raider's guide
Postcards from the Asylum
Our Life is a Box./ Prayers Without a God
Vertigo | a cantata |
The ink brushed distance

Insight in Process

Poetry Review - Derek Motion


a raiders guide

Michael Farrell



The back-cover blurb proclaims this book to ‘…liberate energies which exist within language, though they may not easily be spoken, or spoken about.’ It suggests an interesting task lies ahead for one indeed committed to saying something about the collection. Farrell strikes me as someone who feels no need to talk a lot about his work too, which gives further weight to the idea of saying nothing. But the ostensible silence surrounding the energies within Farrell’s work is worth thinking about openly. And that which is easily spoken about tends to be too easily explained, easily dismissed. The difficulty involved in uttering something ultimately challenges me to do it. Here:

When I read ‘the beds soft the window barred the jigsaw started’ (from ‘quiet for’) I found myself dwelling on the latter part of the line: either there’s a wooden puzzle present, a jigsaw waiting to be completed, or the reference is creating the sound of a jigsaw machine sputtering to life. I think the first meaning is more satisfactory. I’m almost certain. So then why the ‘jigsaw started’? Well, I suppose it is often what you see. People start puzzles and they leave them mid-process on a table. Maybe you don’t see it that often but we all know people that ‘do’ jigsaws. When you see the puzzle on a table there’s a slight sense of abandonment, but there’s also the interesting sense of the work-in-progress, and, in some ways there’s a feel of invitation. Do you want to have a go? See if you can fit a few pieces in? Look for an edge piece, similar colours perhaps…

The persistence required to search for, and then correctly arrange one thousand fragments into an image (an image you’re very familiar with already) is beyond me. In fact the whole jigsaw enterprise might seem a little perverse. Why not admire the image on the box? Opening it is pointless. But then again, difficult pursuits have a place. And we need not read instrumentally. And sure, many a profitable industry is founded on perversity...

a raiders guide is the unfinished jigsaw, left on the table. Less assured, but then far more interesting than the completed puzzle. Some of the pieces remind me of the Farrell poems from ode ode – a number of works like ‘sydney’ have the familiar rambunctious pace and flow:

sydneys real as romance really is
centre of the wholesale fun trade
open your eyes to the heat like
smiling at illusions of riding pink
its nice to fizz but not to fizz out
here we pay a lot of attention to
collars the bluer the more we like it

This is a poetic style I’m familiar with, despite the fact that we can’t really categorise Farrell and isolate his style. But I’m also familiar with the way Farrell continually experiments with the type of work he publishes, and in this collection he once again breaks apart any preconceived notions of what to expect that a reader might have entertained. A jigsaw broken apart and then partly reformed, producing a fragmented and new image, is a new possibility arising from this breaking. Farrell’s style is antithetical to notions of style in that he seems constantly looking to explore by breaking down any remnants of continuity. I like that idea.

On my first reading I wondered at the numbers spread through the book. I confess I didn’t ‘get’ it. I tried to think of what it could mean. Were they poems in their own right? Do they suggest counting, order, the passing of time? Perhaps all of these things are correct. But on a second look [warning: spoiler ahead] I realised each page of numbers introduces the section of poems that follows. In fact, these almost serve as page numbers, extracted from the margins where they would normally appear, and given prominence. But then they give a little bit more: each group of numbers contains a clue as to the form of the poems following. Almost like a movie trailer. For instance the poems ‘honeyimhotel’ and ‘pornwithostrich es’ are represented by the numbers ‘1314’, pushed together without spacing, this hinting at the formal construction of the two poems, where the words are pushed together and spacing is used very sparsely. Also the numbers for poems 10, 11, and 12 have their digits broken and spread across two pages, foreshadowing the two-voiced poems that will follow. This is not an ‘easy’ method of locating or grouping poems within a collection. It can actually be annoying (but maybe only to a reviewer attempting to reference and quote from certain poems?). But then in this book numbers are put to work in a different fashion. It’s another technique that draws attention to itself, and, makes the book a work of art. Nothing is accepted as inherently necessary to a poetry book – not page numbers, a table of contents. Therefore nothing is formulaic (except of course the usual Giramondo ‘one-colour cover’).

