Dark reflections and light
Open House By David Brooks UQP, 168pp, $24.95 Cocky’s Joy By Michael Farrell Giramondo, 104pp, $24 In a world where everything human, except love, is compromised and haunted by guilt and our failure to care enough about the world, what does poetry have left to offer? It can always just ask that question, David Brooks says, insistently, and in its shadow, in his new book Open House, he and his wife Teja, the ecstatic, almost transcendent lovers of his previous book, The Balcony, have become calmly devoted: the poems are more about belonging and the joy of knowing than about passion and the disbelief of meeting and having.
The book contains many tenderly uxorious moments; Brooks is always in control of them and does them justice. In No Poem for Weeks Now, the poet’s drought is broken when he hears “from the other end of the house, you / singing under your breath, so / quietly that, through the rain, the / sound of the heater, trucks / on the highway changing gear, / I can / barely hear but / do and / close my eyes, breathe / outward, slowly, a breath it seems I have held for years”.
The skill of the composition here precisely takes the breath away, making it impossible to read the poem without holding your breath and listening. But this is apparent only with an analytical second look; as with much of Brooks’s work, what is being said is so much more apparent than how.
He writes verse that is uncommonly like Orwellian prose, and since he cannot and will not leave aside morality and politics — especially those of animal rights — the effect is all the greater.
In The Balcony, Brooks wrote defiantly: “The lover is criminal in this real world, a social embarrassment, like a pregnant woman, a suicide bomber, a vegan.” In this new book the lover seems worn down by the vegan’s despair at the ugliness of human treatment of animals, by the effect we have on the world. Poetry does not deserve an exemption because, as he writes in Carmen 193: “All day the poet writes / about the wondrous creatures of the world, / the beasts, the fishes and the birds, / their gracefulness, their speed, their flight, / then, wonder typed and safely filed, / wonders which to eat tonight.”
Here, and even more so in other poems along the same lines, the shame and sorrow almost overwhelm the verse and the message. Brooks’s tender regard for the animal kingdom is shoved up hard against slaughter, human destructiveness, the hypocrisy of Christmas. He has done all he can but clearly still feels, like Macbeth, that “this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red”. His endlessly tender poems about snails, insects, birds, sheep, as they are, living quietly, feel like offerings, atonements, because, as he puts it in Captain Hunter and the Petrels, “We are all / creatures trembling under the sun of witness (or / is it rain?); some of us, for reasons it would be hard to explain, / trying to catch the strange, sad music of it, / on the days we can hear it, / before it disappears again.”
In this poem Brooks also says: “A poem is a place where you can bring things together, you don’t have to know why.”
If Michael Farrell were a stick of rock he would have those words running right through the middle of him, and his new collection Cocky’s Joy is certainly an irresistible confection. Farrell’s poetry is endlessly playful and diverting, nonsensical in the best sense, and here it plays with Australian popular symbolism, especially the bush variety, with great elan. This book is far less formally experimental, for the most part, than his last collection, Open Sesame, but as always with Farrell you have to pay attention and you have to keep up. Poems in this collection often work along these lines: OK, now we are going to do one about the influence of Lorca in the outback. Ready, steady, go!
“Where they once ate camel grease (and before / that I don’t know), they now eat moon butter. Where / they once drank electric guitar (and sometimes / acoustic guitar) they now drink lightning. They talk about the Spanish Civil War as if it happened / just around there, just over there. The Outback’s / too large a temple for a Christ.”
Farrell manages to treat the Australian myths of origin with respect and a kind of joyful derision, just as his nonsense poetry makes perfect formal sense and contains many meanings, but is also extremely silly. So it is that we have a kind of bush murder ballad (with elegant punctuation and an offhandedly syncopated rhyme scheme) featuring Henry Lawson, John Shaw Neilson, Banjo Paterson, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Bennelong, and the Kellys: “Ned and Dan Kelly played snooker. / Ned appeared to have breasts but they / were coconut shells shied away from / Shaw Neilson who’d been playing a / game of ‘ horse music’ with Gordon.”
Various other poems rattle together recognisable elements of Australiana (fauna, bush families, Molly Meldrum) just self-knowingly enough, and when you begin to think, “How does he keep up this inexhaustible supply of connected tangent? It is starting to remind me of Ken Bolton”, Farrell pops up with a poem ( The Comic Image) that asks the same question, hilariously and at length.
It did take some recalibration to read Cocky’s Joy straight after Open House (or vice versa) and it is hard to avoid a sense of Farrell’s book as being poetry with its eyes shut and its finger in its ears saying “la la la la la” over and over again. But that sensation is like the drone in Indian music — always there but not the real content, and fades quite away at times, in Making Love to a Man, for example, or in the quiet, geometrically sympathetic examination of Aboriginal dispossession in Order. He who laughs can still have heard the terrible news, whatever Brecht and, you feel, David Brooks, might say.