Michael Farrell enjoys a reputation as one of the foremost experimental poets in the contemporary Australian scene. In some of his previous work the cause of experimentation has tended to dominate. In Cocky’s Joy, while experimentalism is strongly evident, he seems to have struck a superb and playful balance, a kind of lyrical abstractionism that blends key influences such as John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara and generates pleasure and intellectual satisfaction at the same time as it continues to question and resist the urge to meaning. The consequence is a free-wheeling, idea-shifting, constantly suggestive, sometimes touching, politically acerbic and often very funny book of poetry. Farrell shows himself to be a ludic master, and reading Cocky’s Joy is as refreshing as going on a holiday.
Cocky’s Joy is his fourth full-length collection. These volumes have been supplemented by a number of chapbooks and a prodigious amount of single poem publishing on poetry websites and in literary magazines. But this latest volume feels like an arrival, the successful culmination of a self-directed apprenticeship. The formal preparations of previous volumes have been completed here in some superbly poised poetry.
Farrell’s hunger for the games of language, the play between page and form, and a willingness to resist sense through formal experimentation and the use of substitution games was a feature of his first book ode ode (2002). The poems were sometimes impenetrable, the substitutions sometimes random, but there was always humour, not just through the surprising juxtaposition of words and concepts, but through the contrast between the formal experimentation and a cheesy affection for puns and poetic no-nos such as chime rhymes.
Farrell’s second full-length book was a raiders guide (2008), in which the formal experimentation continued. However, in his third book, Open Sesame (2012), there was a clear shift towards the lyrical, for instance in his entertaining The Bill Sonnets, in which the characters from the long-running British police drama get to speak. The experimental aspects of his poetry weren’t abandoned. Rather they were tempered with a growing sense of voice. It’s a process that mirrors to some extent the career of John Ashbery, a move also analogous to the emergence of lyrical abstraction out of geometrical abstraction in the visual arts. This move has been further developed in Cocky’s Joy.
The opening poem ‘breakfasts’ sets the tone for what is to follow. It’s a list of breakfast options that begins seemingly sensibly, if not to everyone’s taste, with ‘two anchovies,’ but by the second item, ‘a bowl of milk’ some subversion is already in place. Whose breakfast? Person or cat? A fried crumpet sounds more normal until you think, who fries a crumpet? The second line opens with ‘a plum’, simple enough; but assonant riffing lands us next with ‘a gun’. Then to finish the line, Farrell offers ‘chocolate muesli.’ It’s available in the shops, but in terms of the health food spectrum it feels like an oxymoron.
The poem continues:
three carpet buns with jam; tuna pickle, minties
space-ground coffee; eel segments; anzac biscuits
blendered corn; blendered tofu; happy juice
toasted garlic; roasted marshamallows; insipid tea
a hundred year old cream; fresh marzipan; banknotes
whitlamian croissant; cheese a la keating; water-by-hawke
roast lamb; rice bubbles; dropped yoghurt …
The cumulative effect is of the leaps and the connective tactics that fuel them. Sometimes it’s simply phonic correspondence or rhyme, at others it’s thematic as in the three former Labor prime ministers attached to croissants, cheese, and water. There are jokes too such as ‘dropped yoghurt’ and one suspects that the three carpet buns are missing an ‘r’. It’s as if Farrell is opening the reader up not so much to the arbitrary nature of the sign, but to the mental gymnastics of connections, deliberately pushing them, perhaps with the intention of refreshing the world by skewed verbal reassembly. The energy here is impish, a gently mischievous sequence that functions in the context of opening the collection as an invitation to play.
The title itself is probably a pun. Cocky’s Joy is archaic slang for golden syrup, a staple food from the outback days of tea and damper – but is there suggestion of sexual pleasure too? Farrell grew up in the Monaro town of Bombala, which was proposed but lost out to Canberra as the national capital. As an aside, John Tranter from the previous generation of experimental poets and with whose work Farrell’s shares some affinity was also from the Monaro town of Cooma. It would be difficult to argue, however, for this landscape as a foundation for their work, except perhaps as escape, the omitted origins that somehow fuel the conspicuous urbanity of their poiesis.
Farrell does however engage playfully with the bush heritage of Australian poetry in poems such as ‘Bush Christie’ which begins with a fairly conventional rhyme in mimicry of named antecedents such as Mary Gilmore, Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson and John Shaw Neilson before morphing into a surreal account of a gambling piss-up that in turns morphs into the spearing of a poetry reviewer and the denial of responsibility for the action from all the poets concerned.
was no knife-fight in a dunny over honour
Or money, but some thick coves hiding in
the smoke of a stove in a Shearers hut
Where treacle [aka Cocky’s joy] did for bush honey. He
Needed a clue: it was in the woodpile
By the stove – a review of a new book
Of not-so-innocent Austral verse…
Here Farrell satirises the lingo of the bush at the same time as he revives it. His ahistoricism slaps the past into the present for effect. There are a number of poems in the collection that play in a similar way. ‘Settlers, Regurgitated’ begins with a challenge:
Victoria’s first settlers were whalers as well
as prostitutes. They were hale, they drank
ale. They were whalewrights, sexwrights –
they were Whites.
