John Hawke Reviews Javant Biarujia and Michael Farrell

1 March 2013

Michael Farrell, on the other hand, a leading experimental poet of the next generation, is published by Giramondo – his previous volume, a raiders guide, was perhaps the most stylistically provocative book to have appeared with a recognised commercial publisher. Drawing on the Russian formalists’ exploration of the autonomous poem-as-machine, these radical fragmentations highlighted ‘The Word as Such’, and even ‘The Letter as Such’, in their concentration on the visual and sound properties of language. open sesame is a different performance, and in many respects more accessible. The poetry remains forthrightly and self-consciously anti-subjective, anti-romantic, and (mostly) ‘drained of the syrup of lyricism’, in John Tranter’s pertinent phrase. But the diversity of stylistic approaches attempted in this lengthy and wide-ranging book includes formal models that allow more traditional concerns to emerge, including a significant homage to some familiar preoccupations in Australian poetry: both Judith Wright and Charles Harpur are cited here.

The opening poem, ‘lovey’, announces its engagement with the world rather than the word: ‘let me tell you about / life lovey let me tell / you about towns by the sea & / sky’. The dramatic mimicry of voice, presented through a Beckettian stream of consciousness, emphasises narrative elements of character and setting. An undercurrent of sentiment is evident in the refrain of ‘lovey’, ‘cherry’ and ‘blossom’ that shapes the poem: punning on the French, ‘la vie’ and ‘la ville’, reinforces the assertion that this is a poem about ‘life’ and place. A confessional undertone might even be surmised, given that Farrell grew up in a South Coast town similar to the one apparently being described. Yet absence of punctuation fosters ambiguous shifts, also evident in phrasing such as ‘a waste of surgery’, ‘her thank / yous sound like please’, and the recurrent ‘mars’ – which suggests both Bowie’s estranged torch-song (‘that’s life on mars cherry’) and the vitiated experience of the speaker: ‘you / made your bed / & pissed in it’. The choice of where to delimit phrasal units is left for the reader to determine, misdirecting meaning: ‘what it feels like to / not love blossom on the Windshield buckets of pink paint / flung over the landscape strange planet eh lovey’. In spite of this, a conventional domestic situation figured in the realistic setting of a beachside town, where ‘the ships dont stop anymore’, is clearly depicted. The closing lines assert the speaker’s quest for some human connection, first through ‘neighbours’, then as a ‘blossoming’ with the possibility of a ‘longhaired lover’. But the positive conclusion, ‘i know you will blossom i know you will’, is asserted in the teeth of a pattern of undercutting, an awareness of ‘what it feels like to not love’. This focus on isolation, and the possibility of sentimental connection, is a persistent theme of the volume.

The interpretation offered by a close reading of this kind is necessarily partial, because fundamental paratextual information is withheld from each of these poems. A publisher’s blurb informs the reviewer that the narrative elements of ‘lovey’ are derived from a middlebrow French film (one I haven’t seen). This leads to the conclusion that the experience described is entirely textual, and only coincidentally ‘confessional’ or even referential. This creates an effect of double reading, through which the poem is hedged by allusions, and therefore not what it appears. It can only be comprehended as the projection of a concealed intertext, a Platonic shadow imitating the imitation (in art) of an eidolonic, post-political, hyper-mediated ‘reality’ (to coin a phrase). This missing information, which only a ‘reader’s/raider’s guide’ can unlock, obstructs interpretative judgement, which is deferred at both textual and paratextual levels.

Such background elements are in any case the least interesting aspect of a text’s semiosis. It is the nature of the collage poem – and Farrell is continually cutting up or sampling secondary sources – to direct the reader elsewhere, whilst simultaneously drawing attention to its own materials. Farrell’s poetry tends to foreground and therefore flatten the hierarchical interplay of what is inside and outside the text: this is characteristic of avant garde tendencies to serially blur such distinctions as those between the aesthetic and ‘real life’, high and low cultures, the oral and the written – all of which can be located in the simultaneist project of 1910 (Apollinaire, Cendrars, Marinetti). A frustration with the insufficiencies of a literary orthodoxy unaware of the historical sources of such techniques is explicitly addressed in ‘friends’: ‘alex printed off stack of emails from her inbox / & scissored them in / hope of hearing the internet speak. whatever, // she sent / them to a journal. from the subsequent rejection / (‘these read like the first drafts of a / revolving door’) alex assumed the editor hadnt / read to the 1910s yet. there were bigger fish to / fry.’

Yet these slippages, while they might stymie the critic to whom Farrell’s poetry is often addressed, are not infinite. The effect is not generally one of postmodern mise-en-abyme, but a Modernist paratactic complication of surface elements (punctuation, syntax, phonemic sliding) with a cryptic solution. Zukofsky, invoked as a leitmotiv in the poem ‘a effects’, makes similar extra-textual demands, and Stein’s cubistic foregrounding of connotative surface is again an obvious model. The self-contained poems of open sesame are in this sense different from the endless circulation of mirrored signifiers within and across Biarujia’s collection. There is nevertheless a shared concern with formal closure, and an evident mastery of technique – not that of the well-wrought urn, but shaped through the filtered voices of Stein, O’Hara and Ashbery, each of whom is directly mimicked and addressed in interrogatory homages.

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About John Hawke

John Hawke teaches in the English Department at Monash University.

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