John Hawke Reviews Javant Biarujia and Michael Farrell

1 March 2013

The volume appears to be arranged in sets, with more obviously experimental sections contrasted by lyrical (and even sentimental) poems that develop its underlying theme. The opening sequence is especially worthy of close attention. ‘magic’, for example, which follows ‘lovey’, continues that poem’s concern with a shared social reality in the straightforward setting of a foreign apartment building with its ‘neighbours’: ‘everyone sleeping everyone / washing the stairs’. The observational mode of the poem is emphasised by the phrase ‘they are birds under glass’. The speaker’s own implication in this social reality (‘i confess’) is signalled through the repeated use of ‘my’ and ‘me’ as end-words in the closing lines, which conclude: ‘it must be the / same black magic that covers my / clothes a disguise to make animals gasp and drop / their booty’. While once again an absence of punctuation is used to blur the sense of phrasal units, the poem is semantically clear and conventionally shaped around a consistent speaker.

This is also the case with ‘saints & or’, which employs a particularly jarring misuse of punctuation to cut across clauses. This defamiliarising device can be overlooked, as can an awareness of the intertext of Edna St Vincent Millay’s dated poetry. What then emerges is a remarkably sustained meditative poem of over one hundred lines, in which the standpoint of a Rilkean wozu dichter is overtly maintained: stanza three commences, ‘the season knows you as its own’, and the elegiac theme of the subject’s existence in time is clearly signalled: ‘you pretend to be changing and unafraid / theres no healthier joy to be had remember him / as an, “extension of myself or sign from god!”’ The question of how much of this is translation can also be suspended if we consider the poem’s opening stanza as a statement of issues central to Farrell’s developing practice:

someone puts her in mind of, – flowers,
even if; she denies it she creates
a garden of denial as, – if intoxicated with
imagery she; writes as a pathway through, or
cure for it the, something or a someone the,
effect becomes circular or mirror, like you cant escape
trouble yourself & this becomes, a form of
homelessness for who can live in, – lilac for example.
let alone beauty or writing let alone mist or
love this is what aloneness is it can
be deadly or at least scary but she like,
us has, grown up with, it forced no
choosing to find company or whats called life,
in dying – evanescent pale – things that are themselves promises.

The discussion of metaphor in these lines, with their lament for the powers of a purely linguistic or aesthetic reality (‘who can live in – lilac for example’), suggests the insufficiencies of the celebrated Mallarmean absence: ‘a garden of denial’. The speaker, confronting ‘aloneness’ and ‘dying’, continues in subsequent stanzas to worry the divisions between life and art, since ‘we know too well what we create and what; / we participate in though it washes us away bit by; / piece’. Stanza four quite directly localises and contextualises this situation, especially its implications for a white Australian poet: ‘you came from / aliens yourself…& the other / residents no more native resemble their precursors in their, / being creative not at, all like moles or. / wombats that eye the damper producers …’

This suggests the problem for Australian poetry outlined in the work of Judith Wright: ‘where youre born you die well it – / coincides & history takes on its long black / shape’. The directive here towards social engagement is taken up in ‘eucalypt field’, an explicitly political work that reflects on Australian history, in which ‘the myth in the fork can / still break necks’. The poem’s environmental theme (‘split, between bush & park’), expressed through a survey of white invasion and its consequences (‘the thing about / eden is no sin. chop that ones head off says the farmer. / make it a shrub a better eden than / the old one’), is in every respect coincident with Wright’s social concerns.

open sesame draws on a range of (more-or-less) innovative approaches to linguistic play. The hard-boiled cut-up, ‘thrills’, relies on a Surrealist game of substitutions, where law officers are given unlikely names (Detective Heaven, Sergeant Icecream, Sergeant Miracle) to elicit unlikely disjunctions: ‘heaven / went / into bat with the head musk wearers for Icecream’. ‘minimalism over two pages’ uses the familiar technique of excision, blocking out a pre-existing text; ‘et tu supermarket’ is possibly a found poem derived from an inscrutable cash register printout. More interesting is ‘juggle’, a musical construction that paronomastically ‘juggles’ repeated phrases: the poet takes two terms, like ‘orange’ and ‘tiger’, then ‘looks for the orange in // tiger’. This poem most resembles the techniques of Biarujia (and also Charles Bernstein) in generating poetic ideas from phonemic shifts, activating slippages between related words such as ‘jungle/jumble/fumble’. ‘the bill sonnets’ are also notable for the deadpan accuracy of their lively Ashberian play on the well-known character-based melodrama.

Another strand of poems, to some extent ‘personal’ in O’Hara’s sense, take their cue from the New York style and its quotidian reflections on weather, food and place. ‘burrito weather’ seems to concede that these conversational gambits are a deflection from emotion: it is mainly a poem about the avoidance of the personal, though the speaker concedes sentimentally at one point that ‘while i wait for / you i pluck a guitar string’, while later reflecting on ‘the possibility of love / made a joke’. The problem of the subject’s near-total immersion in the social is also addressed in the overtly O’Haran ‘is today bad’, where the speaker, submerged in the details of everyday existence, reminds himself that ‘I have to find my voice, separate it from regular talk, from / the sound of pop hits … this is the backdrop of the economy, of the-green politics, of / literal-tree-stranglers-& shakers’. The related poem, ‘muzak to view the city with’, seems to contain a direct apology for its own lyricism: ‘My love, has so much in him he tastes / Like a cloud, im sorry, / For going so far’. This distancing effect is then taken up in the following stanza: ‘we miss the transition, go beyond The stripped / lyric into nothing. The banal resurfaces / well phew, its effects, cause feelings strong enough / a harsh motto from sugar apter, or erykah badu’. It is difficult to gauge the intended efficacy of this frequent invocation and demurral of the lyric mode, given that these poems are concealed in a section of the book mainly devoted to Dadaist collage.

A more nuanced approach to this problem is contained in the three poems directly addressed to the local poetry community towards the end of the volume: ‘letter to sam langer’, ‘three quail visit the harrisonian institute’, and (especially) ‘friends’. Perhaps because they describe the social milieu in which Farrell feels most himself, these relaxed and witty poems are a highly entertaining introduction to the burgeoning scene of sampled and defamiliarised textual experimentation. Amongst the poets mentioned in ‘friends’, we find one ‘cutting up / secondhand books, hoping for a creative breakthrough’, another ‘going to the zoo once a week / to photograph elephant hide, & doing readings / of the wrinkles’, and yet another ‘writing his latest long poem / about apricots, using every / adjective he can find in a book on / wombats. its called “ferns”’. There is no reason to doubt that any of these examples is genuine.

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About John Hawke

John Hawke teaches in the English Department at Monash University.

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