that characterises 24 Hours (1996) and Fitzroy (2015), producing a third epic, encyclopaedic volume on culture, power, and place. Heide is the first of the trilogy to move away from the streets of Fitzroy, and away from the attention to migrant and working class lives so characteristic of the previous volumes. Instead Heide focusses primarily on the individuals both central to and marginalised by white settler Australian art history, with particular attention given to bohemian movements in and around Melbourne. The first section focusses on Australian history pre-Federation, with a particular emphasis on art and literature, and part two pivots towards the 20th century and the lives of the Heide Circle: their art, literature and infamous affairs. Π.O. does not shy from the latter subject, but rather interrogates the politics of Bohemian relationships, posing questions that are both nuanced and unashamedly didactic: How are such romantic entanglements anarchic? And how are they conservative? To whom do the lives, the artworks, even the children of the Heide Circle really belong?
In the process of formulating these questions, Heide enacts a number of artistic, literary and personal encounters in a way that is constantly and deeply attuned to the role of privilege in artistic production and consumption. Through imitation, ekphrasis, adaptation, and parody, Π.O. produces a poetics that, like Joy Hester’s art, delights in having ‘[come] into existence rubbing up against other people’s’ (365). Echoing Michael Farrell on Amanda Stewart, we could even say that Π.O.’s technique ‘suggests the copying mode of the lyrebird’ (or ‘bulin’), with both the ‘comic aspect’ that such a repetition entails, but also the ‘sense of both contingency and agency in its song, in that it could always be or have been a different sound that they cho(o)se to make’ . This is Π.O.’s disciplined anarchism, and a joyful challenge to observe. Certainly of the best and most entertaining poems in the collection are reprisals of others’ work — whether offering a doubly parodic rendition of Ern Malley’s ‘Darkening Ecliptic’, (409), or reimagining the work of Lawson (149), MacKellar (164), Durer (242) and Buvelot (71), Π.O. never misses a chance to remind us that ‘Imitation isn’t creation, / it’s re-creation!’ (261).
Typical of Π.O.’s work, there is a preoccupation in Heide with the notion of selection: who gets a seat by the fire when the cocktails are served? This speaks to Π.O.’s complex relationship to the canon, and to his anarchist methods of poetic production. The effect of the encyclopaedic range of facts and source texts in his poetry gives the impression that nothing is necessarily included, but rather that in writing a line he selects from everything in the world, constantly emphasising processes of inclusion and exclusion, emphasis and absence. The effect is that his work simultaneously public and deeply personal, as the ‘character’ of the ever-present selecting agent becomes increasingly distinct. As in Fitzroy, much of the material in Heide is sampled from historical records and newspaper articles, although there is a shift away from police reports towards art reviews, poetry and literature. Π.O. uses dominant material, the fabric of canon, but unpicks the stitches and lets down the hem. In speaking to the lives and labour that Art History neglects, he interrogates the potential for art and literature to hold hegemonic institutions accountable. Heide is history, tribute and protest, all caught up and eddying in Π.O.’s characteristic rivers and creeks of abstracted data and sampled material.
Something that sets Heide apart from Π.O,’s previous works is the emphasis on ekphrasis, the primary method in this work by which Π.O. insists that ‘the (eye) has to be led back to the place it has been ignoring the most’ (226). In a kind of manifesto, the narrator explains that ‘Frank Stella (the artist said, his paintings were “based / on the fact that only what can be seen” / ditto here, / same’ (12); Heide is preoccupied with the materiality of Art on the page, but also on the notion of making the hitherto unseen visible, and challenging our patterns of perception and historical memory. Π.O. unashamedly aligns himself with those whose lives and creative output serve to ‘frame’ the canonical greats — like Tom Robert’s wife, Lillie Williamson, a flower painter who ‘got into carving / “wooden picha frames” / the flowers & tendrils, loops & / vines that run round the edges’ of her husband’s paintings —
i.e. the bits that
get “cut” out as irrelevant, when you get to see the painting
reproduced in a book, or online. (145)
This lends nuance to the narrators previous confession that ‘Often, i leave an Art Gallery, or a painting, feeling / uncertain, about what I just saw’ (19). Π.O. experiments with ekphrasis to blend poetic methods with ‘minor’ modes of artistic production, noting that ‘Art distinguishes between paint and stoneware products, (on one hand) and ////// threads and ## fabrics on the other’ (69). This method is neatly expressed in the concrete poem ‘Textiles’ (179), dedicated to the author’s sister Athena, and comprised of diagonally intersecting repetitions of the word TEXT and TILE. Another highlight is the reproduction of Ellis Rowan’s ‘A Bunch of Australian Wild Flowers’, which uses various text sizes, styles and orientation to replicate the artist’s floral bouquet, achieving the same calm discordance as Rowan’s original, a kind of lyrebird cacophony which takes up the statement in the preceding poem on Rowan that ‘Representation absorbs, the object’ (140).
