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Michael Farrell
A raider’s guide
reviewed by
Chad Sweeney
106 pp. Giramondo Poets.  22. ( 978–1-920882–36-5 paper

Michael Farrell, photo by Pam Brown

Michael Farrell, photo by Pam Brown

“thatkindofbeau tybejealous”


Michael Farrell’s A Raiders Guide makes of language a playground of moving parts, of slides and ladders and radio chatter. Farrell composes at the level of the phrase, using parataxis and accretion rather than subordinated sentence structures to build his sonic textures via juxtaposition, non-grammatical fragments, portmanteau, codes, homophonic play, and poliglot disco-balls. The phrases tease at narrative, then refute it, establishing a dizzying surface texture, an experience in reading that rewards participation. Sentences swivel at their hinges, or refract at oblique angles, an effect of rupture reminiscent of William Burrough’s cutups: “Before doing anything too drastic, advertising at the launderette, the sheep wasn’t dead yet.” In tone the poems recall the flaneuring Frank O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems, but Farrell’s zones of reference construct language events rather than a mapping of place.


Celebrating techniques from digital music and jazz, the poems quote, sample and remix from disparate sources, including Farrell’s contemporaries John Kinsella, Dorothy Porter, and Laurie Duggan — and others as far flung as Jack Spicer, George Eliot, Emily Bronte, Marianne Moore, and Timothy S. Murphy. The jagged edges of song lyrics, the Old Testament, film, economics, and art criticism percuss against one another into an unexpected music, releasing energies from within the rifts. The tone ranges from ironic to contemplative, from biting to banal, sharing an Ashberian willingness to drop the diction all the way down to the just-plain boring — yet colors spark continuously against that gray, and the effects of semantic rift and musicality keep the poems lively.


I remember you like a doctor. Is that the way! Let me
believe rather the ash tree. We’re half dead together.
I loved an author — possibly. The salt’s mixed with/
the old.


The first poem, “sprinter” — a long dramatic monologue in the voice of a pregnant woman — introduces the thematic terrain with which A Raiders Guide is concerned. At the same moment the mother-to-be verges on becoming an origin, herself, a creatrix, the poem problematizes the search for origins, preferring the surface textures of the continual now. The speaker hazards glances back at genealogy and past traditions, only to recoil bitterly or suspiciously: “No parents in sight” and “Suffering for belief has many forms: all traps” and “avoid mystic and metaphysic.” The question of origin and creation are conflated, and the self (as well as the text) becomes a pie-chart of literary and cultural sources: “Wilde, Borges, Foucault — a pie I foil and carry./ Orphaned by God.” This new identity, parented by poets and philosophers and TV culture, is entirely of human creation — and largely self-created via one’s choices in cultural consumption. The act of parenting, of creation, is multiplied and continuous, rather than sunk into a single mythic event — and the remainder of the book will embody this paradigm shift.


Indeed, the guiding poetics of the past are in doubt: “I fear the failure of the image: sitting with Whitman in olive tree silence.” Instead, A Raiders Guide launches a rapid firing of perceptions, revelations, detritus, a cubist autobiography in its vectors of I, mirrored surfaces, prismatic sound, which often returns to the collision between the soul and the quotidian: “It’s a lonely moral, a shock to the emptiness of knitting, channel-surfing.” This “channel surfing” is a “knitting” of disparate sources into one mindscape, banal, “empty” of depth, a mere TV simulacrum of images on the eye, as in “Jesus reflects on my glasses — or fire does.” The reality of knit surfaces refuses depth and the past, “this isn’t a cover,” “no through” and “[t]he past’s always now — in the scarlet whatever, in the cabbage damage.” The book proceeds from this crisis of origin, the opaque text becoming, in effect, the unborn child of the speaker. Fundamentally suspicious of apriori creation, it asks how we may create anything.


