I like to immerse myself in a city, whether I’m living there or just visiting for a few days. But how do you get to know a city? How do you get under its skin? How do you start to inhabit a place? In my experience, getting to know a city involves plenty of reading, amassing heaps of paper, and doing a lot of walking. So, having recently moved to Melbourne, I’ve been reading Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, buying Melbourne-based newspaper The Age, and picking up every flyer, newsletter, and What’s On Guide I come across (I recycle them all, I promise).
And walking, oh so much walking. I love wandering around a city, working out how its streets and neighbourhoods ‘fit’ together and making mental notes of all the cafés, shops, and parks I want to go back to. This is particularly exciting in a new place, but one of the joys of living in a city is that even after being there for years there’s always something new to discover, an unfamiliar street to walk down, a different route to take…Personally, I like to explore with a map.
I always carry a street map with me, and I get a real kick out of working out the quickest, or most interesting, or most scenic way to get to where I want to go.* But the street map is only a guide to the city’s geographical terrain. It won’t show us the city’s soul, thoughts, histories, passions, or memories. For this, we require different, more creative, ‘maps’.
The best map of Melbourne I’ve found so far is the Melbourne Poetry Map, an online poetry collection, featuring works by the city’s leading spoken word artists and poets. Describing itself as Audio Graffiti, the MPM is not a guide to Melbourne’s poets but a means of exploring the city through poetry. Each poem is inspired by a different place in Melbourne and they have been organised into a series of poetry walks, which can be downloaded as albums.
Following these walks, you discover a city of memories, lost loves, hidden alleys, unsung heros, regrets, crazy late-night adventures….A new map starts to form in your mind, of stories, what ifs, and connections that are never quite made. The proximity of two statues was the inspiration for John McKelvie’s ‘If poets live on while their songs are sung’. The narrator imagines waking the statue of Robert Burns in Treasury Gardens, taking him up Spring Street to the statue of Australian poet Adam Lindsay Garden, and introducing them to each other over a pint.
Iconic Melbourne fabric shop Job Warehouse was brought to life by Anna Fern, with its dusty window displays and impatient owners shouting at dithering customers to get out. I would have loved to go in, to see and small the musty Job Warehouse for myself, but it closed down in June, 60 years after it opened and four months before I arrived in Melbourne. I felt a twang of disappointment but this only gave Fern’s poem greater resonance. I listened to her poem in front of the boarded up shop front, noticing the handmade signs for vintage buttons and buckles that were still stuck to the window.
These walks appealed to the pyschogeographer in me. Putting my street map aside and exploring the mental terrain of the city provoked a new awareness of the urban landscape. I started to notice things I hadn’t noticed before: the details of a building’s facade, the unusual name of a restaurant…
Eleanor Jackson’s poem ‘City Square’ considers the ups and downs of Melbourne’s lesser-known square (the famous one is Federation Square) through the lens of an adolescent relationship that wasn’t meant to be. The narrator remembers “a stupid pre-fab sculpture” that once stood in the square, which her grandmother turned her nose up and called the “bloody Yellow Peril”. Today the square is an open space with concrete benches and a discreet water feature, so I barely noticed this reference.
What interested me about this poem was the failed relationship. City Square meant nothing to me, I was just a curious, recently-arrived-in-Melbourne, passer-by listening to a poem about it on my iPhone. But I could imagine how the narrator must have felt as she walked past City Square, a constant, painful reminder of the romantic reunion she and her now ex-boyfriend had planned to have there. Her heartache was imprinted on this place. Our mental maps of cities are often constructed around the places and spaces where our relationships begin and end: a bench we sat and laughed on once, the restaurant where we had our first date, the street corner which witnessed our first row…
A few days later, I opened my local newspaper and saw a photo of a huge yellow artwork. I knew without reading the caption that this was the “bloody Yellow Peril” of the poem. I learnt that the sculpture’s real title is Vault but it was so disliked by the public when it was first unveiled in City Square that people nicknamed it Yellow Peril. The poet’s grandmother obviously wasn’t the only one. After being moved a few times, Vault is now in my neighbourhood, Southbank. But being new to the city, I couldn’t tell from the photo exactly where so I turned the page and forgot all about it.
A few days after this, deciding to walk home a different way, I suddenly found myself standing in front of Vault. I was struck by its sheer size, which I hadn’t noticed in the photo, and, well, how yellow it is. In its current location, in the environs of the Malthouse Theatre, it’s surrounded by calm, empty space. But I could see why it hadn’t worked in City Square, and why it might have seemed threatening or aggressive to certain passers-by.
Three routes had brought me here: the Melbourne Poetry Map, Southbank Local News, and, finally, my own meanderings. I was thrilled by this chance encounter, it felt as if the city had let me into a secret. Perhaps Vault will come to define my life in Melbourne. Or maybe I’ll never walk past it again. Let’s just hope my boyfriend doesn’t decide to break up with me there…
This is how we start to map a city: listening, reading, walking. Every map is a story or a poem. I haven’t lived in Melbourne long enough to acquire many stories of my own. But in the meantime, I’m happy to explore the city with its poets.
* I never go on holiday without a guide or leave the house without a map. Two of my oldest friends nicknamed me “Mrs Map” during a trip to Prague (I think it was meant as an insult but I took it as compliment), and when I lived in Paris mapless friends would often call me up and ask for directions. They seemed to think I had an innate knowledge of the city’s streets and public transport network so I would always remind them that my ability to provide directions came from carrying a copy of Paris Pratique with me at all times, which they themselves could do. But it was to no avail, the majority of them remained mapless. Now that I’m no longer in Paris, I do hope they’re not all lost without me…