Michael Farrell. I Love Poetry. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2017. ISBN 978-1-925336-55-9
On the tram, I open Michael Farrell’s new collection. Deliberating over writing this review, I am instructed by the poem ‘What the Land’:
… The reading contract (not the writing contract)
Is that you understand that you will feel
Or think something. What the land forms in you
In your mind. This relates to the history
Of reading poetry, and to that of writing it
The book’s cover welcomes me – a waving male figure and a sunflower of equal height designed in washes of airy colour by Lea Muddle. Like surreal fireside songs with amusingly placed references to contemporary culture, the poems immediately engage. Then they provoke deep thought.
Once home, the volume fell open at ‘Pope Pinocchio’s Angels’:
In the bath, an
Angel can somersault without wetting the floor
Farrell’s poetry embodies the creative part of nature – a communicative vitality that aligns with the bower bird building in tones of blue, the peacock spider dancing its colours, the cuttlefish strobing reflective waves over its own flesh. His works hum with delicious ambiguities and dreamlike puns, which entice readers to explore. I turned the pages in bed – chuckling at ‘ … dust mites with hands in their pockets’, and moved to tears by: ‘The enclosed imagination buys a hunting gun’. He writes of, ‘grass deep and delicately iced with petals’. There are many creatures, impalas, crows, sharks, a camel and even a professor from ‘Acadreamia’ who asks:
… Is life even possible? Biologists virtually
proved it wasn’t regularly, he assumed. …
Childhood states of grace drift back to me as I reread the poem ‘What the Land’:
There are realities. There are things we stopped
In when we were seven that haunt
Us forty years later if we make
It like guardian angels
I enjoyed my invisible angel friend, but gradually delight in the idea of flight leads toddlers to jump from low ledges and think of themselves as planes. The poet retains the powers of childlike imagination in ‘C.O.U.N.T.R.Y’
… You see the plane
Appear to pause. You bring it across the sky with
Your mind …
In a similar vein, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s filmic poem ‘Alakanak Break-Up’, (1989) insists we have the power to coax objects to move, to hear rocks, and on a molecular level to move as light over water (Hoover 1994: 518).
Distant skyscrapers begin to dim. Outside my window the pub and cafés are closing. The night sky is bright and miraculous. I retrace my way through the poem ‘C.O.U.N.T.R.Y’ – where a woman cooks noodles for her grandson.
True way to do it, she said, was
Under the blue light of the sky till
You could see The Moon
The poet creates mood with his curious food imagery. I remember ‘… blue as mould on pumpkin sandwiches’ (published in his 2012 collection, open sesame). Here in ‘Perverse in Form And Mood’ there’s ‘a lamington crawling out of a dinner bell like a white monkey’ (40), while previously in the book a ‘video burger’ and ‘digital prune juice’ are mentioned.
Two pages earlier in ‘Cate Blanchett And The Difficult Poem’, an actress is lingering on the taste of her own words. In contrast Farrell’s extraordinary surprises are delivered humbly in everyday tone. Here he sets up the scene, only to make a bracketed aside, which points to how we may overlook what’s more preciously alive.
… She speaks
laconically, fragmentedly to Waleed Aly
who’s leaning back, watching the performance submerge
the language. They’re locked in a dressing room
or waiting longer than they’d expected to
for direction, and Cate has picked up Southerly or
similar from somewhere. (If this was nonfiction they’d
be playing with their phones.) …
The poem, ‘I Love Poetry’ infers that amongst all creatures we are the oddity. We anxiously check our devices whereas roosters and motorbikes
… gather entranced for Hours
listening to Rhythms and rhythmic ideas, and
other Matter, not quite either
starry-eyed and eared, They go back to their Tasks
seeing Moons in Walls and Lyrebirds in Skips
It’s late. My local birds are asleep in the palm. I hover but am swept on by INXS, moons and art:
… Blue Poles defeats everyone
in the bar
at darts. The moon
threatens a window. Blue Poles sings ‘The Rose’
INXS gets stuck
in the Mens …
Moons appear often in this book. In ‘Kangaroo Moon’, readers are asked:
What kind of light disintegrates
the twentieth century? Every silver paddock that failed
to feature a major image, every whizzed-by minor clearing
of streetlights and moonlessness. Everyone
knew what the moon looked like: a mauvey melon
marked with wombat damage
from brushing against the sun
in rough eclipse. It’s here, it’s here, it’s here
It’s not going anywhere. Hang with it, as if it’s the
beginning of your life
Who addresses who, who talks to light or kangaroos?
Most people ponder night skies. My father’s poems queried flying to war after only three days of honeymoon. By the time I was born he was stationed in Darwin scanning with ack-ack guns to defend against invading planes.
The questions continue from ‘Kangaroo Moon’:
You wonder why there’s always a man on a boat, a rainbow
a woman taking notes
The country splits in two
I feel like a fencepost. I feel like a sketch artist
for a box of sweets. They say to me, you’re our only Jewish
I don’t know why. I don’t know why I’m here, pretending to
in a tent. Is it history, this spiderweb hung with dew?
The field as empty
as its viewer. …
These last seven words move us beyond our civilisation’s blind spots. We are beside ourselves now, aware but in denial. On the brink of extinction, humanity refuses to value the poetic, or to regulate greed that unbalances nature. The poem persists:
… Write out a docket for it then
of every kind of kangaroo, or fruit tree or friend, curling
like negatives …
No one’s looking, no one
is looking or writing. If there’s a voice in the trees it can
the trees’ voice. But a voice by what light? The light of
making everything, splintering it, luckily, like a gold
kangaroo that changes colour, not only its own colour, but
their whole lit-up mob?
