Queer poetics: ‘Family Trees’ and ‘Throat’

By Andrew Fuhrmann
Michael Farrell’s new collection exhibits his idiosyncratic technical strengths, while Ellen van Neerven’s asserts a more direct, and undeniable, voice

In the work of poet Michael Farrell, grammatical enigmas proliferate and semantic incongruity is the general rule. There are typographical antics, non sequitur pop-culture references, colourful bits of high-culture flotsam, academician japes, twee caricatures and awkward eroticisms. There are even occasional passages of unambiguous narrative sense.

Farrell’s disjunctive strategies have won him a fondness verging on admiration in Australian poetry circles. Even those who find his spritely babble a bit self-involved and coy treat him with friendly tolerance. And those who don’t had better watch out. When the poet Geoff Page took a gentle swipe at what he called Farrell’s “wilful obscurity” in an online piece for Southerly, Page was treated by Farrell’s supporters like someone who’d just eye-gouged everyone’s favourite uncle.

One reason his work is so popular – and I use the word advisedly – is its all but irresistible comic dash. Farrell’s wit and charm is ample compensation for any reader who might otherwise be left wondering where the batteries go or which end is the handle. And there’s plenty of quirky fascination in his latest collection, Family Trees (Giramondo).

The titles alone – “Black Coffin With Milk”, “André Gide And The Honey Sandwich”, “While My Veranda Gently Weeps” – are minor comic triumphs. And throughout the book a spirit of understated camp prevails, as in this excerpt from “In The Beginning Was Parody”:

Rogues, clowns, and fools rule the roost, but can’t write
to save a chook. We admit it’s not their aim. Was the
snake in the garden real? More importantly, is footy?
Or is it a dream of fear and beauty? Rabelais says the
snake was a sausage, and might’ve added that sausages
play football in our insides, as we watch it on TV

There is – possibly – some scholarly point to be made here about the Bakhtin’s carnivalesque but it’s those slithering sausages in footy shorts that really focus the mind.

Not that it’s all fun and games. Family Trees also has its gloomy, almost haunted aspect. It’s there even in the funniest of his poems, just below the surface, revealed in the semantic fissures and stylistic idiosyncrasies. For example, Farrell includes punctuation when it appears in the middle of a line but never when it appears at the end of a line; it’s a trick (or tic) that gives his verse the uncanny appearance of vanishing before the eyes, as if trailing into nothingness.

Other poems have a more directly spectral register, such as “Apple Tree”, with its maudlin flourishes and odour of rotting blossom:

It has no idea what beauty is, till its first blossom
time. And each reminder’s only a faint slide. This is
the voice of the apple tree, it sorrows as it loses its
leaves, it triumphs when laden with red or green fruit
An apple tree is no brute

And there are ghosts aplenty in the meandering “Isaac Babel And The East Sumatran Rhino” and the relatively lucid “Hamlet In The Mind Of A Country School Teacher”.

Even Farrell’s most difficult poems can seem a bit spooky because they are like a poet-academic’s daydream of an imaginary past when poetry still had a future. There is, for instance, the way his poems are often laid out in four or five stanzas, each of four or five lines of roughly equal length. From a distance, in other words, they look the way poems are supposed to look, which is weird for a poet so fascinated by techniques of linguistic estrangement and textual teasing.

And think, also, of his concrete poetry, of which there are two examples in this book. These are essentially typewriter confections and feel utterly antique. There are, at this very moment, software engineers writing algorithms using convolutional neural networks to identify and elaborate repeating patterns in images. Meanwhile Michael Farrell shows us how half a page of vertical bars can resemble both grassland and fencing.

Not that such ventures should be dismissed out of hand. The book’s title is, after all, suggestive of lineages and pedigrees of influence. And the title poem of the book shows how tricky Farrell’s backward glancing eye can be:

Ash begat Maud begat Nora begat Cicely begat Toffee
            begat Toula.

Can this be cribbed as “Tennyson begat Ibsen begat Wilde begat – begat Tsiolkas”? Is this a radically abbreviated queer canon? But then how do we get back to Mountain Ash? Or perhaps I’m barking up the wrong genogram because the second stanza seems to point in an entirely different direction:

Wattle begat Scissors begat Freckle begat Sunny begat Carol
            begat Brenda

The poem has a strong incantatory power despite its whimsical logics. Indeed, Farrell’s use of parallelism, where each stanza of a poem conforms to the same grammatical pattern, is a highlight throughout the collection.

Yes, Family Trees can feel like a queer Ken Done homage – with its compulsively conjured kangaroos and wombats and lyrebirds, and its reanimations of the kitsch of colonialist dreaming – but this belies the book’s technical achievements, which are indeed substantial. And anyone interested in poetry today will recognise the seriousness of Farrell’s project and the integrity of his vision.

There’s no timidity or lack of urgency in Throat (UQP), Ellen van Neerven’s second collection of poems. There are lines in this book that could be shouted across a crowded room or written in the sky. And on every page you feel a restless surging energy, an uneasy desire to turn and turn again, to get on with the next one, and the one after that, and so on.

And yet most of this volume is beyond my reach as a critic. It’s not so much a question of the quality of the poems as their manifest sincerity. The verse has a compelling prosaic clarity that conveys a sense of immediacy and earnestness, but more intensive poetic transfigurations are rare in this volume.

This appears to be quite deliberate. At its core, and in a non-pejorative sense, Throat is a project of self-promotion. It is about defying the silencing of Indigenous queer and gender non-conforming identities. And so the fact that van Neerven’s poems remain loudly and unflinchingly personal poems is also their ostensible justification.

This is also why it makes small difference whether the poems are read as autobiographical or as conjured fragments of a coherent but fictional self. Criticism of this work could easily lapse into officiousness or worse. Consider, for example, this excerpt from “Four truths and a treaty”:

We gotta talk about sexism, homophobia and transphobia
in the community. No point pretendin it don’t exist.
Some fellas feel threatened by young women speakin up.
Threatened by gay men and women speakin up. Threatened
by gender-diverse mob speakin up.

Such writing invites a critical response that is in fact a kind of sympathetic witnessing. It demands to be acknowledged on its own terms, and in its own terms, from within its own or allied communities of discourse. It is essentially impervious to any other kind of response.

Throat is itself an example of what such criticism might look like because many of the poems here are actuated by the work of other artists and thinkers, such as painters Dale Harding and Judy Watson, Destiny Deacon, Qwo-Li Driskill, Katrina Irawati Graham and American author Adrienne Maree Brown. A poem inspired by a Megan Cope installation is described as a companion piece, and companionship seems like the spirit in which Throat is best approached.

There are, it’s true, a handful of poems in this collection that dare something more expansive, an imaginative leap out of the narrow diary of the mind. An untitled sequence of short and rather beautiful lyrics in the fourth chapter, “Speaking Outside”, is particularly impressive. Ultimately, however, the main achievement of Throat is to have asserted a distinct and confident post-millennial First Nations voice. What else can I say except that it’s van Neerven’s own and as such is undeniable?

Andrew Fuhrmann

Andrew Fuhrmann is an editor and literary critic. He is a researcher in the Digital Studio at the University of Melbourne and has taught at the Victorian College of the Arts.

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