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Dan Disney reviews Michael Farrell

Michael Farrell – Cocky’s Joy

(Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2015. Paperback, 95pp, AU$24.)

Reviewed by Dan Disney

 
Michael Farrell tells us that Cocky’s Joy is the ‘metaphorical cum personal syrup produced when culture, land, history and images of Australia collide with the rest of the world in my mind’ (press release); indeed, here is a crucible of rhapsodic, visceral energies. The book begins with ‘Breakfasts’, as if implying it has been a long night of the aesthetic soul in the Antipodes, and that here are to be found nourishments we’ve longed for:  
 
two anchovies; a bowl of milk; fried crumpet
 
a plum; a gun; chocolate muesli 
 
three carpet buns with jam; tuna pickle;
(1)
 
Farrell’s breaking of the fast is iconoclastic with anzac biscuits, bullying, minties, white noise, and the quirkily conflated ‘whitlamian crossaint; cheese a la keating; water-by-hawke’ (1) as if to recall (in this order) the savoir faire, the biting rhetoric, and the bipolar effervescence/ teariness of a lineage of former Labor Party greats (in an era now populated by a succession of anything-but-greats). And thus this book begins, signaling from the first poem that we are in for some kind of degustatory smorgasbord of weird remembrance and re-orientation.
 
Farrell resoundingly asserts himself as more gourmand than glutton; these texts are always moreish, never mawkish. There are an awful many references to poetry in Cocky’s Joy, as exemplified in ‘The Comic Image’:
 
[…] The tinkle of Mozart cordial at the bar; someone
Asian speaking Harlem jive to a white person from a
suburb (the latter image’s arse trademarked in Australian
poetry since before we had arses
(32)
 
Elsewhere, outback teenagers are ‘collecting native flowers, wearing/ white, and making packets of poetry’ (28); a stranger places their hand biblically into ‘the wound in your side (wanting to know/ what was there). It wasn’t poetry’ (74). Stylistically, Cocky’s Joy is functionally off-beat, exercising a babbling fusion of unreliable narrations twisted across surreal panoramas, but make no mistake: Farrell’s feral fictions are announcing an agenda – 
 
A fox died on your head,
But it’s clean and smells right.
So you’re a lunatic in carparks – 
A conceptual hoon; you make
Australian poetry – keep it
From tasting like stale cake.
(7)
 
Here is a poet challenging us to sup deeply as he cooks up a feisty mix of spoofing, oddball jocularity that will suffer none of yesteryear’s gestures. A few pages later, in ‘Settlers, Regurgitated’, another recipe for eccentricity –
 
Victoria’s first settlers were whalers as well
as prostitutes. They were hale, they drank
ale. They were whalewrights, sexwrights –
they were Whites.
[…]
Our most senior writers were born
out of this malaise.
(13)
 
Verging across mythopoeic vectors, Farrell’s argument with the perceived stale cake of OzPo lyric confections is spectacular, and largely an attempt to interrupt those power/knowledge discourses passing themselves off as unities requiring no further examination. Not simply jocular, then, this ocular and oracular book surveys an inscribed landscape using satire, parody, an occasional excoriation to bring to our attention the folly of a so-called Terra Nullius reinvented as a home with all the literary styles, traditions, and tropes of an occupying force. It is this logic that Cocky’s Joy – read here as a keenly ethical text – seeks to unseat. 
 
Under Farrell’s purview, the weirdness unspools like a fastidiously well-wrought outsider art; his agenda is provocation through pastiche, the free play of association used to deconstruct bucolic vistas (containing hitherto sacred cows), but it is mirth and not mean-spiritedness that compels these texts. In ‘Motherlogue’, we read of a metaphysical tussle with a devil in the boondocks of suburbia –
 
[…] his bony hand like Voss come
out of the desert to steal my children, my honeybees,
muttering in his best better backwards French accent,
Nema trom erton ed erueh’l à te tnanetniam. I shot
half his head off then, yelling fit to rouse the Nazis
(49)
 
while, in the fabulously onanistic ‘California Girls’, we see – 
 
[…] a protest rally, of beautiful
stumpy women under seven feet tall. Some even
wear glasses, which enrages the contact lens heiress
of our troupe / army.
(54)
 
Whether Farrell is tackling the belief systems of faith or fetishism or beyond, his texts seem always geared toward mixing and meshing, carving up the grand narratives of colonial discourses in order to make his critique –
 
The war dead lie down in the shade of the goat farm
A bunyip reclines on its non-novel reading arm. It’s
probably just a pig showing off. Two larrikins – they
have a knifely charm – are there on a date
 
         What’re yer into, mate
 
they say like a couple of badly translated flags, or figs
Grasshoppers wait confidently for the syrup
(20).
 
Foremost in Cocky’s Joy, it is Farrell’s style that makes such a powerful, affirmative lurch into the Antipodean real: as Adorno would have it (writing in Minima Moralia), ‘it is part of morality not to feel at home in one’s home’. Rather than stale cake, here is a poet dishing a concoction of his own ‘homemade anti-depressants’ (1), a staple for any post-colonial perhaps ill-at-ease and understanding their speaking position as essentially descended from the discourses of colonizers. Elsewhere, he asserts how ‘art is fire’ (63); Michael Farrell’s book, compelled as it is toward deterritorialization, can be read as a brilliant and burning act of unwriting.
 
6 July 2015