It combines absurdity with political statement to create an edgy resonance that defies any glib interpretation or moral assumption. Both the ambitiously named ‘The Influence of Lorca in the Outback’ and ‘The Structuralist Cowboy’ take glee in the juxtaposition of modernist thought and poetry with the ur-poesis of the Australian bush.
The sexual connotation of Cocky’s Joy carries into a number of poems too. One of the stand-out poems in the collection is ‘Making Love (to a man).’ The title contains a disingenuous parenthetical coyness that is immediately contradicted in the opening lines:
Didn’t think I’d hear from that man again, but there was a message in my inbox. Within five hours we were in his bedroom. His hair is not computer hair, it’s straight and black: turntable hair, old school calligraphy brush hair. He’s three-dimensional: changes as I move around him, first on my feet, then on my knees. I’m on my knees – he’s on his back.
The poem moves through jokes about the way people undress in Melbourne, and while there are elements here of simple erotic lyricism an edge remains, the scepticism of the participant observer commentating upon a shag. In this modality Farrell shows he is a gifted lyric poet in the subversive mode of antecedents such as Frank O’Hara and John Forbes. The poem runs an unclear line between sex and writing. Eventually the writing takes over:
Every touch till now has been a relatively subtle punctuation. Exclamation marks are called for – if there’s to be more than a pause for thought
tomorrow … He thinks I’m a humble country boy, I’m a sex zombie re-entering the world of emotion via his postbox, or flowerhole tucked down at the ground. It’s making me want to change a law; be a father. Go the other way, be a robot. Write pop lyrics with semen on the Lower Town Hall. You’re legislating my arse to pieces, he says.
It’s tremendous stuff, the energy of orgasm kept in check by poetic rigour. The ideas of wanting to change the law and becoming a father are equated with going the other way and becoming a robot, a mere machine. The pop lyrics written in semen offer an alternative path of pro-creation. Again sex is sublimated into language, but the venue of the Town Hall brings us back to the law as does the superb rejoinder to finish the poem, ‘You’re legislating my arse to pieces.’
Farrell deploys his homoerotic gaze in a number of other poems too. ‘Spoiled for Choice: 80 Ganymedes’, for instance is a wilfully and wittily frivolous list of 80 men, each with a line for their description, for instance:
Scott’s hair is darker – it sets off his parka
Drew makes all the wolf gods go woof.
Trent’s rented his body but it looks brand new;
Notice Jared: you’re already in heaven.
‘ben 6 ways’ is another poem in this vein, this time more whimsical, a little further on the continuum towards the edges of the experimental.
Other poems are firmly in the camp of the abstract. In his work, Farrell seems to be interrogating exactly what ‘abstract’ means, in itself and for his poetry. Some of these poems veer towards the deliberately and formally bland, such as ‘seating arrangement’ or ‘The Blazon Family,’ which mucks around with the Petrarchan trope. The untitled poem on page 24 is simply a list of names and ages in upper case. While not particularly interesting in themselves, as outliers they form a frame of reference that brings some of the tactics in the other poems into sharper resolution, most notably the use of lists and substitutions as a way of aggregating images towards a poem and subverting conventional associations between words and things. They don’t necessarily stand on their own, but they do work in terms of the collection.
The term abstract poetry actually precedes abstract art. It was coined in 1923 by Edith Sitwell to describe poems which foregrounded the aural quality of words and their relationships over the pursuit of meaning. Something of this sense has remained, too, in Farrell’s work particularly when relishing nonsense and in his love for rhymes unhinged from meaning.
A more interesting way of thinking about Farrell’s poetry in terms of the abstract is by using the analogy of different types of abstract art movements. The relationship between visual abstraction and poetic abstraction is an intriguing one, not least because John Ashbery worked for some time as an art critic. Ashbery’s work can partly be construed as a transposition of ideas from movements in the visual arts into poetry. Farrell’s engagement with Ashbery is overt. His chapbook thempark (2010), for instance, acknowledges the Ashbery volumes Hotel Lautrémont and Where Shall I Wander as templates for its poems.
Ashbery’s poetic endeavour has been characterised as an attempt to capture the play of the mind; the jumbled movement of perceptions, concepts, feelings and memories through consciousness and the way repetitions and transformation privilege certain of these phenomena with traction. Thinking is obviously far more fragmented than the end product of writing usually suggests and since the modernists, literature has struggled in its attempts to represent this.
