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Michael Farrell - Open Sesame

(Giramondo, Sydney, 2012. Paperback, 128pp, A$24.00)
 
Reviewed by Laurie Duggan
 
Cover of Michael Farrell - Open Sesame
It always bemused me that conservative Australian critics found the poems of John Forbes too American, too much influenced by people like Ashbery and O’Hara. I found (and I expect the Americans would have too) that the poems were, despite their influences, not at all ‘American’. This had to do with both their tone and their cultural reference. Critical blindness to these characteristics seems incomprehensible now.  John was, as anyone can see, not averse to time-worn Australian tropes. While I would have waded through a sewer rather than have to read the nineteenth-century bush balladists again John enjoyed some of this work (a particular favourite was Barcroft Boake’s ‘Where the Dead Men Lie’). Unlike most of the poets of my generation Forbes saw Australianness as a position you could productively occupy.
 
There are interesting parallels between Forbes’ work and that of Michael Farrell. The first thing you notice about the poems in Open Sesame is a colloquial familiarity. At the same time the poems are often dense and use an unstable grammar. In some of them there’s a distinctive parlance going on: not just Australian but regional and possibly generational (I mean here the adult generation around the time of Farrell’s country childhood). Farrell is an agile performer. You feel there’s a language being created here and yet it’s your own language.
 
In an interview with Michael Brennan a couple of years ago Farrell instanced the breadth of his reading: Ashbery and O’Hara yes, but also Judith Wright, translations of Aboriginal material (and contemporary work by Aboriginal authors), and broader cultural areas such as television crime and critical theory. He also noted ‘I think the way people approach language differs a lot also but we don’t… often recognise this’. An element of O’Hara’s tongue-in-cheek ‘personism’ is apparent here; also a degree of pragmatism that you wouldn’t find in the work of a card carrying Language poet. Farrell will ‘make do’ with exploded forms in ‘et tu supermarket’ and ‘as for music’, the former coming across as a Schwitters-like sound collage:
 
)!!!!!!!!!!!ehhd xii87zzPPPPP#@ YTYU
 
is thus ids the real life
 
bananas ejjd BEWAS nbread ,o;l                    =
                                                                             = 3
 
Elsewhere, as in ‘the bill sonnets’ he takes on narrative and dramatic forms:
 
brandon     last night was a spice cigarette
long sweet & heady after a turbulent day,
I don’t mean im going to tell you,
cathy to butt out or find another flame,
music has its rise & fall,
the smokiest jazz tends to the impromptu,
were a team were not a dream
i need my nights, to be crazy or not.
im not ready, – apparently! – to live in stereo.    
 
Many of these poems take off adroitly from other works. Farrell’s great facility for mime is more than apparent in ‘hung up brown’ with its sure grasp of Pam Brown’s tone and lineation:
 
ticks ‘n’ tocks go
     the telephone
the records on but
                                 noones home.
every little thing
     goes slowly gets
posted to someone’s mailbox
 
Even the ‘index’ appended to the book functions as a poem. Of course there’s no need for an actual index in a book of poems: instead we get an alphabetical list of titles preceded by page numbers that runs like a bingo call:
 
25     juggle
80     kids & camellias
93     letter to sam langer
1       lovey
88     lyric
3       magic
23     minimalism over two pages
 
A wonderful sense of play suffuses this book yet it is not ‘frivolous’. Australian critics in the 1970s tended to see frivolity wherever they looked in poems taking off from the New Yorkers. Many of us were accused of ‘letting down the side’. Thankfully those days are past and pluralism reigns, but the ecumenical attitude can also be a problem. It can allow a poetic like Farrell’s without necessarily giving him his due. I think this work deserves more than that. It’s worth paying attention to this poet’s comment in answering Michael Brennan’s question ‘How important is “everyday life” to your work?’ Witness some lines from ‘visited states’:
 
do you regret she said seeing a bald squirrel trot
over a river lit up by snow at Philadelphia college
john Bernstein offered you a book for the night &
you hugged & ate thai waffle in your thermals we
were at skunk magazine a bowling alley where andre 3000
had the high score was across the street new yorks
a great place to lie on benches but we were
warned against it growing up central park was crowded with
cyclists a man in the know said its all show
an eagle ran lightly along the verandah this morning we
drove to los angeles it took four hours in ice
the radio news was full of two things howard deans
expose breast & did the old testament sanction low carb
diets anywhere i went i had to take off my
boots & belts & looked in a hand store for
used poker chips at the coughing i had a reading
fit & left the room to drink maple syrup Nicole
urban has taken over he said don’t send your luggage
to them send it to us in the cable car
he found me a hooded jumper it cost fifty bucks
to call venice in Hollywood a star eats cookied alone
or its me after the oyster fight my teeth
ached for hours but at least the review was written
 
Farrell doesn’t distinguish between reading and writing and other forms of experience. He speaks of ‘a new kind of everyday’, the effect of travel and contemporary life generally. He is ready to let the jungle leap in, and the results of this capacity can be very fine indeed.
 
 
16 March 2014