Matthew Hall Reviews Writing Australian Unsettlement

By | 14 February 2016

Kelly’s place in Farrell’s second chapter on the ‘Poetics of the Plough’ speaks to his role in the transformation of a tool of agricultural settlement into his iconic armour. But Farrell dictates that we must read this transformative state as related to its role in poetic discourse, and more specifically, the function of the plough in relation to pastoral writing. Kelly’s rejection of the plough for its intended purpose (traced by Farrell through Kelly’s father’s history as a convict in Tasmania finally forced into subsistence farming on the mainland) and its transformation into an ‘anti-settlement assemblage’ becomes a material emblem symbolic of the violence, connection with land, and Irish-identification of Ned Kelly’s Letter. Farrell reads Kelly’s writings as imbued with the language of the rural, a world in which caste and national identity determined the means by which he could earn his living. ‘The ploughing of the land and its metaphorical counterpart, the writing of verse, accompany each other in supporting and, arguably, mutually parasitic roles, Farrell argues, highlighting and extrapolating the radical tendencies of Kelly’s verse. Through Kelly, Farrell reads an early version of metamorphosis and ecology, an expression of the unconfined, and unsettled. Farrell reads the plough critical of its promise of agrarian plenitude, as a warring implement in the displacement of Aboriginal people, and in its connection to verse, as a metaphoric sword. Farrell argues that the connection Kelly draws between acts of violent resistance and personal expression assure that The Jerilderie Letter, ‘is not a nation-building text.’ It is Farrell’s capacity to reimagine the text as divorced from the myth that enables him to claim that the Letter, ‘unsettles Kelly’s image, creating for him another marginal position: that of writer. This image is one that is difficult to settle, considering his bushranging fame and his metallic dress; these aspects (as well as the horses and Joe’s listening ear and writing hand) constitute Kelly as unsettling assemblage.’

Written between 1867-1872, Jong Ah Sing’s The Case is an attempt for a Chinese gold-miner, locked in an asylum, to attempt to effect his freedom. Farrell argues, citing Mead, that including The Case in a reading of Australian poetics by other means, ‘unsettles Australian literary history through its “ethnic and racial difference,” and as an example of a “minority language and culture” representing a challenge to an obsessive “monoculturalism and monolingualism”.’ Farrell analyses Jong’s text for its aberrant illiteracy; ‘it is grammatically unorthodox, repetitive and written in a hybrid language of English words and Cantonese syntax.’ Farrell contextualises Jong’s use of the page as creative field and striking visual prosody as aspects of poetic composition. Reading the limitations of the author as indicative of creative agency, Farrell interpolates Jong through a network of Twentieth Century theories, including Pound’s ideograms and Deleuze and Guatarri’s cartographies. Farrell treats Jong’s The Case with a marked attention, rendering it as a ‘proto-concrete work, or assemblage’, and reading Jong as ‘transforming or reterritorializing’ our conception of visual prosody as an effect of personal expression. Given the detailed descriptions provided by Farrell, and the weight to which his argument relies on the visual materiality of the work, its transformation and modulation across published versions, as a scholarly practice the inclusion of graphic reproductions of the original text(s) could have elevated the reader’s ability to cognitively establish this argument. Farrell’s argument contends that exophonic writings and histories of the nation by other means contribute to and foster a reading practice in which networks of historical and contemporary association contribute to aspects of our collective literacies. Drawing from Mead the importance of networked language as able to ‘interact with and constitute the contemporary’, Farrell maps Jong’s The Case as another example of the poetics of illiteracy, producing a text we can read contemporarily for the manner in which the historic intersects with contemporary theoretical and critical concerns. In doing so, Farrell emphasises the aesthetic and conceptual nature of The Case as unsettling the history of Australian literature.

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