Break Me Ouch by Michael Farrell
(3 Deep Publishing, St. Kilda, Australia, 2006)
I have long admired the poetry of Aussie poet Michael Farrell. Even at his most experimental his texts explore not only the sensuality of words but the sexuality of the language and of the human body. Of course how one reads texts in general and perhaps poems in particular says more about the reader, I think, then it does about the author’s intent. Or perhaps both since a text is created simultaneously by both writer and reader. I is an Other, as Rimbaud wrote not so long ago, and texts are just that, especially so in farrell’s fine collection Break Me Ouch.
As the title declares, this is Farrell at his most daring. I’m not sure how to write about the poems since these pieces are handwritten cartoon panels. Sometimes the poems are drawn with no words at all. This collection is a new creature, at least to this reader, something that I think can be called ‘graphic poetry’ used in connection to the term ‘graphic novel’. The ‘I’, or sole protagonist, is an unnamed character drawn as a solid triangle for a body and with a circle for a head. The texts tend to be brief expressions drawn and written in a few panels. But it is not just only these features that make Farrell’s work most daring, but the poet in these pages is unafraid of direct erotic writing. So these pieces are simultaneously willfully obscure and directly written meanings.
Can such a thing exist? Each time I open Farrell’s book I see that the eroticism of Farrell is tempered only by his joy in the processes of making poems. Thus the text ‘chocolade’ is written in six panels sans words while the unnamed ‘I’ begins in the first panel in his [I use the masculine pronoun even though the ‘I’ could be feminine, or perhaps even both] usual body display of a solid triangle and round head. The next four panels each focus on the ‘I’ as the body changes from triangle to rectangle and dissolves to three black slashes at the top of the body and two drip marks at the bottom. Then the sixth panel drops below the line of the five previous panels, much like the figure of a line of written poetry indented and beginning below the previous line, as the ‘I’‘s head turns into what appears to be something similar to a half-eaten cookie and the body as slashes begin to collapse on each other. I read this piece as an expression of pleasure as one consumes and is consumed by a favorite treat.
There’s the erotics of eating and there’s the erotics of sexuality and Farrell is declaring both in this collection. Take the piece ‘cup’ for example where the couplets of the poem are written within the space of eight panels, each couplet in a single panel with ‘I’ virtually unchanged except in stanza six when ‘I’‘s body takes root like the roots of a tree. Here is the text in its entirety.
There is a sweetness to the clarity of this piece that I find thrilling. What is freedom of expression at all if not for the express of human sexuality in its manifold forms. It is a powerful piece of writing and I’m glad Farrell wrote it.
But this is a collection of poems and as that there are many pieces that are not so directly sexual. There’s also criticism of poets and poetry and the war in Iraq as well as paeans to pop music and texts that are, I think, about the catholic faith. I’ve read somewhere that Farrell wrote this collection after discovering the neo-garage rock of The White Stripes. The minimalist style of these graphic poems do seem to be a brother/sister to the Detroit band’s stripped-down rock of vocals, guitar and drums. For example, the poem ‘no two’ is written in four panels with a musical staff drawn above the panels which uses the ‘I’‘s head as notes. Only in the final panel does Farrell draw eyes for the ‘I’ and the text reads with the simplicity of a song lyric.
Again Farrell is writing the erotics of the body detailed in the figures of the pleasures of dancing, eating and music. Or that is how I read this collection for farrell is, even at his most difficult, a pleasure-seeking and pleasure-giving poet. It is a wonder of this collection that the panels continue to engage upon repeated readings. None of the novelty of graphic poetry has worn off, and yet there’s more to these pieces than the novelty of creating graphic poetry. These are powerful, beguiling and entrancing pieces written and drawn by a poet at the height of his creative powers.
I’ll leave it at that.
richard lopez lives in sac. poems recently published in listenlight and concelebratory shoehorn review. a split-chap with jonathan hayes, hallucinating california, from windowpane press was recently published as an e-book and is soon to be fetishized in paper form.