In “outside almonds” the crisis of postmodern identity continues, “as if to say im dewless a rubberband swept free of ceremony.” Here “dewless” means sans dew, without freshness, without the dawn of new beginnings — and as homophonic pun, “do-less” implies a lack of action, either in complacency or paralysis. The self is equated to an exhausted rubber band, which reminds us of Oppen’s “we see ourselves in our things” and of Walter Benjamin’s query into whether mass-produced objects can possess the “aura” of the singular object, of the art object. The quest for identity is contained in this question, which Farrell mourns and mocks “as if to say plastic grows.” Yet, the job of a rubber band is to hold things together, to force them into proximity, an apt symbol for Farrell’s yoking of disparate sources. The poem ultimately arrives at another search for origins:


its your origin look
only some see mirrors
some see spirits


The first origin look is the “mirror,” opaque, denying depth, a play of light on a hard surface, and self-referential, A = A, a dead end. The second option, “spirits,” is said with a chuckle and embodies the afore-debunked religious traditions. The final option, “spaces,” is the option of choice for this poet’s process. The “spaces” are the gaps, lacunae, fissures between words and phrases, even between letters, whose potential to combine and recombine forms a new kind of fertility, the fertility of the remix. The seed sprouts from the same gap that electricity arcs. The process of arrangement, of intertextual appropriation, becomes Creation, where the mass-products as well as media sources are active ingredients in self-making, in unlikely partnership with poetry.


This gap — “spaces” — is mapped and mined throughout the book by a variety of processes. The poems “realm of humour,” “ine/legant pithy” and “a pleasure and a torture” feature a leap across the binding of the book, such that phrases read left to right with a jump over the book’s physical crevice and onto the opposing page. At the same time the phrases may be read as fragments, beginning and ending in the middle, without origin or destination.


realm of humour waves                                   of critique an earthing through 
the root & cooling fa                                               ces lighting the second every 
poem as it passes stage a                                       plea attentive for community 
enjoying something thump with our palms o   ther than understanding 
held off what began by dan                                    cing with wood com
pared to memory mice are this is washing         up talking to gypsies a stran


Poems such as “porthwithostrich es” and “yourarc” string words together and re-assign the gaps between words to send an electric jolt through the language. The resulting letter strings, poly-semiotic neologisms, tease at multiple interpretations and alert the mind to the fragility and conditionality of meaning itself: “onecanseecrimelikecart.” Parts of words remain attached to whole words as if the language is corroding or the word-machine is broken. The mind leans toward meaning but is denied, or is confounded with multiple possibilities, all of which prove incomplete, as if overhearing a sales convention through a passing subway train.


on lythevoid
whereistrike out
atlack ofmag
ic wordsunder
apri ori
thatkindofbeau tybejealous


Above “beau ty” is also bow-tie and boy-friend tied; and “wordsunder” reads as “words under”; “word sunder” and “words under/ stand.” “Always at home” in “the void,” the poem “strikes out/ at lack of magic,” which means both fails — “strikes out,” in baseball lingo — against its own lack of magic, or ventures out in order to remedy a lack of magic. One effect of this reordering of the gaps is to alert the mind to that root where sound translates into meaning, as secondary and tertiary meanings flash by — phonemes, sememes ripple, multiply, veer in polyphonic cords and discords. These poems and many in the collection are arduous to read at first, but soon become exciting as the mind stretches and multiplies to accommodate the expanded music, exhilarating as a pan-dimensional obstacle course.
From “the masseur:”


ipup onourselvesinaformofesc
apism shedd ingmistakelikeaguill
otine wronglyperhapsbutwhysep a


Here “escapism” hides “ape/ism” inside it, and “shedding” reveals “shed” as its root, as in “shelter.” The word “guillotine” begins homophonically as “gill” (the way we all begin in the womb) before it cuts away from itself, the violent rupture in both form and semantics. The final question “why separate teacher & taught service & body” strikes at the Platonic binaries of self and other, of subject and object, which the text, perhaps, is attempting to heal.

