Dark re­flec­tions and light

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Ken­neally

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.

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