Against Colony Collapse Disorder; or, Settler Mess in the Cells of Contemporary Australian Poetry

By | 1 November 2014

The allusion to the Stolen Generation in the line, ‘if you … manage to hold your family together’ is echoed later in the poem: ‘when she watches the movie where the father kills/ the man who might pose a threat to his daughter she wonders if,/ the message is meant to connect with adoptive dads’ (open 9). Racial, sexual and domestic violence are presented as temporally or physically distant; they become, in a sense, simulacral narratives: ‘a nationwide domestic why/ don’t we all get counseling & then shutup about./ it our bruised arms’ (open 9). A nation that has difficulty talking about the history of the Stolen Generation likewise has difficulty talking about domestic violence, even as the force of these violent encounters registers at some level of the collective imaginary.

The poem draws a symbolic analogy between trees and the human, depicting trees as having ‘eucalyptic flesh’. Farrell notes, ‘Some people dont see trees but humans & beat their/ fists against them walk through the bark like a chip commercial.’ Trees, too, become ‘famous’ sites of cultural mythologies, such as the ‘one that hanged a bushranger.’ While trees may symbolise promise in their regrowth after fire, they, too, are subject to artificial transformation – a neatening into a more appropriate plant: ‘chop that ones head off says the farmer./ make it a shrub a better eden than/ the old one’ (open 8). Farrell jokes upon the competing interests of farmers and loggers, both of whom would like to clear the land of trees:

if only say the loggers. we, could poison
farmers then wed-have some progress [...] (open 8)

Against Romanticism, there is a hands-on approach: ‘the stars are falling out of/ the imaginary, way of life, its a diy approach’. In Farrell’s ‘harsh landscape’, there are ‘no lyrebirds, to attest the useful deaths,’ ‘nothing to fertilise here: their treelike bodies buried’ (open 9). The contemporary poet is unable to compost this past into some ‘useful’ organic mulch, or to render it into another sound-bite for consumption. As with Watson, Farrell desists the proprieties of grammar, often inserting commas, brackets or quotations marks unexpectedly to disrupt the habitual flow of reading. The poem ends by focusing on a personal relationship where there is dissimilarity ‘between bush & park’ – a zone of wildness against cultivation that manifests itself at the level of the bodily: ‘your/ limbs I imagine later, against mine’ ‘clashing or coalescing who knows.’ But the poem closes once more with the distance of a gaze: ‘my rooms view includes treetops, your window must look onto grass’ (open 10).

‘Sprinter,’ the opening prose poem to a raiders guide (2008), is Farrell’s response to fellow poet Alison Croggon’s The Blue Gate and seeks, in many respects, to rewrite the epic in a condensed form. The poem meditates on how to write and, interrelatedly, think family history, and how ‘[w]alking through’ that process – a ‘slow experiment’ – might produce a non-coherent, fragmented self. Farrell notes, ‘This is my fit, frame by frame,’ and the poem presents an Eadweard Muybridge-like series of snapshots. Yet the snapshots are not consecutive or even connected, and, as such, fail to give the illusion of movement or development. Still there is the humourous jibe at our need for accretion: ‘What have I added to my cv since ’75. since 9 o’clock?’ Instead, the written self exists both ‘in/out’ of time:

Dream or nightmare? Them becomes em in my excitement. Centuries click over
(what was I reading?). I stop writing, regear my sensitivity. The past’s always now – in
the scarlet whatever, in the cabbage damage. Blue stasis gives way.

Registered in the present as being in the ‘whatever’ or as ‘damage,’ the past is glimpsed through the flicker of familial relationship: ‘my son’; ‘[m]y father’; ‘I observe from my post behind her ear.’ Farrell offers a kind of split perspective, taking on the voice of the mother and her anxieties: ‘That act changed me, made me the mother I’ll always envy.’ He notes a ‘circumscribed spirit from German legacy, Irish ship plays its radical part (convicts aside)’ – as well as the burden of Catholicism: ‘I take on the uncommitted sins of my unborn children.’ Another moment in time has ‘No parents in sight, no erasers needed.’

Education, Farrell suggests, only leads to a sense of defamiliarisation, ‘My father instructed me in the abstract, ensured the real was ever strange.’ Accordingly, ‘I pretend to normality, I don’t shake, or scratch; avoid mystique and metaphysic.’ The self is bound to a state of performed etiquette, a kind of Country Women’s Association instruction manual of social interactions. Reading too is a form of good relations with ‘Wilde, Borges, Foucault’ being ‘a pie I foil and carry.’ In his books, he is able to travel freely although in his own mind, he is subject to dangers of the air: ‘I live and die the deaths from overhead wires and hawks.’ As Marx infamously suggested, ‘The tradition of all dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living.’ That is, the past sets up psychological barriers in the flight to freedom. Marx further proposed that, ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please … but under circumstances directly found, given, and transmitted from the past’ (qtd in Lewis, 20). Citing a line from the Talking Heads song, ‘This is not my beautiful life’, Farrell wryly condemns ideological internalisation and grows angry: ‘You think I can’t stick Marx to this?’ But unlike Marx’s communist vision, Farrell’s speaker lacks ‘the military touch’ to go any further in resistance.

