Michael Farrell, Cocky’s Joy (Giramondo 2015)
‘Michael Farrell is the most adventurous and experimental of contemporary Australian poets,’ says the back cover of Cocky’s Joy. If that’s code for, ‘Only insiders – academics and other experimental poets – should read this book,’ it’s only partly right.
Farrell’s poetry, as well as being ‘experimental’, is also often sexy, silly, erudite,, teasingly cryptic, playful, challenging, passionate, and sometimes all of those things at once. It’s a poetry of ex-Catholic, Gay male, Melburnian postmodernism with a whiff of nostalgia for the bush. Apart from a handful of tediously schematic poems, it bristles with memorable phrases, weird surrealistic images, and intriguing wordplay.
The book’s title is rich with implication. ‘Cocky’s joy’ is Australian bush slang for golden syrup, a kind of refined molasses. In this context it invokes the classical idea of sweetness and light – delight and instruction – promising at least the sweetness, with a particular kind of Australianness. ‘Cocky’ taken alone hints at metaphors for the poet: as a farmer laying down furrows of verse, or a parrot sampling other texts. And the phrase’s punning potential suggests an interest in, ahem, male sexuality. All of those implied promises made by the title are kept. There are surreal, dreamlike excursions into Australiana, and much invocation of other writers (the titles tell part of the story: ‘The Influence of Lorca in the Outback’, ‘Bush Christie’ – as in Agatha). There’s quite a bit of reference to man parts, from the genteel ‘longing in the pants’ to much more explicit language.
There are wonderful moments, like this from ‘An Australian Comedy':
_________________________You see the old
photographs in your lover’s face, and let go of the school
boy’s hand; you’re growing up again.
or this, uncharacteristically straightforward, from ‘Singing':
You know one thing about a song from
The radio. You know something else when
It’s coming from your own throat – that’s
The note. A song doesn’t belong on a page
A song isn’t on it like paint.
In ‘Bush Christie’ (the title refers to Banjo Paterson’s ‘A Bush Christening‘ and to Agatha Christie), a clutch of Australian literary and historical figures from the 1800s and early 1900s assemble to hear Bennelong, playing detective, reveal the identity of a murderer. At least that’s the narrative framework. Really it’s pretty much a playground where fun can be had with the characters and with language for its own sake. If you expect straightforward narrative progression from these lines, for example,
Gilmore was preparing a jack’o lantern –
Something she’d picked up in Paraguay
She said. Probably a lie, and she had a
Strong pumpkin-cutting arm … She
Lit a candle and put it in Jack’s head.
Bennelong couldn’t eat her bread. Pat-
you’ll end up frustrated. But read them for the wordplay, and they become fun. You can’t be sure the pumpkin isn’t there mainly because it alliterates with ‘Paraguay’, and Mary Gilmore’s probable lie for the sake of the rhyme. Likewise, has ‘bread’ popped up just to rhyme with ‘said’ and ‘head’, or is there a bit of historical trivia there about Bennelong’s reaction to the colonisers’ food? The poem is full of that kind of thing. It’s a bit like Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ with a high level of distractability.
The poem that I most respond to in the book is ‘Bringing the “A”‘, which (I think) refers to the origin of the letter A as a stylised drawing of an ox. In the poem, written language and grazing stock are not so much metaphors for each other as identified as the one thing, itself emblematic of a harsh colonising society:
‘The “A” roamed everywhere, making itself / Stand for everything’. So much meaning is folded into the poem’s final images: the possibility of settler culture having been somehow integrated into the landscape, but not without deforming it, and not without violence (the rust on rocks suggesting bloodshed).
In her blog, the deletions, Pam Brown quotes from Astrid Lorange’s launch speech for Cocky’s Joy:
As anyone who reads Michael will know, his poetry is … an enormously generous contribution to the diverse and intersecting communities of practice that coalesce around questions, propositions, readerships, textualities, affections, socialities, and so on. Michael’s work, which in its spirit and discipline is a constant and intense gift, is ever-labouring towards a poetry that might continue, despite it all, as a liveable form of loving.
I don’t know what most of that actually means, and I can say the same about quite a lot of the poetry. But I’m very grateful to Giramondo for sending me a review copy, and opening my mind to poetry which I might otherwise have avoided.