So what are the poems about and are they any good. Technique is of course foregrounded. Farrell wants you to notice the way he has made language strange. He wants you to give importance to stray dots and dashes of punctuation, or at least admit they contain the possibility for endless meaning. As he writes in the opening poem ‘sprinter’, a response to Alison Croggon’s ‘the blue gate’: ‘my father instructed me in the abstract / made sure the real was forever strange’. Surely though, if we read this literally, it’ problematic? We are all at least somewhat instructed in the abstract. We all know about removing context, emphasising technique, removing the traditional ‘real’. We’ve all had some kind of encounter with algebra. Does this make us feel good though, or – as Stuart Cooke wonders in his review ( ) – will this making things strange be interesting to a wide audience, people outside of Michael’s ‘devoted following’. Are we likely to tell others there are some great poems in this collection?

Stuart got his review in before I had a chance to complete mine and initially I found it vexing. I didn’t want what anyone else thinks to have influenced what I think. I don’t trust my mind. But a positive is this allows me to take on board some of the ideas raised. I agree that this book is probably not for everyone but that everyone should have a go. It’s difficult to justify this opinion but it’s something I’ve always felt is correct: one needs to be challenged by a work that is not easy to read. I gave a Farrell poem to a poetry tutorial class once because I knew some of them would say ‘Huh?’ We then proceeded to read it for the unlikely combinations of language fragments, the tremendous amount of images and directions that can be thrown up by simply reading. This is the puzzle unsolved but nevertheless revealing. There is no certainty in the beautiful vista, the complete image, the readable tract.

I’ll say yes, there are some great poems. I think thematically these poems are starker than those in ode ode, and seem more concerned with a search for feeling, or at the very least a sort of analytical consolation. I read ode ode as sexual, and therefore, rightly, more playful. The works in a raiders guide feel like they hinge much more upon Australia and the discontent that entails. There is a political / cultural undercurrent to the radical breaks in flow. Nevertheless, you do have to read this book with a sense of humour. Not too much poetry being published in this country admits this sort of comedy, what I see as the utter unlikelihood of such things being slapped on a page. I laughed at the om-like repetition and permutations of ‘the’; I laughed at the almost perversely encoded poems, of which ‘fhue dahn I’ is a great example (It ends with ‘nemtepfer 1980’ – is it September? Could a reader possibly substitute letters and solve this poem? Or have I interpreted the wrong sort of encryption?!) The picture that Michael paints of classic texts and authors in a few of the poems (notably Emily and Charlotte Bronte) is hilarious – the excerpts and remixes throw out a sort of satirical ‘Just what were you writing about?’ question. And of course there’s a surreal fun to be had just by being immersed in a poem, like this section of ‘the black again’:

what softdrink did the clocks
run on the kids had fis
cal notions which helped kill
the dog or the aller
gy afflicted tortoise
which meant more rituals
in witches hats
running up ramps
bumping heads
& failing to
set anything
alight or find a partner
the rain we werent dressed for it
was funny to feel again

It is funny to feel again. So much becomes habituated that a jolt can feel really good.

I have my points of contention with a raiders guide but overall they are minor. The pieces spread across two pages (10, 11, 12) didn’t work as well for me, and I do suspect these would function more effectively as performances. Also, I found the notes section at the back a little too tantalising – if the poems do use a lot of techniques familiar to contemporary music (and it seems obvious they do) I would have loved to learn a little bit more about them! Of course that’s not such a simple thing to do (you can read a long discussion about compositional notes in the comment section of my blog here: and I know that. And maybe the notes are in there somewhere (‘each veiled instruction never veiled enough’?)

But that’s all. The overall reading experience is one you should have. reading a raiders guide is like going to an art-gallery, sweltering through a dj-set, listening to six people argue at the same time, writing a masters’ thesis using the cut & paste tools, being stranded in a country where you don’t speak the language, taking drugs, revisiting the history of Australia town by town, and just reading poetry to see what it can do.


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