by Michael Farrell
Published April 2020
For a fleeting moment in 1903, it seemed like Bombala might become the capital of Australia. Such were the designs of the dandiacal insurance salesman cum teetotal politician King O’Malley, who explained to the Australian parliament that if ever there was a spot ‘set aside by the Creator to be the Capital of this great Australia – the pivot around which Australian civilization should revolve – it is Bombala’. While O’Malley’s encomiums stemmed from his idiosyncratic ideas about which climate would yield the most industrious capital (cold climates, he thought), there were other, more pragmatic reasons recommending Bombala. Situated on the Monaro plains, in the rain shadow of the Snowies, this small country town is a reasonably precise geographical compromise between Sydney and Melbourne – the then rival, aspiring capitals of Australia. But a capital Bombala was not to be. Today its population that has barely grown from the one thousand or so inhabitants it had at the time of Australia’s Federation. In most entries on the history of the town, its counterfactual status as capital is a noted event.
In an essay for the anthology Growing Up Queer in Australia (2019), Michael Farrell recounts a boyhood spent in Bombala. He lingers particularly over his private imaginative worlds, how he ‘thought constantly of the cows on the farm, of the chooks at my grandparents’’. He identifies with cows; more than that, he fancies them. In passage that reads something like a diary entry, he describes how ‘I imagined that cows were my girlfriends, and innocently told someone at school. Shamed again’. Years later, on an afternoon when the ‘air smells like wire’, we find him down by the river, trying to remember, in the words of his ‘Poet on the Monaro’, ‘something of a French novel, which I tell to the closest cow listening. She shakes her muzzle in the water’. Perhaps out of fear of being shamed again, Farrell kept his other childhood fantasies secret. Only now does he divulge how he had his ‘own plastic animals to play with. But I still needed to create more families: with grass (from seed heads), broken pegs (wooden ones, grouped into two different types: those with and those without a head), buttons and plastic counters’. Sometimes the child even imagines himself a ‘wooden boy’ that his mother has ‘taken from a tree’, as Farrell writes in his ‘Beautiful Mother’.
These are what Farrell calls his ‘found families’ and they play a crucial role in the story of sexual awakening that his essay relates. A decade ago, by his own admission, he would have written this essay as ‘a fairly standard growing-up-gay-in-the-country story’ and these ‘non-normative aspects would have been presented as badges of being gay. As if I was struggling towards something recognisable, rather than being something that was in itself interesting’. Now, by contrast, he enjoys ‘how vague “non-normative” sounds’, if only because in its vagueness it might have protected him: ‘Growing up non-normative… it sounds like it would be hard to be abused in those terms’. The story he tells today is like the world as it seems in the aperture of his poetry – a world of surprising connections, charged with the pathos, messiness, and humour of desire. This is no coincidence: growing up gay is, for Farrell, as important, and in some ways as non-normative, as ‘growing up as a poet’ in Australia. Both must, he will have us understand, find their families.
How do we find a family? I imagine the poems of Farrell’s most recent collection, Family Trees, as offering many answers to this question. The book teems with hypothetical ancestries and unexpected intimacies, and everywhere enjoins us to envisage a speculative Australia of ‘the / good bits, the eccentricity and community’ as describes it in ‘While My Veranda Gently Weeps’. A typical poem begins on a note of conjecture: ‘Or this:’ and then opens onto a view of an imagined family. In ‘G’dayology’, the poet has a daughter who repeats ‘the whole Catholic / Mass at Lunch’; in ‘André Gide And The Honey Sandwich’, he finds himself the scion of a hyperbolically cultured family of writers and aesthetes. Sometimes a family tree features more abstractly, as genealogical way to organise and connect things, or as the sheer rhythm of one thing precipitating another. In the title poem, chains of begetting issue as if from the phonaesthesia of names: ‘Heaven begat Bee begat Honey begat Leopard begat Possum begat Coal’ (or perhaps these are simply secret names a child has bestowed on some of his favourite cows…) Like this, Farrell can trace a lineage or track a correspondence of images from almost anything. In his hands, one thing swiftly entails another, a camp a fire, a campfire entertainment until all of a sudden a whole potted history of ‘The Folktales of the Avant-Garde’ has fashioned itself from gossip.