Yes, poetry illuminates. Its methods can be stunning like barehanded mountaineers ascending from under overhanging granite. This poem has reached its climax from a series of line breaks that fall as effortlessly as Pina Bausch dancers who enact life’s absurdity and pain. The dancers and lines collapse like empty skins to the floor, or into frantically extended arms. In the dance Vollmond (Full Moon), liquid is sprouted from mouths. Men are timed undoing bra-clasps, rainwater rises until dancers swim across the stage. Unexpected moves within a dance or a poem pin you to the wall of each place or embrace you while they simultaneously teeter you forward. This push pull fluidity in the dancing and in Farrell’s poetry fits with the seethe of the planet.
Opposite ‘Kangaroo Moon’ tiny key-pad dashes and dots resonate profoundly for me. In Australia’s harsh light they suggest grass clumps blooming up through clay (37). This soft/hard texture on the page reminds me of musical compositions of the seventies where sound colour was sought rather than pitch. Paradoxically, some that is played on fencing wires conveys an atmosphere of vast open space.
I eventually succumb to sleep. At 4am a delivery truck wakes me. I drowsily reopen I Love Poetry to ‘When Arse Is Class, Or Australianything’:
Love of the shonky, and the daggy, dares to declaim
its name in diction and in line, from here to Quatrain
a once notorious Sydney suburb. Surf’s up as barmaids
say in the hotels along the coast …
I’ve never been to Darwin, so my eyes don’t know where
or how beautiful it is. But look out broken windows
at the light and there’s the air that breathes us all, …
The circuitous routes and acute imagery of this poem of over a hundred lines trigger ideas of how the colloquial is part of evolution. Charles Darwin’s work on the gradation and diversity of finches’ beaks shows how everything adjusts for survival. Generational restructuring of the beak to eat local food gradually changes the music. We’re not proud to have invaded this country but we can own the tones of our speech.
While dressing for the day, I note:
… A philosopher’s
moon can be seen poking out of each pocket …
Like a speck in a drone-shot, I cross an area reclaimed by the draining of swampland. Approaching Albert Park Lake, the voice of ‘The Philosophers’ poem continues. Though its timbre is casual rather than earnest it delivers a pertinent comment:
… Platypuses lived here when
the suburb was first built, but they didn’t stick it out. In the
morning you could see them swimming through the moon’s
Eels from the Botanical gardens swim underground tunnels to reach this lake, but time-poor St Kilda Rd CEOs who once jogged with the ducks now stick to rubber tread at the gym. I join waterbirds to read in the shade of old gums. The poems flutter their pages happily here. Aware this district was once a food bowl for ancient communities, I am struck by the implications of ‘Some Problems With the Page as Terra Nullius’:
That boat – from England – has sailed
We live in a bleach wash of brutal history. Only now, massacres our great grandfathers allowed are being disclosed. Farrell’s poems won’t go away.
Back home, I reach for the familiar green cover of his earlier scholarly work – Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796 – 1945 (Palgrave Macmillan). He describes the writing hand as, ‘comparable to the hand steering the bullock or horse (later tractor) pulling the plough’ (40). He reminds that the word ‘verse’, meaning ‘turn’, is derived from the turn of the plough, and that from the beginning of writing in the West, poetry has had a relationship with rural life. What might be called life writing is examined, including songs and signs of Australia’s First Peoples. He also finds beauty and intrigue in collages, letters and messages carved onto trees by the newly arrived. There is his usual focus on punctuation and ironic humour, while an understanding of terrain comes through in all he writes.
I keep returning to an image from the poem ‘A Lyrebird’: ‘Cars learn ethics through becoming nests’ (1). An artwork that epitomises the power of nature for me is Bill Viola’s video The Deluge. Farrell’s poetic image of a slow disintegration to become one with nature is equally memorable. After reading I Love Poetry, I dream of red desert. In ‘A Lyrebird’, ‘a fallen down fence is a joy forever’ (1). The fences of my dreams sink and rust their own barbs.
Last October at Melbourne University, American Professor James Elkins, lecturing on the ‘Limits of the Criticism of Writing in the Humanities’, admitted that after 20 books he’ll now allow himself to write what he wants. Both he and his middle-aged host revealed they had felt too hemmed in by academia’s demands to write creatively. I’m so relieved Michael Farrell isn’t. He sees deeply and tenderly – with wisdom that goes far beyond STEM and our inadequate GDP (which omits to value care or even parenting). While Australia’s neglect of art and humanity escalates, Farrell contributes humour, and reminds us that art dives for truth and comes up with hope and invention. Farrell’s poetics move nerve endings to tingle and prompt us to deal creatively with life and our survival as a species on this planet.
Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge (1989), ‘Alakanak Break-Up’. In Hoover, P. (ed) (1994) Postmodern American Poetry. A Norton Anthology. New York: Norton.
Geraldine Burrowes’ manuscript was shortlisted for The Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest Award. Her poetry has been shortlisted for The Judith Wright Poetry Prize and Highly Commended in the Venie Holmgren and in the Tom Collins Prizes. Her collection, pick up half under, was published in The Rabbit Poets Series.