Some of the most challenging poems which can still be mined for meaning, occur late in the book, as Farrell’s techniques begin to amplify toward a dizzying climax, which includes foreign words folded into homophonic doublings:


chaud pain [“show pain” and “hot bread”]
abricot confiture en fueille de
clack off bee lack of beef bc flak
eviter surnaturel lai
en deforme boite en deforme boite en deforme boite


Beyond this outer boundary of sense, Farrell begins to work in code, for which the key is in his notes: “a method that assumes that the source poems … are written in monalphabetic code, and that by using statistics, a more correct english version could be produced.” The affect is of the further corrosion of language, the signs emptying out of all signification. Lucky for the reader, this mode does not continue for long, as its novelty soon wears out. Nevertheless, it is consistent with Farrell’s purpose and reminds us that all language is code, though its habit of familiarity masks its inherent strangeness, and likewise that the slippery keys to our language codes are seldom agreed upon and subject to ongoing negotiations: “violence a form of discourse.”


are dnno nma arts dnlotou
ioc are wehhnb
ng nhc ceoamles
onartou htye i dnno


A few poems ask for the audience to fill in the blanks, as the stanzas are formed of words taken from other writers, like Gertrude Stein and Charlotte Bronte. The joke is that the quoted words are merely articles and prepositions, which pokes at the question of trademarks and copyrights, calling into doubt the ownership of words.


‘a’  __  __   ‘a’
__  __  __  ‘in’
‘and’ ‘of’  __  __ 
‘and’ ‘of’  __  __
‘the’ ‘the’ ‘with’  __


One of the most successful poems on multiple levels is “leap,” which accretes momentum in a paratactic chant of recombined material, as the language struggles to survive by solving its own enigma, by healing its virus, into something of a postmodern dance beat:


so much grass some! thing sur(vives
running from whats inside a
vacuum noone breaks” the bones …
waking up/to a room full of! junk


In all of these processes, Farrell’s skill is evident, and whether he is in control or artfully out-of-control of his medium, the results are stimulating and musical. Throughout A Raiders Guide, Farrell surrenders his identity to the process and to the fertility of the rift: “The poem has its own will” and “My hands are in the abstract.” Yet despite the waning of affect and sense of alienation which often accompany the processes of pastiche, chance, oulipo methods and cutup, Farrell’s “personality” (or personalities) still haunt the text: “Everything repressed is bleeding out” and “the text passes thru my hands — to you.” Sincerity, fear, doubt, and humor leak through with a surprising freshness, and the tension between Farrell’s annihilation of the self through process and the sudden revelations of self, embedded in that process, establishes a locus of energy and event for the reader: “Pretend to externalize desire. I got caught/ up in the transfer,” and “Mirrors happen. Kaleidoscope-drunk.” The latter could serve as the thesis statement for the book, as the multiple lenses of perception, the kaleidoscopic mirror of the text both problematizes and reconfirms the sense of self, as collage, as process, as a continuous auto-involved creation and appropriation: “Humans can’t help adding levels, becoming replicas/ of what they enter.” Farrell proves that the musical processes of appropriation, in concert with the recombinative elasticity of language, provides us with an inexhaustible source for creation.

Chad Sweeney

Chad Sweeney

Chad Sweeney is the author of three books of poetry, Parable of Hide and Seek (Alice James, 2010), Arranging the Blaze (Anhinga, 2009), and An Architecture (BlazeVox, 2007) and five chapbooks, most recently The Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney de las Minas (Forklift, 2010) and A Mirror to Shatter the Hammer (Tarpaulin Sky, 2006). He edited the anthology Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sounds: The Teachers of WritersCorps in Poetry and Prose (City Lights, 2009) and is coeditor of Parthenon West Review. His poems have appeared widely including in Best American Poetry and Verse Daily. He holds an MFA from San Francisco State University and is a PhD candidate in literature/poetry at Western Michigan University, where he teaches poetry and serves as assistant editor of New Issues Press. He lives in Kalamazoo with his wife, poet Jennifer K. Sweeney.

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