But the family tree is not only a harmonious mode of interconnection. Farrell has written, for instance, of his obsession from the age of eleven with the ‘serial monogamy’ of Henry VIII, the ‘harem aspect’ of his espousing, which became the subject of his play Up Here (performed at Melbourne’s Theatreworks in 1991, roughly a decade before he published his first book of poems). In Family Trees, poetry is conceived in similarly bloody terms in ‘Adjectival Or The English Canon’, which I am told is inspired by the Cambridge orientalist Edward Granville Browne’s A Literary History of Persia (1908). Here poetry appears as a dynastic cycle of slaughter and succession in which each poet creatively murders their predecessor. This family tree is something like a literalisation of Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973) – which is, after all, prefaced by a quote from ‘the Australian poet A. D. Hope’, who holds, according to Bloom, that ‘the struggle for supreme power is central both to poetry and warfare’. Either that, or it is an extrapolation from John Forbes’ adage that Australian poetry is ‘a knife-fight in a phonebooth’.
In what sense do these poetic speculations find a family? Some may take issue with the verb ‘find’. In a lively review essay on Farrell as a poet of ‘twee’, Sarah Holland-Batt attempts to distinguish aesthetic affinities from ‘true family trees, which proceed by the inalienable logic of heredity’. Antecedent to choice, the family shapes us, and so it may seem to reside firmly in that category of things in life that are given and not made. It would seem that the family finds us. But a family is a queer thing. Thought in its broadest sense as kinship, as those fundamental forms of human dependency by which we ‘negotiate the reproduction of life and the demands of death’ (to borrow from Judith Butler’s ‘Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?’), we discover a much more complex reality; one that is as natural as it is cultural, as given as it is made.
This was something that preoccupied Michel Foucault, for instance, late in his life, both in his philosophical work and in the very practical matter of adoption. The person up for adoption was not a child, but his partner of twenty years, Daniel Defert. Adoption seemed to promise an even more encompassing way than gay marriage to affirm what Foucault calls ‘relations of provisional coexistence’ or ‘new relational modes’. He thought it could prove a cultural form capable of recognising the already existing bonds of care between people, above all in cases with differences of age, education, and wealth. In 1981, in a brief and lucid interview published in the French journal Gai pied, Foucault claims that what unsettles people about homosexuality is not the sex so much as way of life – one that suggests ‘new ways of being together’. And from this he articulates a characteristic demand: we must give up our insistence on questions like ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is the secret of my desire?’ Better to ask oneself: ‘What relationships, through homosexuality, can be established, invented, multiplied, and modulated?’ In this way we might come to feel the force of a more intriguing problem: ‘not to discover in oneself the truth of one’s sex, but, rather, to use one’s sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships. And that, no doubt, is the reason why homosexuality is not a form of desire but something desirable. We must work at becoming homosexuals’.
The attempt to imagine this ‘new relational right’ is perhaps as good a description as any of what a poet does. Poetry has sometimes been thought of as a second birth; a poem as an act of self-realisation in which one, paradoxically, becomes their own parent. Rilke once phrased this as if it were a transition from the particular to the universal: we are born provisionally and only later, in retrospect, create our true origins. We could call this the ‘originality’ of the family, a word that only came to its familiar meaning – independent, underived, different from what came before – after a curious semantic reversal. It once had a meaning closer to what the speaker of Farrell’s ‘Nature as a Misreading’ imagines: ‘Originality is / concerned with origins he believes’.