There is considerable difference, however between the working of an abstract visual image works and a poetic one. When dealing with visual images the abstraction takes us to the moment of initial perception before the lines and colours have been organised by top-down perception into recognisable objects and schemes. The pleasure of the abstract from this point of view is that it brings us back to the potential of things, to the moments before perceptual decisions are made. It functions as a mode of cognitive refreshment by offering us new ways of seeing, new ways of going beyond the organising imprimaturs of our stacked preconceptions. Abstract images give us the opportunity to play in the interstices between the blank spaces of beginnings and the resolution of form.
In the visual arts there are multiple schools of abstraction. One type is geometric or cold abstraction, of which Piet Mondrian was a famous exponent. As the label suggests, this mode of abstraction eschews the personal in favour of the exploration of blocks of colour and lines. When it comes to poetry, the correspondence might be to something like a poem from one of Farrell’s earlier works, for example in a raiders guide, the poem ‘honeyimhotel’ where the opening strophe consists of
Even closer to the notion of geometrical abstraction is the preceding poem which looks something like this:
— 1 6
In using numbers as a substitute for letters, Farrell provides the reader (and there must always be a reader for these poems to have life in the world) with a fully disrupted expectation of a poem. The form remains but the meaning has been sucked out of it, unless of course there is a key to the substitutions that can take us back to the original text, if indeed such a thing ever existed.
Such poems are exercises, designed primarily not for readers, or at least not for readers of isolated poems, but for calibrating the outer limits of sense. They also show us how the abstract in poetry, unlike in the visual arts, is fundamentally an after-effect – the consequence of a substitution: one symbol, word or cluster of them for another. From a creative point of view this implies an original, in thought if not on the page. For the reader it involves at least to some extent a reach for hidden meaning, even if it may not exist. Whereas the abstract in visual imagery takes us to a perception analogue that is pre-gestalt, in poetry we are drawn away from a whole that even if only as trace is pre-supposed to exist.
Of course the process of abstraction can involve multiple steps whereby the original is effectively obliterated by a series of substitutions that make a mockery of the backwards play of meaning-seeking. Also the rules for substitution might be entirely arbitrary: chosen by page number from the dictionary for instance, or generated by computer. Such gambits feature heavily in Farrell’s earlier work.
This kind of abstraction does not make great demands on the attention span. As works themselves, they are fairly uninteresting, lacking affect and resonance. A number poem is probably something you will only ever want to look at once. It does not make for satisfying reading. It is only interesting in the way it makes us think about the form of other poems. As preparations, however, such poems have value as exercises in learning how to resist the temptation to make sense, not unlike the way a Zen Buddhist acolyte might be forced to meditate upon the nonsense of a koan. The potential advantage is that when the poet turns around and decides to loosen the rigour of this resistance the ensuing sense will have greater reach in terms of its conceptual connections, and be energised by the tension between firmness and flexibility in form.
This tendency can be traced in Farrell’s work back to Open Sesame – but it really takes off in Cocky’s Joy. Abstraction here eschews the discipline of formal meanings for the multi-axial ways our minds form connections between ideas. It also manipulates the fact that as readers we are addicted to the goal of making sense. While meaning forms a component of the poetry, in Cocky’s Joy it is forced to compete with associations suggested by sounds, page proximity, the shape of the poem or through the expectations generated by patterns of substitution.
Geometrical abstraction has given ground to lyrical abstraction, which in art history was characterised by an opening to personal expression. In a country where some of the best poetry has drunk from the same well-spring as bush mechanics and cranks, this tension of the lyrical and the abstract has particular appeal. It can be found in the work of some of our best poets, John Forbes and Philip Salom, as well as in the work of Patrick White.
And it is also there in Cocky’s Joy. In his own utterly idiosyncratic fashion, Farrell has latched onto this fusion of the lyrical and the abstract. It’s there in ‘How to Make Love (to a Man)’ for example. This fusion is in flux, but readers are gifted with a transfer of energy that is palpable, not necessarily related to meaning, and probably all the more exciting because of it. Many of the poems resonate from the sense of organic integrity they impart, even as they test the boundaries of sense and dazzle with their capacity to surprise. There’s a palpable humanity too. And that is the magic of it.
The poise of this collection is wonderful and Farrell, by dint of his wit, ear and mental dexterity, proves himself to be a fine poet who is truly coming into his cups. Reading Cocky’s Joy it feels at times that here is a person who has somehow latched onto the secret of manufacturing his own air.
-ode ode, (Salt Publishing, 2002).
–a raiders guide, (Giramondo, 2008).
–thempark (BookThug, 2010)
–open sesame, (Giramondo, 2012).