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The Mischief of Technique in What Michael Farrell Does

To discover the work of Michael Farrell is to discover a kind of monkey persistence. It plays out like an ongoing prank where every line carries the effect of a punch line. Language confidently reveals not so much ambiguity as traces of erasure. All this continues across years. While the form of elocution changes, impishness fires on – and soon you will recognise a consistent, half-gleeful signature of life against our millennial void.

Farrell, born in 1965, was raised in the small riverside town of Bombala in New South Wales. He may reside in Melbourne today, but those formative times linger in his verse, in its imagistic tightness, existential touch, side-glances at nature, receded religion, and casual privacy. These qualities nestle deep and may be felt in well over a dozen poetry publications issued in two decades. Thrown into the mix is his own academic interest in the effect of another social force, colonialism, on aesthetics.

A sense of these traits can reward us readers like the outer glow of a habitation. Three more dimensions also clarify, the most obvious being the experimental range of Farrell’s books. Another is his compulsive, thematic walk through the fields of literature, academia, cinema, and contemporary music. The last – and perhaps most intriguing – is his ‘clustering’ of thoughts, such as what we find with his Catholic motifs and cultural allusions. All these serve as reassuring markers for us who wander in an impressive but wildly playful oeuvre.

To be sure, there can be no single skeleton key to Farrell’s verse, which reveals cryptic layer upon cryptic layer. A reader must enter each poem with an expectation to deal with a good amount of self-disruption. By this, I mean how he or she does not just read, taking in an unruffled, leisurely experience. Another voice habitually rises in the head and advises him or her to halt, go back a bit or further, and retrace the flow of words. The exercise sometimes calls for re-punctuating, sometimes for the re-arrangement of semantic parts. At other times, sounds need to be felt like soaked letters in alphabet soup.

’, from Farrell’s audacious early collection ode ode (2002), is a classic case in point. The title’s apostrophe signals what we overlook in order to express ourselves since we cannot pronounce this – and that is a key idea. An apostrophe indicates elision, a sound or syllable that is omitted in speech. To elide in speech further causes contraction, such as when ‘I am’ becomes ‘I’m’ or ‘She will’ becomes ‘She’ll’. By collapsing two sounds or syllables, an elision produces a third meaning: not only to omit and to contract but also to merge.

So, in ’, a director’s name attached to a film must change our aesthetic expectations just as an actor’s performance transforms his or her character’s formal possibility. This cinematic elision, as a manner of acting upon things, is at once a threefold operation of omitting, contracting, and merging that we pass over. Yet, in Farrell’s work, in both style and point, we are challenged to do the opposite, to be conscious of routine symbolic operations. We are invited to reverse-engineer language so as to discover ignored or uncharted senses.

It is for this reason surely that allusions abound in Farrell’s creations. They seek to forge connections that can be actual or speculative to beat fresh paths of meaning. We find, for example, John Keats’s immortal bird reborn in the poem ‘Phoenix’. Mary Shelley’s doomed pair of self-absorbed characters gets mirrored in the riotous ‘Dr Prankenstein Meet Dr Crankenstein’ – where a prankster faces his foil, an equally vexing crank.

Meanwhile, Farrell’s ‘what are ys’ responds to Marianne Moore’s ‘What are Years’, which directly echoes in its text in a smaller font. Of course, the word that has fallen out of the original title is ‘ear’: we are to hear the burden of great texts like Moore’s on Farrell. Thus, resolving his relationship with her, he concludes:

this is mortali
ty our need for control
lessens as our ear grows

What Harold Bloom calls agon, the antagonism poets have towards their influences, appears in ‘Oedipus the King , Hoicking’ too. We find here, in yet another Farrellian title, an unpronounceable stress on a punctuation mark. This time, the feature is an isolated comma – or is it an unfortunate fallen apostrophe or inverted comma? The following lines, in fact, openly contrast a comma and an inverted comma:

Of all
The ‘  ism
s ’  ,  ‘Imperial
–  ism
’  sounds the finest

Farrell’s Sophoclean hero is doing a naughty thing, hoicking stones to throw at Australia’s future. The coming tragedy for Oedipus will involve what he already embodies: the burden of the past in both literary and political terms. This absurdist circularity and self-referentiality extend even to the poem’s inner context, where, in its ‘world outside the threatr / e’, we find Samuel Beckett poring over Sophocles.