These two, seemingly contradicting meanings of originality offer a way to understand what I think is the most characteristic feature of Farrell’s poetry. More than coquettish, daggy, or droll, ‘impish’ is the term most often evoked to describe his work. Gwee Li Sui declares Farrell’s poetry to have ‘a kind of monkey persistence’ – its ‘impishness fires on’ – while Ed Wright describes the ‘impish’ energy of the poem ‘breakfasts’ that opens the collection Cocky’s Joy (2015). ‘Impish’ implies playfulness, but also compulsion, as though Farrell’s poetry were possessed by a will of its own. It is an aesthetic quality closely connected something else often noted by Farrell’s reviewers: namely, his poetic interest in kitsch. Reviewing Family Trees, Holland-Batt speaks of how Farrell attempts to ‘rescue kitsch for revivification and reappraisal’ and Andrew Fuhrmann of Farrell’s ‘ruminations on the kitsch of colonialist dreaming’. Certainly, there is an impishness to kitsch, to all the articulate sock-puppets, robots, animals, and effigies in Family Trees. And as it happens, koboldhaft or ‘impish’ is the word Theodor W. Adorno uses to describe kitsch in his Aesthetic Theory, writing that kitsch ‘lurks in art, awaiting ever recurring opportunities to spring forth’, and yet ‘escapes, implike, from even a historical definition’. Adorno thinks kitsch too pesky to define but comes close to capturing it in his description of how kitsch replicates the effect of the genuine, borrowing and tailoring scraps of it, without issuing from its authentic source. His fear of everything trashy, garish, easy, and sham in art has an Australian analogue in the self-depreciating, anxiously extravagant aesthetic known as ‘featurism’ that Robin Boyd pillories in The Australian Ugliness (1960). This ‘decorative technique’ acquires its name from the way it subordinates ‘the essential whole to the accentuation of selected separate features’. ‘A coffee table masquerades as a boomerang, and ballerinas sprinkle stardust on doormats. Suburban windows sprout gratuitous gables, and a pub passes itself off as a colonial relic with an overlay of “chintzy old-lavender charm”.’ This is Peter Conrad’s reminiscence, fifty years on from the first publication of The Australian Ugliness, on some immediately recognisable instances of the style. While Boyd singled out the flamboyant proliferation of an ornamental architectural feature for critique, there is a strand of Australian poetry that valorises featurist kitsch, holding it up as a form of homegrown camp and proclaiming with Christos Tsiolkas: ‘I don’t share [Boyd’s] suspicions of the grandiose, the gaudy, or suburbia for that matter; and I possibly prize the vital over the sublime, desire the vigour of the “ugly” over the lassitude of the “beautiful”’. This attitude is recognisable in everything from John Forbes’ distinctive mix of bathos and sincerity to the wry dolewave lament of Courtney Barnett’s ‘Avant-Gardener’: ‘Oh what a wonder, oh what a waste’.
Yet, there is also something possessed in kitsch that is perhaps best captured in an unlikely poem by Fay Zwicky. ‘Pie in the Sky’, a poem Zwicky only reluctantly agreed to include in a published collection after the persuasions of her editor, is about eating an Australian meat pie in Hobart while ‘reading a book about / Beethoven’s spiritual development’. It builds to a disquieting image of an impish mechanism accelerating of its own accord:
The pie steams open from its crusted skirts,
red gobbets sink below the rim.
If I were marrying music to this pie
I’d tie it to a wheezing barrel organ
from some innocent old carousel.
A crowd is gathering, nodding to
‘The Road to Gundagai’ and ‘Come Back to Sorrento’.
Round and round the horses roll
their diamond eyes, stiffening
in full stride, biting the air
with wooden teeth,
letting it go at that.
This poem’s prevailing ambivalence arises from the fact that Zwicky acknowledges, enjoys, and yet dreads the compulsive playfulness of kitsch.
