Poetry review by Angela Gardner
There is something instantly recognizable about a Michael Farrell poem often missing both capitalization and apostrophes. Visually, without focal point, the words amass a homogenous equality but with a rhythm and sound that are far from bland. Familiar words together become unfamiliar while the reader tests different readings without the guidance, fixity or the reassurance of punctuation. Phrases follow one another creating the impression of immediacy, of listening in to thoughts as they form. The reader questions the process of reading while hurtling along the line but this is only possible because Farrell has been there first in questioning the process of writing.
open sesame comes in at a solid 121 pages, there are no sections and the poems start in media res by virtue of the index occurring at the end of the book. An earlier version of open sesame won the Barrett Reid Award for Poetry for his radical poetry manuscript and there is nothing safe or traditional about the way the book unfolds its narrative. Paul Klee talked of drawing as ‘taking a line for a walk’, and Farrell in a different medium does just that, pushing the sonnets of Edna St Vincent Millay further and into new places, making poems that are centred around characters in episodes of the prosaic British police drama series The Bill and playing with form in parodies, a concrete poem, ellipses, collage and oulipo poems.
The book opens with a poem ‘lovey’ already anthologized in Notes for Translators from 142 New Zealand and Australian poets, collected and edited by Christopher (Kit) Kelen, published by ASM Poetry, Macao. This poem and its explanation in Notes for Translators showing how the collage-like feel is closer to filmic mis-en-scene from La Ville est Tranquille, from where the poem takes its narrative elements. The tough lives of the characters bursts through the imperative “Let me tell you about/life lovey…” though there are plenty of endearments from an earlier time, mixed with familiar old-fashioned sayings that have been bent slightly into a new shape:
“…Let me tell you
about mars where small words are negative
comforts life takes
off On bullets
through the roses you
made your bed
& pissed in it…”
Even this small fragment yields so many beautiful constructions from isolating, and therefore highlighting, the meanings of “comforts life takes” to the glorious sound-sense of “through the roses you”. The tone, as Farrell says of his own poem, is “warm; generous, matter-of-fact; affectionate.”
The idea of the democratic or even the non-expressive through an aural ‘found poetry’ also holds for the subject matter. There is an inclusivity of content, an all-over texture that appears to derive from non-judgemental image-capture such as the eye of a camera to gather both poetic and prosaic material together whether obviously of direct relevance to the thrust of the poem or not. By this method superficial themes and phrasing become part of the wallpaper of the poems mimicking the way we experience the world, while the deeper themes rise to the surface of this mass of information.
Farrell brings fresh, interested eyes to his world. A poem ‘magic’, encounters the narrative world of fairy-tale, as if for the first time, as the poet has had this pushed up against him:
“… i confess ive never noticed
dragonflies breathing fire goldilocks with porridge
for hire that’s what its
like in the new republics everyone sleeping everyone
washing the stairs
the police come around and are fed on apples
while the dog goes what about me”
But what is really delightful about this is not that Farrell is seeing something new but that the dog also is going “what” about this newly noticed world. The multi-valent, mashed-up and at times fragmented narrative in Farrell’s poems reflects current culture. The resulting poems strongly suggest a method of production that is akin to conceptual writing. Certainly the idea and a desire for opening possibilities are at time privileged over a more traditional form of lyricism or immediately transparent narrative. The poems with all their non-linear direction and abrupt syntactical changes appeal nonetheless to the senses as well as the intellect and narrative does accrete around more fundamental themes.
As in life so in these poems, the brain is constantly required to filter and pattern match sensory input to arrive at an authorized version of the world. In this case this is held together by the common currency of television, advertising and other aspects of popular culture and made more specific for locating this within the personal, social, gay milieu. Later in the collection an unsure first meeting with all its possibilities for misunderstanding creates a tender almost love poem:
Dont think about his mouth, his Goodbye noises, his,
Emails missing or present in your inbox.
‘outside kfc’ p.73
It ends poignantly:
We try some other options nothing fails like it —
outside kfc [p73]
open sesame moves on from thempark, his fourth book self-tasked with ‘using John Ashbery’s Where Shall I Wander and Hotel Lautréamont as templates’ where the shape of the line construction, and emphatic end of line breath-stops, although consciously echoing a mannerist style of Ashbery, at times felt awkward. Here there is wit, heat and ‘on the move’ energy still reminiscent of John Ashbery self-reflexive work. Critics writing of Ashbery’s Hotel Lautréamont, 1992 note that his poetry is ‘disjunctive and musical’1 and ‘subtly allusive’2; or draw attention to his ‘intelligent playfulness’3. By 2005 another critic in describing Where Shall I Wander says of him, 'Ashbery just talks, calmly and evenly, sifting through the verbal detritus of civilization and making fascinating sculptures out of what he finds'4 and I think this is what Farrell is now doing with greater ambition.
Even in poems such as ‘the bill sonnets’ using characters taken from a British soap, there is a commitment to language and to narrative that extends the possibilities beyond the prosaic. The sequence gives first-person voice to six of the characters each telling their own authentic story complete with ‘Craig’s’ aside “blame the scriptwriters if anyone!”
The poets work appears effortless but reading the poems can be demanding and requires intense and prolonged engagement. Words broken down then enjambed, in some instances the lack of apostrophes force the reader to read closely for stress and phrasing for a nuanced understanding of meaning and narrative. If a reader is prepared to invest their time this demand makes for dangerous and exhilarating work.
open sesame is currently shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Prize.
4. Poetry: 7 Books of Poetry Worth Curling Up With Lev Grossman,
Time, Sunday, May. 01, 2005
sourced 24 March 2011