Michael Farrell, Family Trees (Giramondo 2020)
I kept wanting someone to take me by the hand and show me how to read the poems in this book. If you feel the same, don’t get your hopes up for this blog post.
In the Author’s note that Giramondo Publishing included with my complimentary copy, Michael Farrell does offer some help. I couldn’t find the note online anywhere, and think it’s a shame that the publishers didn’t include it at the back of the book. I’m tempted to reproduce it in full here, but that would probably violate something. It begins:
Family Trees is a queer vision for the people: the people who read, go to movies, listen to pop music, watch bird shenanigans. The people who care about history, who need love, but always lose it.
I think queer has a specific cultural meaning here that is about more than sexuality, and the reading, movie-going and pop-music-listening he has in mind is more extensive than mine and without a huge overlap. All the same, these two sentences do name key elements of much of the poetry. There’s a kind of radical playfulness that has familiar cultural figures caught up in weird scenarios, as in ‘Adjectival Or The English Canon’, which tells the history of English poetry in 45 three-line stanzas in which each new poet kills off the preceding one, taking to an extreme the notion that each generation of poets has to get rid of the one before it. For example:
Bloody William Shakespeare got the whole world into verse Eventually had his throat cut by Bloody Benjamin Jonson Jonson then proclaimed Shakespeare's spirit'd entered him
William Blake stumbles off a cliff at a picnic with William Wordsworth: ‘While William got the credit some say Dorothy did it’.
Similarly, but less interestingly, ‘Family Trees’ mimics the begats from Genesis, but if there’s anything beyond a list of names, some of people, some of trees, it went right past me.
In many poems I can recognise that the poetry is playful, but just don’t get it (not well enough read or well enough versed in contemporary poetics, probably).
Sometimes I get it, and am impressed but unmoved, as in ‘Tempestina’, which takes the traditional form of the sestina but instead of using the same six rhyme words in the prescribed order, has each line opening with the same six phrases in that order. Verry interesting, as they used to say in Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.
Sometimes, and this may be in most of the book, the poetry stays just a little out of reach of my understanding, but it’s enjoyable. I’m reminded of how much I enjoy my 18-month-old grandson’s jokes: I have no idea why he finds them so funny, but his enjoyment is infectious, and I don’t doubt that there’s a sharp and generous intelligence at work. This is most clearly true of the poems about the south coast of NSW, where the poet grew up. The Author’s note says they re-fabulate visits to the area. Here’s the start ‘Mysteries Of The South Coast’:
We all need a methodology to live by To take just one example, Catholics are rarely ashed on on the sports field, but public life is another matter. Such unfortunate exhibitions are not beyond the conceptions of The Sorrowful Cappuccino, known locally as the Foamo (and by the next town's residents as the Sad Flat White), either. Their own eateries are nothing to skite about.
This makes me laugh. I read it as a mash-up of memories and current impressions of the kind one has revisiting childhood places. On Ash Wednesday, Catholics of a certain era would appear with a smudge of ash on their foreheads. Maybe there’s a reference to a remembered time when Catholic students would be advised not play football with the ash still in place, as that would provoke hostility from their Protestant opponents. This memory slides over a couple of words with strong religious connotations – conception as in the Immaculate Conception, Sorrowful as in the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary (which of course echoes the poem’s title) – by way of the hinge word Cappuccino as in the Capuchin Order of monks, to arrive at a contemporary preoccupation with coffee, and the lovely term foamo. From there it’s no distance at all to the familiar trope of how terrible coffee and food is in country New South Wales (remember, Farrell is a Melburnian, and maybe that’s a methodology in itself).
From there the poem ranges over real and invented features of the locality: there’s a bull named Darth Vader, marsupial geese, houses that ‘have no reason to be there really / except that people live in them’, a Duchess who makes badminton rackets from leftover chicken coops, monks who live in wombat holes, a cushion that would rather be reading Ferrante … and I’m left in the dust, but enjoying the kaleidoscopic absurdity. There may be a serious point to all this play – there’s this at about the one-third point:
leaves. (So jammy!) What miracles we live by and under on the south coast made mundane by the poets, who must beat it into our heads so our heads have something to think with.
Although even the book’s most straightforward poems have an elusive quality to them, they’re not all surreal, intertextual game-playing. ‘Apple Tree’, for instance, which the Author’s note describes as a ‘homage to John Shaw Neilson’s iconic “The Orange Tree”‘, can be read without reference to that poem (though that poem is worth reading for its own sake – you can see it at this link). Let Michael Farrell have the last word here reading his poem:
Verrry interesting! I liked your references to Ash Wednesday – it takes me back to 1981 when I was a kind of religious naïf and wiped away a smudge on a female colleague’s forehead – her shocked reaction took me quite unawares – knowing nothing of such an Ash Wednesday rite/act. You can be certain I’m no danger to a Hindu observer – with various splodges of colour on their face.
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Thanks, Jim. That’s a great story of cross-cultural misunderstanding.