Farrell’s poetry draws a speculative power from the impish aspect of kitsch. Like the family, we might also speak of the ‘originality’ of kitsch – an ability to conjure an effect where there is no original. Kitsch is, in the words of Farrell’s poem ‘Abstraction’, a duplication without a source:
A bear whose image adorned a petrol station
or donut franchise, but had never been real
and perhaps served as the double for
someone else who hadn’t been either
To be a copy without an original is a little like growing up as queer and as a poet in Australia. The craft of poetry – ‘making things that are useful and/or decorative’, as Farrell describes it in his essay ‘Australian Deceptions’ – slips into its kitsch equivalent, ‘Kraft’, an Australian product ‘known internationally, and one of the few original foods produced by white-settler culture in Australia, […] the spread known as Vegemite’. In sexual desire, too, there is the same vertiginous quality. The original is the consequence of many repeated acts of imitation, since any so-called original is already, as in Butler’s famous description of gender, failing to approximate its own ideal of itself anyway. In this spirit, Farrell once described himself to me and a friend as a ‘failed homosexual’ (when we brought this remark up later, he added: ‘That was before I knew about Grindr. But then the failed homosexual is a homosexual’). A similar feeling of imitation turns up in a poem from Thempark (2010): ‘there is no homosexual milieu that i know of / so im a parasite, like in line of beauty’. Farrell seems to be inviting us to locate a commonality between kitsch, the family, queer desire, and colonial culture. Yet, for Farrell, what they share is not the feeling of derivativeness and fraudulence. The ideal they fail to live up to may not be the thing they often are thought to imitate – the colony imitating the imperial metropole, kitsch copying the profound work of art, queer desire emulating the lives of the cis and the straight – but an ideal of their own choosing, a secret utopia they have fashioned for themselves.
Perhaps what is kitsch about Farrell’s poems is that they written in the subjunctive mood. They precede ‘As If Writing A Poem’, as one poem in Family Trees is titled. This title echoes in every sentence, ramifying each conjectured image with a further layer of possible conjecture:
As if oats were hand rolled by elves out of Milton, or
Donne. As if gods made reports by dropping a marble or
pigeon egg from the tops of tall buildings, as if this was
somehow poetic, as if poems could be written at such
heights and yet be flimsy, amateurish, economy-righting (as
if they knew anything about that), as if businesspersons
could make concrete their decisions, that would be
remembered as images by children walking through Bourke
St Mall, as if…
Each ‘as if’ is an invitation to a potential poem that would branch off from ‘As If Writing a Poem’, and yet each image also feels like a gentle satire of an abandoned poem. Like ‘yeah nah’, Farrell’s ‘as if’ is ironic and ideal, incredulous dismissal and lucid dreaming. It allows us to entertain a desire at the moment of brushing it aside. If this is utopian poetry, it presents a utopia of a very cruisy, sceptical sort. As Farrell’s poem ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ counsels: ‘Remain casual / Every possibility will occur’.
Not all the modes of conjecture in Family Trees are breezy, however. For every poem that, like ‘Isaac Babel And The East Sumatran Rhino’, effortlessly acclimatises us to the internal weather of a dream, there is another, like the sestina ‘Good Fortune’, where the fantasies feel a little too good to be true, and so must be brought down a notch. ‘Poet on the Monaro’ begins with a counterfactual family who ‘leave Hegel and Kant on tables / and have dinner parties with dentists and other well- / offs’, but it ultimately reads less like wish-fulfilment than the send up of a wish. Even in dreams, after all, a poet may be plagiarising:
In the dream I feel like an impostor, like I’m not one
of the people I’m one of. A man reads something I’ve
written and says I’ve copied it from a book. He shows
me the passage about a writer whose parents read
philosophy, whose grandparents own land and dental
and boat factories, and spends time looking at waves.