Nevertheless, there is still desire for the ‘light’ of Keats rather than the despair of Kafka: ‘Orphaned by god, I become the sunlight on the gate (that I interrupt), the moth asleep (that I wake).’ Elsewhere, he declares: ‘If only I was Kuan-Yin. Inside me are countless reactions. I sear and scrape. Will I wake up Australian?’ Here, he refers to the Buddhist goddess of compassion, who in her love for all other beings also feels oneness with their sorrows. There is desire for transcendence from continually citing a limiting national identity, and instead of going ‘singing through the gate.’ He declares, ‘Like riding, like fucking, I point my angelic toe. My psyche’s cage opens.’ The possibility is there but, ‘The revolution awaits an eclipse, and then it’s cloudy, there’s the washing …’ Radical change is closed down by pragmatic domesticated temporality – the need to get in clothes before they are rained upon.

The metaphor of the ‘gate’ can be found again in ‘wide open road.’ Like ‘sprinter,’ the poem responds to another text, this time the song of the same name by the Australian band The Triffids, on the loss of love. With the first line, ‘i reach out, hes a dead man,/ closing the gateness behind him,’ Farrell foregrounds it as an elegy to The Triffids’s singer David McComb, who was involved in a car accident shortly before his death. The term ‘gateness’ proposes an idea of enclosure, with the road becoming, alternatively, a memorial but also a place of discovery and transformation: ‘There could be anything’ (open 86). Visually, it looks like an ‘elongation of a spear’ or a needle, the latter recalling McCombs’ level of heroin toxicity at the time he died. The poem stresses the need for conceptual disruption, to be ‘Needled’ or to ‘crack the nut’, which is reinforced by grammatical disruption. In stating, ‘the economy flows Like a creek,’ the capital ‘L’ provides a small obstacle to its run. Farrell draws attention to the blindness to its casualties: the ‘few subtle body bags we ignore’ (open 86). Furthermore, he simultaneously undoes and intensifies the pathos of The Triffids’ line, ‘How do you think it feels/ sleeping by yourself?/ when the one you love … is with someone else,’ with the following:

‘How do you think it feels at night!’
It gives you a bad back
& a youthless appearance

Sleeping with people or sheep dogs

When the loneliness you love is in the
Eyes of someone else youre wired (open 86)

Romantic lyrics rarely mention the ‘bad back’ side of love, while sheep dogs tend to figure in Antipodean jokes about love rather than in love songs.

After a decade of drought, ‘new forms of/ Outdoor glass’ are being ‘trialled’, recalling synthetic turf and the drive of capitalism toward innovation. The ‘outdoor glass’, along with the ‘youthless appearance’, the ‘love … in the/ Eyes of someone else’, ‘Reflectors on the inside’, and ‘You touch a locust & have a vision’ set up alternative aspects of envisaging (open 86–87). A lateral perspective may discover that ‘theres Ballet in the trees/ What a Cool Idea’ (open 86). And while even the ‘koalas Yaaawnnnnnn/ For the money,’ performing for the tourist economy, the poem closes with a surrealistic and absurd image: ‘Nurses cruise through pursued by reporters on trikes’ (‘open’ 87). Ironically foregrounding the lack of recognition of those who cared for McComb in his final hours, Farrell mourns the past but is already twitcher-like in sighting ballet in the trees.

In ‘An Allegory of Edward Trouble’, Duncan Hose investigates the distance between the contemporary self and the origins of its psyche through the Ned Kelly myth (‘“ceallach” being the Celtic original of “Kelly” meaning “strife” or “trouble”’ (68)). In The Australian Legend, Russel Ward lists those characteristics considered archetypically Australian and that have been widely attributed to the nineteenth-century bushranger as including rebelliousness, practicality, improvisation, hard drinking, gambling, and a hatred of officiousness and authority (2). As Paul de Man discerns, time is the ‘originary constitutive category’ of allegory. In ‘renouncing nostalgia and the desire to coincide, [allegory] establishes its language in the void of this temporal difference’ (207). For Hose, there is a desire for identification with Kelly as a national icon of ‘trouble’, while, at the same time, a recognition of the illusory nature of such identification. Out of this could be said to emerge the contemporary voice. In Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1800, Richard Slotkin argues that ‘the psychology and world view of our cultural ancestors are transmitted to modern descendents, in such a way and with such power that our perception of contemporary reality and our ability to function in the world are directly, often tragically affected’ (3) While we cannot live outside myth, we can still interrogate the myth-making process. (‘Instruction’ 8). For Hose, the poem becomes a ‘hand-made machine for thinking’ (‘Instruction’ 10). Yet we may also think of it as an ontological respirator circulating a complex affective system of Being.

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