In another piece ‘sprinter’, Farrell differently contends with poetic tradition by offering what reads like an update on T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. His own tender soliloquy is also steep in references to barrenness and impotence but has its speaker confess: ‘I wait, as if a child, for the terrible experience.’ ‘I’m only Kafka,’ the poem goes on. ‘The light is Keats; I lumber, prosaic.’

This existential work boldly tackles, among several things, the crisis of masculinity today. It is a staggering masterpiece that turns on the power of literary influence and uses Western Romantic and Modernist men to talk about inherited and belated sterility. Creative paralysis is located both temporally and geographically, a trait of the global present as well as a cultural crisis in Australia. Its quest for redemption and purpose thus stretches from the national to the spiritual:

If only I was Kuan-Yin. Inside me are countless reactions. I sear and scrape. Will I wake up Australian? Will I save anything? Cool any flame?

So language, in Farrell’s voice, fragments like the identity it desperately helps to sustain. In a work called ‘thou sand’, the fracture in the title itself declares this multiplicity: a number references William Blake’s world-containing grain of sand too. The semantic play continues into the text proper, with more words splitting similarly into monosyllables with discrete meanings. These units then return, reset, and realign with other units – in a word puzzle that compels us to notice wholes, parts, parts-in-wholes, and wholes-in-parts.

Or, if you seek stark worldly engagements, go read Farrell’s burning satire ‘Long Dull Poem’, which still haunts me. Right from its self-effacing title, we are warned of poetry’s awkward relationship to the death of culture in our age. The lines consciously set themselves as ‘The poem … displaced’, with ‘police at its corners’. An image of the outcast or destitute who suffers and faces rejection everywhere recurs throughout:

       A
Pub exhales; its blackboard
Says ‘NO POEMS’. The
Poems are all in the cemetery, the poem notes, with
Some adverbial
Vigour or capers.

Despair in ‘Long Dull Poem’ points both ways – as much to the reception of the avant-garde as to the decay of civilisation. This is a dark turn in Farrell’s more often than not gamesome writing, which here shows fierce awareness of its inherent risks. It nonetheless does not keep him too long from experimenting with form, and surely his faith in the enduring possibility of newness peaks in his latest collection I Love Poetry (2017).

But I want to illustrate this point with a rather recent narrative poem ‘Anti-Haiku’. In it, Farrell tells of a haiku-churning educator who is gripped by a single question: what should constitute anti-form?

                                                                             I bet
I sound like a retired school-teacher, re-
actionary to boot: but back to ice-cream
The way it arrives formed, but undermines

itself in melting; a poem that did the same
would seem to be commenting on form
rather than attacking it.

The pondering drifts on and on until it lands lightly and wonderfully on its feet – and ends. At this moment, we realise what the poem always is, sure as day: something where form indeed dissolves. By overturning our sense of closure, rewriting it as also a promise, the work affirms poetry as an important way to rise over our modern cultural gloom.

All this inventiveness reveals to us Farrell’s true love, his pedagogic feel for aesthetics. It is what can keep his humour deadpan and philosophical even as he serves up disintegrated language in novel, variously formed ways. Meeting enough of such verse should set straight for us how best to enjoy his endless, rascally contortions. Read them boldly as an archaeologist, an analyst of palimpsests, or even a symbologist reads. But stay quietly aware that the texts are already affecting your cognitive frame, turning you into their accomplice in the renewing of language.