Other poems are written in the optative mood, and present strained and faltering dreams. They brim with the melancholy of desires they cannot sustain:
Sometimes I wish I were a corrupt pope
with a gifted son, but I wake up at a
writer’s festival in Europe amid gossip
about the Nobel Prize, and a rain
of kettles on saucepans so sparse
it can be dodged
Still others turn on anxious and paranoid fantasies, like ‘Care Continuum’, in which word ‘gets around, I have a kind / of chemical imbalance, and unpaid library / fines’ or ‘Liked in Prison’, which always ends up on the same question:
Walking in the streets, reading his books
in the cafes and bars, this was his over-
riding question: would he be liked in
Perhaps the most striking ‘as if’ in Family Trees lies in the tantalising, non-committal play of flirtation. ‘Flirts’, Adam Phillips writes in his book on them, ‘are dangerous because they have a different way of believing in the Real Thing. And by “believing in” I mean “believing as if” it exists’. We find the flirt’s distinctive mode of shared implication in ‘Fiat in Turin’, where the poet looks out as if ‘your shirt pocket, where I always / wanted to be’, though the lyric ‘Apple Tree’ also contains the delightful, aberrant image of wanting ‘to fall like apple / blossom in the hair of the wrong guy’. ‘Fiat in Turin’ invites the reader to loiter in uncertainty by offering an analogy only to return to it and refashion it a few lines later:
And what the lover did to the mower, I do to Fiat’s
workers in Turin
And what Fiat in Turin did to its workers, you do to my
thoughts and me
And what grass seeds did to the mower’s lungs I do to the
workers of Fiat in Turin
We might be forgiven for wondering what happened to Fiat’s workers in Turin – all the more so knowing the poem first appeared in the unionist context of Overland – but investigating the history of workers’ occupations of Fiat’s factories would only take us so far. By the end of ‘Fiat in Turin’, Farrell’s analogies have accumulated in a shifting verbal array so convoluted, virtuosic, and replete it is perhaps best to sit back and let them pass us in reverence, as if we were watching a parade float:
What Stevie Smith did for waving, what Fiat in Turin did
for Italian workplace relations, what Juliana did for the
mower and his thoughts, for Marvell and his peaceful
oblivion, you, and the light of the future which no shade
can hope to alleviate, do to the two of us, and to union bust
Analogies like these – if we can still consider such baroque concatenations analogies –amass rather than dispel ambiguity over the poem’s course. We might compare them to a poetic technique of Forbes, who often begins a poem, as Ivor Indyk argues in ‘The Awkward Grace of John Forbes’, ‘with an assertion or statement of fact […] which, however improbable as a starting point, then inaugurates a train of thought, leading through a succession of qualifications, exemplifications, rhetorical questions and rejected alternatives to a conclusion’. The simile, in Forbes’ work, is in this way ‘not so much a poetic as a logical device’. In Farrell’s work, the same ‘colloquial similes’ and ‘logical connectives’ fail to cohere into a line of argument, but their very bathos and inadequacy create in an endearing spectacle. Like the diminutive name given to a lover or a euphemism that doesn’t hide but flaunts (‘you’re legislating my arse to pieces’, a poem in Cocky’s Joy concludes), the failure of an analogy to resolve itself can become a sign of intimacy, as though the poems were creating a shared language for the reader and the writer to partake in.
There are other, even more oblique lexicons in Family Trees. ‘KANGAROOMUSEUM’ and ‘GRASSLANDS FENCELANDS’ continue in the vein of the gestural, visual poetic experiments of Farrell’s earlier work. The splayed majuscules of ‘KANGAROOMUSEUM’ form a shimmering boomerang of Us – perhaps it is ‘us’, that is ‘yous’ – while various words flicker on the threshold of legibility. ‘GRASSLANDS FENCELANDS’ contains only these two words, the first above, the second below a page filled by a grid of vertical lines. I imagine it as an enigmatic rejoinder to ‘In the Desert’ – Robert Wood’s poem, which by his own account, was the distillation of five years of private experiments in visual poetics. The result is a page of parenthesis that he intends to stand as a keyboard cipher for Central Australian sand dunes or Indigenous wood carvings. Possibly Wood means to say that poetic afflatus is just a series of empty, inconclusive asides, but his description of the poem brings to my mind the ‘heart that fed’ in the ‘lone and level’ desert of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. Where Wood’s title ‘In the Desert’ acts as an anchor for his poem, something like the title of a cubist painting, Farrell’s ‘GRASSLANDS FENCELANDS’ is more unrestrained in its possible meanings. Its vertical strikes hover between the openness of the plains, and the erection of enclosures and boundaries.
