Michael Farrell. Cocky’s Joy. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo Poets, 2015. ISBN 978-1-922146-76-2
Cocky’s Joy is at once an Australian and an international book. Above all it is a book that relishes incongruities and makes playful use of its contexts, materials, whatever comes to hand. In these qualities it continues and extends Michael Farrell’s earlier work. Given that earlier work, it is not unreasonable to come to this collection from an ecopoetic perspective; Farrell has, for instance, edited an issue of the American journal ecopoetics (2006-2009), and environmental concerns, and the interactions of city and country, are elements in the complex, playful mix of his poetry. These are not, however, the sort of poems that attempt to engage in any sense directly with the natural world. There is never a straightforward Romantic “I” in a Farrell poem. But there is value in seeing this book through an ecopoetic lens, especially in its ironic engagement with the ways that Australia has been imagined, especially the myths of the land and the heroic Australian white man (always a white man) dominating the landscape. The many poems which make direct raids on this mythology are among the most memorable of the book and the funniest.
“Bush Christie”, echoing in its title Banjo Paterson’s “Bush Christening” and, of course, Agatha Christie, imagines a murder mystery, complete with genre clichés, acted out among canonical Australian poets (Lawson, Paterson et al.). The resulting incongruities and knowingly hokey rhymes (sloth … both), and the equally knowing historical revision in casting Bennelong as detective (“A too predictable upsetting of fictive / Structure”, 10) make for anarchic fun. A similar meshing of Australiana and apparently unrelated topics, this time literary theory, also occurs in “The Structuralist Cowboy”:
… One cowboy I know liked
to say that the station he worked on was bigger
than Deconstruciton. He read Corbière and Marx
in the cowboy editions but by the time they reached
him cowboy was an extinct language. …
This dated and tendentious image of Australia is still worth parodying and destabilising as Farrell does. It is there every day in the collective imagination of TV, in advertising, in the ways that Australians represent themselves in other countries. And it does have very much to do with how we inhabit this land and the relationship between the first Australians and those of us who have come much later. The heroic bloke of the Outback traditionally dominates the land, and it is the machismo that drives that domination which Farrell consistently parodies and undermines.
… A cowboy kiss is the swallowing of
a rabbit and spitting out the skin. Any damage
to the skin or cowboy and the action can’t be called
a kiss but rather a cowboy choke. …
These wild colonial boys, Americanised in this poem as their US cousin the cowboy, are as a type vehemently heterosexual, however homosocial. Here too, Farrell bends the stereotype:
… Whether they rode in from the
crossroads of Trivia, or from a dry spot in New
South Fuckmyarse, was ever discussed. …
As the poem wryly remarks towards its end, “Cowboys have a lot of baggage”. A sparer poem that also approaches the legacy of colonialism is “Bringing the ‘A’”, which imagines the spread of European culture, agriculture and/or language as the mysterious arrival and spread of the letter A:
The ship came bringing the ‘A’
The land was read as a space for the ‘A’
The ‘A’ damaged the land and fed the people
Who brought it
In Aboriginal Australia there were no cattle
No cloven: therefore no ‘A’
Yet the movement of the poem is ultimately from imposition of this foreign body onto the natural world to its inextricability:
The ‘A’ was in the bush now, it could never
Be caught and sent back, it was
Perhaps not an ‘A’ any more but
A tree’s deformed horns, or a
Rusty piece of rock
The “A” is also, earlier in the poem, adopted by Aboriginal people as a means of resistance. The absence of any sharp definition of the “A” and the poem’s dreamlike narrative help to blur the distinctions of colonial and indigenous, human and natural. This poem, like some others in the collection (e.g. “The Influence Of Lorca In The Outback”) takes a bad fit and develops what follows from it, ramification on ramification, until the initial juncture can’t be undone. The startling jump of image and phrase, somewhat in the manner of O’Hara and Ashbery, has always been important to Farrell’s style. What appears increasingly in Cocky’s Joy, it seems to this reviewer, is a drive towards equally startling but semi-continuous narrative and a greater tendency to fix on a single junction / disjunction and to trace what follows from it.
All of this works well for Farrell’s characteristic humour, but it does also have serious implications for what this poetry implies, not least regarding the broader non-human world and the combination of cultures that now occupy this land. It is always an interpretive mistake to think that humour is merely humour, but equally it’s difficult to write about comic writing without being deeply unfunny. Nonetheless, what Cocky’s Joy seems to me to do is to reduce to absurdity some still pervasive stereotypes of “the Australian” which have been and are an impediment against a better understanding of this country and its original cultures.
Looking at this very varied collection from one perspective invariably occludes others. I have said little about the book’s witty and affectionate homoerotic poems (“Making Love (To A Man)”, “Spoiled For Choice: 80 Ganymedes”) or its poems of the obsessive. “Seating Arrangment”, for instance, reads to me like the repetitive sort of anxiety dream. It is good to see some of these poems recently picked up in Puncher and Wattman’s Contemporary Australian Poetry (eds. Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge, Judy Johnson and David Musgrave). The placement of the pieces concerned with the myths of the Outback alongside frank, funny, urban poems, the jokey and serious poems of sexuality and familial connections, helps to put these anachronisms in their historical place. And yet, also characteristically of Farrell, they don’t stay there. The old Australiana, the bush, does as much to destabilise the city as vice versa. Cocky’s Joy is, it should go without saying, no manifesto whether ecopoetic or of any other kind. It does though contribute to the steady erosion of obstructive anachronisms, and that, especially for a poet whose gifts are in no small part parodic and comic, is something well worth doing.
Graeme Miles has published two collections of poems: Recurrence (John Leonard Press, 2012) and Phosphorescence (Fremantle Press, 2006). He lives in Hobart and lectures in classics at the University of Tasmania.