Geoff Page (born 1940) is a Canberra-based poet who has been active in the Australian poetry scene for many decades now. He was also, for nearly three decades, an English teacher. Page has published several volumes of poetry and at least three verse novels, of which The scarring is his first.
The scarring, which I read a few years ago but have been wanting to review here, is, I have to say, one of the most gut-wrenching works I have read. Page has set it in the landscape – rural northern New South Wales – of his childhood and says it was inspired by rumours he heard as a child (but it is not a “true” story). The story spans around seven decades from the 1910s to the 1980s, and chronicles the lives of a couple from their youth and courtship through to old age. As the blurb on the back cover says, “their separation through war sows the seeds of their eventual destruction”.
One of the things I love about the book is the way Page weaves so much of the social and political history of twentieth century Australia through the lives of this couple – war, the Great Depression, the boom of the 1950s, city versus country life and values, and of course gender inequity and the old double standard! The scene is set from the first line:
Breed em tough, the old man says.
Little do we know what lies beneath this seemingly innocuous opening – and I’m not about to give it away to you now. Let’s just say that Page deftly weaves the breeding motif through his tale of a young couple running a cattle property.
Here is an example of how history is told alongside life on the farm:
the new white stiffness of the sheets
where Sally will be his forever
‘Forever’ moves on two years more.
The set of skills they share between them
shoves them sideways from the news:
Sudetenland, then through to Munich,
Kristallnacht and into Prague.
It rattles in through bakelite
and once or twice on Cinesound
showing at the flicks in town,
that lifted arm and square moustache
relishing a massed salute.
And so the story moves on to its more or less inevitable – given the events that occur – conclusion. This is not flowery poetry. Page tends more to a spare style that is well suited to his setting and subject. The poetry’s insistent rhythm draws you on, and Page’s use of repetition slowly but subtly builds up the tension. This is a novel that you’ll want to read in one sitting.
Page is, I think, a little too unsung … but then, isn’t that the case with most poets?
Alexandria: Hale & Iremonger, 1999