It is easy to feel that many of the poems in Family Trees carry on this kind of subterranean conversation with other Australian writers. One could also imagine ‘Mysteries Of The South Coast’ as replying to Geoff Page’s ‘Bombala’, say, through its insistence on folkways that remain inaccessible to a poet who, driving by or noticing the town’s name on a cenotaph, might wonder, as Page does: ‘Bombala? Where was that exactly?’ Farrell’s poem emphasises:
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.
In his essay ‘The Poet Tasters’, Ben Etherington observes how the aesthetic ‘divisions that ghost [Australian poetry’s] official critical discourse’ spill over into the comment feeds of informal venues like blog entries. His example is a quickly redacted criticism that Page made of Farrell in a Southerly blog ‘Obscurity in Poetry – A Spectrum’. For poets like Page, Farrell’s work seems at once too easy and too hard. Like the paradoxical quality of the gimmick as described in Sianne Ngai’s recent Theory of the Gimmick (2020), it ‘strikes us as working too hard’ and ‘as working too little’. To these critics Farrell’s poetry seems so easy that anyone could write it – Elizabeth Campbell even compares it, incongruously, to a video of an elephant painting, which is perhaps a convoluted way of calling it a cruel gimmick and yet so difficult as to be wilfully obscure and elitist, so many donnish glitches and riddles. Perhaps what these critics object to is how the writer’s ease is made the reader’s difficulty – which makes poetry little more than a solipsistic game. But if there is a game here, I think Farrell invites the reader into it in the words that he put into the mouth of the actress in ‘Cate Blanchett and the Difficult Poem’: ‘you have to fake it with a difficult poem: be like / I ain’t easy either, me’. Here the antagonisms over the obscurity of poetry are resolved in the insouciance of a poetic speculation, as Blanchett reveals a causal command of avant-garde poetics:
No two-line snoozer, Cate Blanchett
reads the text twice as if script and code
then looks at its graphic appearance. Versed
in arts avant-garde as she is, she looks for
a clue: is it Zaum, is it expressionism
writ small? Does it affect to be trash picked up
in a mall? The third time she reads it aloud
first in the ache of a woman in despair
then gradually phasing into the Indonesian accent
of a particular village she’d stayed in once.
Blanchett is addressing Waleed Aly, who is introduced seemingly out a sense of narrative symmetry – having a man listen to a woman reading out Judith Wright’s ‘Woman to Man’ – or else conjured by the sheer rhythm of the poem, as if his name were another adverb:
laconically, fragmentedly to Waleed Aly
who’s leaning back, watching the performance submerge
This comic scene is Farrell’s most direct response to the fear of a too difficult, yet too easy poetry, which is, after all, another version of the disquiet about kitsch. This anxiety perhaps found its antipodean apogee not in Boyd but in Ern Malley’s ‘Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495’: a deliberate act of poetic fraudulence, a hoax poem, that frets over the discovery of its unintended derivativeness, as ‘the mind repeats / In its ignorance the vision of others’. Malley tells us he ‘read in books that art is not easy’, but the problem for his creators, McAuley and Stewart, was that modernist poetry had become too easy, so easy that – if we believe them – they could concoct ‘the whole of Ern Malley’s tragic life-work in one afternoon’. Perhaps Malley is a ‘tragic figure’ then, as Ben Lerner describes the poet in his The Hatred of Poetry (2016). According to Lerner, the tragicomedy of poetry is that it ‘isn’t hard, it’s impossible’. A poem, Lerner writes, figures negatively the ideal it constitutively fails to obtain, and so a bad poem may even be preferable to a good one, since at least then we will feel more intensely the cleavage of the actual from the virtual (Lerner’s arguments are interestingly prefigured, I think, by the settler Australian poet Henry Kendall, whose lyrics are filled with a melancholy longing for ‘The song I cannot sing’ and ‘The perfect verses’ that must ‘Remain unwritten yet’).
