Michael Farrell, I Love Poetry (Giramondo 2017)
Someone said (on Twitter) that if a reviewer doesn’t get the thing they are reviewing, then no matter how long the review is, it will just be a whole lot of different ways of saying ‘I don’t get it.’ So, though I think of myself as a reader with a keyboard rather than a reviewer, I’ll make this brief.
I don’t get a lot of Michael Farrell’s poetry. That is to say, in some of his poems I really can’t tell what’s happening, apart from random phrases appearing on the page. It’s not like it’s a foreign language – I can’t tell if it’s a language at all. For instance, here’s the start of one poem (punctuated as in the book):
K In The Castle
Like a food documentary from 2013
Know something of your life
———and character. giraffes cry
Australian giraffes – third generation. everyone has
coconut in their tears, saliva and blood
Apart from recognising the reference to Kafka’s The Castle in the title, I draw a blank. I’m not even puzzled. My guess is that this is doing something that’s discernible to readers who are versed in contemporary poetics, but certainly not to me, and a fair amount of this book is as inaccessible (to me) as that.
Then there are poems that work for me in a tantalising way that makes me think of the fan dancers who performed in sideshow tents at the Innisfail Annual Show in my 1950s childhood. As a nine or ten year old I wasn’t oblivious to the performances’ salacious dimension, but I was mainly enthralled by the dancers’ amazing skill at waving ostrich feathers around while keep their presumably naked rude bits hidden. I don’t mean (obviously) that the poems are salacious, but that the frequent brilliant phrase and the pervasive, if sometimes annoying, playfulness are what keep me going, along with a feeling that often just out of sight there’s something coherent and beautiful.
There are some enticing opening lines:
Blue Poles and INXS shuffle into a bar. ‘What’ll you have?’
(‘Into A Bar’)
In Newcastle a businessman half-disappeared into another life.
(‘Death Of A Poet’)
The boxer has great hair, a great beard, great ink
jobs down both arms. He likes to pull up his
shirt when he’s with his friends: just above the nipples
Bending over in shorts forever, Australianything
can remind us more of a country and western
song than a rap
(‘When Arse Is Class, Or Australianything’)
The poems then reliably take off in reliably unpredictable directions.
Sometimes I think I catch a glimpse of what lies behind the fan-dancing. ‘Cate Blanchett And The Difficult Poem’, perhaps the most straightforward of the book’s narrative poems, is a case. In it Cate Blanchett chats ‘laconically, fragmentedly’ with Waleed Aly while preparing to go on stage to read a difficult poem. Partly I feel relatively confident with it because I get most of its references.I know who Cate Blanchett and Waleed Aly are, and also Judith Wright and Patrick White who are both mentioned. The reference to ‘Jackie Weaver’s eye manoeuvres in Animal Sconedom / as they scorched their moving targets’ would be lost on anyone who hadn’t seen David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, but it a great description of that performance in that film. I’ve even seen Julian Rosefeldt’s multi-screen video work Manifesto, in which a protean Blanchett performs a multitude of artistic manifestoes, and which may lurk in the background of the poem.
But those are all part of the ostrich feathers. The thing that I have glimpsed is possibly an account of a poetic method. After Cate has read the text silently then aloud, trying out different tones and accents, an actor preparing, the ground shifts beneath our feet and she starts inserting lines from Judith wright’s ‘Woman to Man‘:
Blanchett’s jaw connects to a signal tower in her brain
that produces a pas de deux between the difficult
poem – but does it exist? – and the Wright poem, which
she gradually replaces with – not exactly quotations from
she’s not a complete freak – paraphrases of scenes from
Patrick White novels
A couple of lines later, Cate says to Waleed:
You have to fake it with a difficult poem: be like
I ain’t easy either, me. Treat it like a camera or
call it to the stage for an award and trapdoor it.
I like to think that’s a description of Farrell’s method: there’s a text (in the sense that everything we experience is text of one sort or another) that he has some difficulty with (for values of difficulty that include interest in a complexity), or maybe there’s nothing there at all (‘but does it exist?’); you make a poem from it by faking it, being like ‘I ain’t easy either, me’, that is tosay, by assuming you’re on equal terms with it – perhaps inserting bits of other texts (childhood memories, bits of pop culture, literary allusions), improvising a performance around it. By this method, of course, the original text / idea/ emotion will be hard if not impossible for the reader to see: what we are reading is a pas de deux between it and the poet, or perhaps only the poet’s side of the pas de deux. And maybe it’s a danse des éventails de deux.
There’s also an implicit invitation to readers to do their own pas de deux with Farrell’s poetry. This has been an attempt to do just that.
Once again, I’m happy to acknowledge that my copy of the book is a generous gift from Giramondo.