Philip Mead, among others, has pointed out Π.O.’s affinity with the Objectivist poetry movement, given his focus on Breath (spoken word/ performance), the tendency to approach the page as a ‘field’, and attention to the materiality of language. Mead writes that in Π.O.’s work ‘is brusquely impatient of generic comformity, radically insistent on the materiality of language’, thus representing the ‘plain contingencies of everyday speech, but in uncommon, innovative poetic language’ . This is certainly true of Π.O.’s latest volume, in which each poem takes up Olson’s call for words ‘be treated as solids, objects, things’, and thus be ‘allowed, once the poem is well composed, to keep, as those other objects do, their proper confusions’ . Heide responds to Olsen’s insistence that ‘all parts of speech suddenly, in composition by field, are fresh for both sound and percussive use, spring up like unknown, unnamed vegetable in the patch, when you work it, come spring’ . This analogy is particularly fitting in case of the joyfully visceral ‘To Granny Smith’, which ploughs the proper confusions of turnip, carrot, fly, spider, rabbit, wasp, sunlight and caterpillar before relishing the ‘)cHew CruNch ^ # mUsh ) M*uNch!’ of an apple in a way that distinctly resembles playing with one’s food (163).
At times, Heide veers towards something slightly Edenic, seeming to buy into the ‘fairytale’ of the Heide bohemia, dwelling a moment too long in the delicately-curated-as-chaotic kitchen garden and verging on namedropping the poet’s own connections (perhaps gesturing towards an interesting parallel between the author’s own self-conscious myth-making and that of the Heide Circle). Certainly ΠO is not willing to dismiss his subjects outright. To Kershaw’s question, ‘“just what the hell” was Heide for?’, the narrator asserts ‘Everything!’ and reminds us that ‘we all have “a little Heide” in us yet’ (506). Happily, these sentimental moments rarely come at an expense to Π.O.’s unflinching attention to the white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, elitism and disfunction of the modernist art movement, whether quoting at length John Reed’s racist letter lambasting the artwork of Western Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira (525), or the role of entrenched privilege in founding Melbourne’s cultural bohemia — ‘Love her / hate her / [Sunday’s] father’s / a Bailieau’, and the ‘dead weight of / a Patron’s hand, is always in the work’ (343). In Π.O.’s hands, the fact that ‘John and Sunday are RICH!’ informs a somewhat cynical interpretation of their vision of ‘Art’ as having ‘an organic quality about it’ and thus the necessity for it ‘to grow out of the soil, as it were’ (343).
It would be fair to say that Heide never fully dismisses nor embraces what Alexander Kershaw derided as the ‘collective farming’ of the ‘cocktail-swilling cretins’ out in Bulleen (448). Yet nor does it stroll through the grounds and sculpture park, flat white in hand. Rather, it examines the materiality of culture and oppression, celebrates minor’ and marginalised art forms, teases out the tensions in the Australian artistic canon and interrogates the potential for creative production to be truly radical. At its best, Heide jumps the hedge into the kitchen garden and proceeds, like the larrikins in Fitzroy, to
pull / up the pumpkins
and other plants, and throw
them about /
the place 
1. Farrell, Michael. “The Conceptual Lyrebird: Imitation as Lyric in the Poetry of Amanda Stewart.” Journal of the European Association for Studies on Australia 9.1 (2018).
2. Mead, Philip. “Unsettling Language: π. o.’s 24 Hours.” Aberration in Modern Poetry: Essays on Atypical Works by Yeats, Auden, Moore, Heaney and Others (2011): 161.
3. Olson, Charles. Projective verse. Brooklyn NY: Totem Press, 1959.
5. Π.O., Fitzroy: The Biography. Collective Effort Press, 2015.
ABIGAIL FISHER is a writer, editor and part-time Zoom tutor living on unceded Wurundjeri land.