In I Love Poetry (2017), the collection that immediately preceded Family Trees and which contains ‘Cate Blanchett and the Difficult Poem’, Farrell provides a kitsch answer to the melancholy of Lerner (and Kendall). His rejoinder is more than the snub of simply getting on with writing poems irrespective of the defences offered for it. For Farrell, it is not that poetry falls short of an ideal, but that, in the speculative originality of kitsch, it can create the original it copies. This accounts for the almost messianic strain in Family Trees, where ‘Anywhere can be the opposite of here, any- / thing can be our kitsch’. In the most self-consciously Australian poems of Family Trees, the copies and ‘local memes’ have shirked the anxiety of derivativeness for a ‘bush comedy so good it could run forever without seats’. In the midst of all the comic anachronisms of the poem ‘Jesus Likes Radiohead’, to take one of many examples, the poet suddenly begins to address Jesus himself at the moment of an epiphany:
that you are the hero of a life story (your own) that will
be read as a pastiche of earlier figures, like Odysseus or
Hercules (or even more hopeless cases, or later ones)
The ancient streets of Damascus and Jerusalem are
mimicked by Ballarat’s avenues. The Saturday Night
Fever soundtrack blares from speakers for what
seems like years.
In this poem, we have left behind the binary logic of original and copy, art and kitsch, and arrived at something like Biblical typology. This Christian exegetical tradition read the symbols of the Old Testament as precursors to those in the New. It is an analogical mode of thinking that takes these correspondences as though they were prophetic markers for ‘a third thing that has been promised but has not yet come to pass’, as Erich Auerbach articulates it in his 1938 essay ‘Figura’. And so Jesus, in his resemblance to Odysseus, is kitsch too, and may only prefigure something antipodean, while Jerusalem and Damascus find their completion in the promised streets of Ballarat. In the ventriloquised scripture of Farrell’s ‘In The Beginning Was Parody’, Isaiah prophesises a world where ‘Writing is everything’; one in which the cacophony of forms, both ferocious and meek, settle down in an Edenic pluralism. The example will lie down with the parable, the cliché with the hyperbole, all of it ‘heading to gentleness’.
In ‘Great Poem Snowdome’, an earlier poem from I Love Poetry, there is a more troubling version of the same events:
The Great Poet
assumes the mantle of kitsch, like a Jindy-
worobak It can be worn well
There’s no herb that provides escape from its shell
It tinkles in the mind like plastic snow
It’s cold, and never goes I buy
the snowdome and take it home
With its jingling rhymes, the poet betrays something of Zwicky’s uneasiness about kitsch. The speaker is not the ‘Great Poet’, and possibly even loses the snowdome or gets bored with it, or ends up feeling it ‘sucking my / poetry into its own greatness’, but the ‘mantle of kitsch’ still entices. Kitsch is that which is well-worn, worn-out, cliché, but perhaps it can be worn well, in stylised distress. Yet the allusion to the Jindyworobaks gives it a more disturbing valence. It brings to mind the ‘recurring narratives of nation-building’ that have produced, in Evelyn Araluen’s words, ‘intricate forms of kitsch and cringe, shaping not just Australia, but Australiana’. In the same period as the Ern Malley hoax, the Jindyworobak movement proposed a poetics that aimed to recuperate the Aboriginal relationship to the Australian landscape through a poetry written in an invented and appropriated English mixed with Aboriginal words. Kitsch here stands for the most damning form of false sentimentality in which the settler poet mourns the loss of a prior, Indigenous relation to the land without grappling with their own implication in dispossession and genocide. So kitsch traps the poet that attempts to affirm it in a ‘commodified / half-full, half-emptiness’, as Farrell’s poem continues. ‘The Great Poet Snowdome’ concludes on an image of misrecognition that foreshadows ‘Jesus Likes Radiohead’:
I talk to an artist who has met a similar fate
and was now making plastic icons and asks me
to pose for a series of diverse Jesuses
of Australia I don’t even live
in Sydney: I’m delighted and humbled to model
for Jesus of Broadway.
