My Town (Close Reading)
Literature Close Reading by Kevin Shah Mansouri, 2018 Literature Subject Exhibition Winner
Literary critic C.S. Lewis once famously stated that “Literature does not merely reflect reality. It adds to it.”. The truth behind this aphorism is readily apparent in Meg Mooney’s free-verse poem “My Town” (2012). Written within contemporary Australian society, the poem follows the first-person female persona as she walks through her town, interacting with the local community while secretly dealing with the grief of her son’s death. This text can readily be interpreted as a representation of Australian culture and the human condition, as it was even published as one of the “Best Australia Poems”, revealing its powerful reflection of society. Through the key use of enjambment, unusual syntax and other key poetic conventions, Meg Mooney presents readers on a dominant level the human condition of grief and mourning. On an inferred level, the poem can be viewed as a reflection of Australia culture, its prejudices and positives. Finally, through a Marxist lens, a clear depiction of the separation of society and social class can be observed.
Grief and mourning play an integral part in literature, providing a common avenue for readers to connect with the persona of the text through the depiction of their grief. This representation of the human condition of grief and mourning is presented to readers through the internal anguish and interactions of the intradiegetic persona, where in the denouement of the poem she states “It was that time when I felt/ like I was in a car smash… although it was my son/ who had really crashed.”. The use of rhyme of “smash” and “crashed” is one of the only rhyming couplets in the poem, bringing emphasis to the crash that lead to the son’s death, while sonically paralleling the emotional closeness she felt with her son and her internal anguish (feeling like she was in a car “smash”) at her son’s death. The close bond of mother and son is shown through the use of rhyme and clearly portrays her emotional grief, presenting the human condition of her suffering to the readers. Even the unusual syntax, characterised by lack of clear punctuation and enjambment, reveals the shocked, disbelieving nature of the persona at her son’s death. Furthermore, the persona’s clear separation from the society and happenings around her is another aspect of her grief, as she is described to “…walk on…”, despite hearing her name being called and she is said to “…walk back down the street thinking/ they don’t know but it’s like they do…”. The enjambment of this line, coupled with the lack of punctuation and normal syntax positions the persona as being shocked and detached from the society around her. It appears nobody in her community knows of her son’s car crash, showing the reader that the persona chooses to remain confidential in her suffering, positioning the readers to question the emotional coping mechanisms of those in grief, as instead of sharing her heartbreaking story, she chooses to remain confidential. Finally, the sombre and shocked tone of the passage is revealed in the final line of the poem: “because inside I was falling”. The metaphor of “falling” suggests the persona is out-of-control of her own emotions and feeling, with the continuity and intensity of the mother’s suffering further shown through the lack of a final full-stop, suggesting a continuous, unfinished suffering and an aspect to her grief that the reader is not made aware of. The mask of normality which the persona assumes, getting her legs “waxed” and interacting with others normally, despite her intense grief and suffering further explores her coping of her grief. Thus, “My Town” explores the human condition of grief and mourning, describing the persona’s apparent normality as a coping mechanism, despite her intense, continuous (and perhaps endless) emotional suffering.
As an Australian poem, “My Town” was published as one of “The Best Australian Poems”, thus reflecting the Australian contemporary culture it was written in. Despite the efforts by the Australian government for reconciliation and reintegration of the aboriginal people after White European colonisation, Meg Mooney argues that a clear dichotomy still exists between “Australian” and aboriginal culture and society. This is first explored when the “Aboriginal bloke” calls out “…only white fellas like quiet streets…”. This diminutive term of “white fellas” in the mom’s dialogue reveals the clear dichotomy between the cultures. As representative of wider Aboriginal culture, the men’s words seem to reflect a divide between “white” Australian culture, and the aboriginal one, positioning readers to question these racial prejudices present in society. This is further explored through the inherent discrimination in Australian culture, where the persona notes “I gave him some money a few days ago/ I’ll just ignore it…” and in response to being called to by a couple, states “If I didn’t known them, I might think/ this man and woman were drunks sitting there.”. This involuntary prejudice and discrimination of the couple as “drunks” reveals the subconscious internalised mindset of Australian culture surrounding other cultures and peoples. However, it would be an oversight to ignore the ambivalence in this social commentary, as within Australia, the key value of mateship plays an important part of our culture, as evident when it is stated that the couple “…just want to say hello…” and that “having my name shouted down the street helped somehow, like they were letting everyone know to catch me…”. The characterisation of the couple as friendly works as a metonym for wider Australian culture. Thus, “My Town” provides a representation of Australian culture, presenting both its subconscious prejudices and mateship.
Finally, through a Marxist lens, the clear class separation present within Australian society is presented to readers. The persona’s apparent wealth is first presented as she is described as having her “…legs waxed…, as well as giving money charitably. From a Marxist perspective, history is the endless struggle between antagonistic economic classes, with modern life being the latest instance of this conflict. This class opposition is clearly shown through the juxtaposed wealth of the women, and the poor, begging aboriginal man. Instead of assisting the man more to help reconcile this class-difference, she justifies her indifference by stating “I gave him some money a few days ago/ I’ll just ignore it…”. The persona’s apparent superiority, where she ignores the man, brings to light the power wealth can have within modern society, critiquing the modern capitalist society we live in and the class separation due to wealth. Furthermore, Marxist theory dictates that people are judged and viewed by society in terms of their net labour and production. The woman’s description of the couple as “…drunks sitting there/ wanting to sell cheap paintings…” is a symbolic fulfillment of this Marxist theory, as the belittling, degrading reference to them as “…drunks…” is positioned to be directly linked to their “cheap” labour. “My Town”, through a Marxist lens, depicts and critiques the capitalist society through depicting the clear class separation and presenting people as being judged on their economic output. Thus, “My Town”, presents and reflects Australia society through depicting its class inequality and separation.
“Literature does not merely reflect reality. It adds to it.” Meg Mooney’s free-verse poem “My Town” works as a powerful and moving poem, depicting the human condition of grief, mourning and coping while presenting a positive and negative representation of Australia culture. Further, a Marxist interpretation views the poem as a reflection and critique of the clear class-separation within Australia society. All this is a prime example of Australia literature as a reflection of Australian society.