Stuart Cooke Reviews Michael Farrell

22 September 2008

a raiders guide by Michael Farrell
Giramondo Publishing, 2008

Apart from a solitary '1,' the first page of a raiders guide is blank. Note the presence of the comma. What it suggests of the pages that follow is a transience between the concrete ('.') and the absent (' '). The book's entry functions as much as a point of departure as one of beginning; we all delve into different interstices. So we come to the first poem: unanchored by a table of contents (which, along with page numbers, a raiders guide does not have) yet, unlike the rest of the poems, it is ordered into dense blocks of text. It's called 'sprinter'; it begins by 'Walking through, in/out: my son a shadow? His mind marks the boundaries…' We are in the mercurial, the gaseous, where pressures force feelings into significations which, almost as quickly, escape through ever-present fissures of syntax. Welcome to Michael Farrell's new book of poems!

Since the release of ode ode (Salt, 2002), Farrell – or Micky Faz, as he's known by a group of Sydney-based fans – has established something of a cult following. An enormously talented and infectious stylist, Farrell's agrammatical splicing and dicing have been mimicked by a horde of younger poets, this reviewer among them. What makes Farrell's aesthetic so important in the context of Australian poetry is its capacity to say without saying, to take breath without breathing. In an environment of colonialist, all-knowing, all-seeing eyes, Farrell's terrain is refreshing for its minimalist speech of ambulant glimpsing. It is, I would argue, an entirely realist poetry, but in the sense that probability functions are real, and non-linearity, and ever-proliferating, bifurcating systems. In 'leap':

… hurt always sprouts out of the earth
cells & windows(yet to be destroyed
find a thing & build it up…

In Critical Mass (2004), Philip Ball describes the basic process behind a bifurcation. At any temperature above absolute zero, atoms are shaking with thermal energy. This sets up a random background 'buzz' that pervades all matter. The buzz gets 'louder' as the temperature rises: the forces of disorder exert themselves relentlessly (noise is everywhere in these poems, too). Because of this haphazard aspect of atomic motions, all processes incur small random variations, or fluctuations. Normally these fluctuations have a negligible effect, in keeping with their tiny magnitude. But at a bifurcation point a non-equilibrium system – one that isn't at rest – is poised on a razor's edge. Which path will it take? The smallest chance fluctuation can tip the balance and irrevocably determine the future fate of the system. So two systems that are wholly identical at the outset might end up on quite different branches while experiencing the same driving force, simply because they happened to take different paths at their respective junctions. Look now at the opening of Farrell's 'sydney':

sydneys real as romance really is
centre of the wholesale fun trade
open your eyes to the heat like
smiling at illusions of riding pink
its nice to fizz but not to fizz out…

And then consider a part of ',emily bronte -':

__ __ __ 'from' 'the' __
__ __ __ __ __ __
__ __ __ __ __ __
__ __ __ __ 'in' 'and'
'the' 'the' 'the' __ 'than' the'
'it' __ 'and' 'have' 'the' 'this'
'the' 'the' __ __ __ __

broke out into the grass
she left the nametag job
what with things in her hair…

Here are instances of pressures respectively dissolving or resolving language. In 'sydney', energy increases until the point when a rupture in the fifth line sends us fizzing off into 'the fat fu beau with the/ mumu unaccustomed'. There are, furthermore, smaller bifurcations occurring in almost every other line. Whenever a phrase is interrupted or cut short by another it is because pressures have accumulated to force the poem into another shape:

… which image is ever a com
fort sitting in cafes on at perfume
bottles the bush purely academic…

',emily bronte -' is an even clearer example. What were only minor fluctuations in an otherwise pervading silence ('__ __ __ 'from' 'the' __') come to occur more frequently, and soon tip the poem into another, more articulate state. If we think of the first stanza as a rather gaseous mixture of vague, indeterminate shapes, then it is the denser, liquid state that breaks 'out into the grass' in the second. Admittedly, 'sydney' occupies a somewhat awkward place in a raiders guide. Its frenetic, colourful pastiche and (relatively) stable syntax might have been better housed in a collection like ode ode. Still, Farrell would do nothing if he did not constantly resist the lure of the domicile, the place of tranquil dwelling, the home of uniformity and peace. For him it is better to shoot out in a million directions than to consolidate.

It should not be in question that much of a raiders guide is highly vibrant, dynamic poetry. Always aware of form and hardly ever respectful of it, Farrell's poems are the results of very conscious experiments in rhythm and syntax. What we might question, however, is the extent to which any of this will be of interest to anyone beyond his devoted following. That joyful play so evident in ode ode, and the eerie humour of Break Me Ouch (2006, 3 Deep), is not as apparent here, and without it the work – though no less accomplished – appears starker and harder, both as an exercise in reading and in its tonal range. Yet it's equally important to note that concomitant with an increase in density is an increased energy. Indeed, mass is energy. So that all the play contained in the largely rectangular strictures of ode ode is here released in turbulent currents that accumulate in whorls or spray out over blank spaces in, for example, 'broken hills':


set for

anguilleforme reservoir et
when hewn tithe
no right on

'broken hills' is a remix of Laurie Duggan's 'Blue Hills 1' and contains other words from Nikos Kazantzakis' Journeying and Edwin Morgan's 'Strawberries'. This is crucial because it shows us that, in releasing his line so that it smears across the empty page, Farrell has not withdrawn his language behind the unspoken of a negative space or a primordial silence. Rather, 'broken hills' was born of a positive density of the already spoken. It has, we might say, bifurcated from the assemblage of 'Blue Hills 1', Journeying and 'Strawberries', all of which the poet packed together to reach a particular intensity. This is not poetry written in a classical mode in which the poet helps us to perceive a hitherto silent or featureless landscape; such a notion has little potency here. Farrell is wrapped up entirely in an ever-proliferating, expanding series of processes, where what appears on the page can be thought of as a series of templates for further plans of action (or attack!).

Indeed, it seems that Farrell's 'concept-poems' (as they are called on the back of the book) are leading him to conceive differently their performance. Increasingly preoccupied with the theatricality of his readings, Farrell's most recent (at The Loft Readings in Sydney) involved the use of two other human props to bring his poems, quite literally, to life. In order to act out a scene from Break Me Ouch one prop was seated on the floor beside him. The other prop was needed to read a piece from raiders in alternation with, or underneath, Farrell. The result of the latter was a series of coalescing filaments reverberating through the room. Importantly, the other voice came from the side of the room, where the actor was seated amongst the audience. His voice, then, was of the audience; Farrell's presence was immediately decentred. He was no longer the poet reading his poem. He was the reader of a poem in the way that a singer might interpret a song, which is to say that already, in the small fissure of a reading, his poetry was bifurcating into new forms.

Whatever we might make of a raiders guide I would encourage everyone to make something of it. It is not during, but only after, the event of reading (or hearing) these poems that they will begin to make sense. The point is to be found, I think, in our mode of reading. To resist complete clarity of perception, these poems actively deny perception its primacy. To perceive, one must be already active within the world – a world where the only certainty, to paraphrase Ilya Prigogine, is uncertainty. Activity and uncertainty, then. It is with these terms in mind that we diversify and pilfer and raid.

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About Stuart Cooke

Stuart Cooke's latest collection is the chapbook, Land Art (Calanthe, 2022), and he's the co-editor of Transcultural Ecocriticism (Bloomsbury, 2021). He is Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Literary Studies at Griffith University.

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