In ‘Isaac Babel And The East Sumatran Rhino’, Farrell writes that ‘Widdershins seems like an apt place for settler thought to be / Meaning I don’t know nor am I sure how anyone else could’. Yet, from what I glean, this poetry has more to say about ‘settler thought’ than the poet is here making out. In a recent, still unpublished interview, I asked Farrell directly about this and he said:
There’s a stronger sense in Australia, consciousness of Australia in post-colonial or colonial terms, which I don’t really see as being evident in American or English poetics […]. My perception is that what’s culturally powerful about Australia is that, though it’s not so conscious or ethical as I might be implying, it thinks a great deal more about the situation of colonisation [than England or America]. It’s our situation, and we have to think about it. Settler poets are in a constant relation to Indigenous poets and Indigenous critics.
‘Settler thought’ in Australian poetry has sometimes played out as an attempt to poetically domesticate what Marcus Clarke calls the ‘weird melancholy’ of Australian landscape and so fashion some brittle sense of belonging to this unhomely home. But regardless of how virtuosic its execution, of whether its author admits to this ambition with full reflection, this remains an impossible task under the unjust realities of settler-colonialism. Australian poetry may be conceived then as an intense and politically charged version of pastoral nostalgia: the longing to return to an origin that can never be achieved. Farrell has never been interested in this type of homecoming and refuses the melancholy of a poet like Kendall. He instead returns to these traditions in a sardonic, satiric register, and in this his poems could be thought to have an ethical purpose akin to Judith Wright or John Kinsella. Speaking of his origins with Jonathan Dunk, Kinsella remarks that to acknowledge complicity in settler colonialism is a ‘small step in the process of writing “ethically”’, but that perhaps more important ‘is the willingness to create lacunae in the writing in which the critic, especially one with Indigenous knowledges, can enter and challenge and dialogue or reject or claim or depart’. Farrell’s comic ‘as if’ may be one way of shaping and holding open this fungible space for the reader.
With each collection of poems, Farrell has absorbed new tones and registers in ways subtle enough that it is easy to miss a decisive shift in the make-up of whimsy and seriousness in his work. And so we may suddenly find, reading Family Trees, that irony, kitsch, and burlesque have started to feel like elegy, philosophy, and flashes of utopian vision. This is part of the masterful comic vision of Farrell’s Family Trees. If one lives and writes positioned as if the ‘whole / culture is an ethical conundrum’ as we are told ‘he’ does in ‘Nature Is A Misreading’, if one registers these inconsistencies, and seeks no false resolution, then the result is something like Farrell’s poetry: a poetry full of queer bathos, witty incongruence, and unexpected beauty that feels, to me, true to the Australia situation. In ‘Avec Merci’, the poet muses on compassion by way of his kinship with a pot plant. In the place of Keats’ fear of ensnarement in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ Farrell gives us the small joy of being interconnected and needed by some unassuming, living thing – for are we not also, some assuming, living thing?
Mercy in a
fourth floor flat… I can see the joke in
that: of looking at a pot plant and having
a spiritual experience. So perhaps now
that I’ve said what I’ve seen, I will
digress towards the unseen. I will walk into
the sedge with a mirror, alive as a weed
I would like to thank D. Perez-McVie and Brendan Casey. This article is dedicated to them. I am also very grateful to Ben Etherington and Catriona Menzies-Pike for their patient and detailed critiques on this essay over its lengthy gestation. The interview I quote from here was conducted by Oli Goldstein, William Hall, and I, and is forthcoming in PN Review.