Robert Wood reviews “Writing Australian Unsettlement” by Michael Farrell

Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945

by Michael Farrell


ISBN 978-1-137-48571-7

Reviewed by ROBERT WOOD

Michael Farrell’s Writing Australian Unsettlement is necessary reading. It is a welcome contribution to a small field. However, Farrell’s work has several areas that are problematic and that are also symptomatic of wider issues concerning poetry and politics in today’s society. It should be seen then as a starting point, an opening up, rather than a definitive statement or end of a conversation.

Part of the modern and contemporary poetry and poetics series edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis for Palgrave Macmillan, the aim of the book is to ‘unsettle’ Australian poetics. This is taken here to mean the work of undoing assumptions, firmness, bedrock as it is currently constituted in Australian literary criticism, particularly in a nationalist canonical iteration. Farrell returns to ideas of unsettlement time and time again, giving a variety of definitions, particularly in the introduction. Somewhat later in the work he states:

The hunt is on for new, formerly useless poetries, perhaps poetries in Perloff’s terms that are ‘by other means’; other languages and genres (like diaries) that may, if not constitute a new ‘model of a national Australian literature’ at least foster new reading and writing networks of the history and the contemporary that attend to different literacies, including that of the visual. (84)

This is a book then not only about content and form, but intended as a sort of speculative methodological reading enterprise. This is through examining poetry from the colonial period from Bennelong’s letter from 1792 until various twentieth century texts until World War Two. For a review that discusses the contents of the book at length please see Matt Hall’s in Cordite.

As worthy as that enterprise is, that desire to make a ‘new’ thing, Farrell is also indebted to, if not limited by, past discourses, languages, tropes, motifs. Indeed, it is one of the ironies that he deploys the following quote from Martin Harrison early in Writing Australian Unsettlement:

Borrowed terms like ‘pastoral’, ‘urban’ and ‘landscape’ for instance, may work very differently or simply may not work at all when applied to Australian poetry. (1)

It is ironic because over the course of the book, Farrell relies, too much in my opinion, on imported, metropolitan theory, framing and quotation for legitimacy. Witness the repeated use of ‘______ says insert quote’ from Freud to Bataille to Deleuze to Sontag (117, 157, 171). These are often used without criticism – theory remains deployed rather than challenged – and one apparent result is that the observation of poetry cannot stand alone without participating in an elaborate citation ritual that only reaffirms the canon of European continental theory. To buttress the continental theory is the North American field.

Consider the following passage:

Meanwhile the critical tools have also been developed to begin to read this work, whether as ‘exophonic’ or appropriative writing, or in terms of visual prosody (Perloff); in terms that resist the dematerialisation of language and parataxis (Silliman and other language writers); through theories developed from visual poetry (Cluver, Willard Bohn); theories of space, textual criticism, and archival work that read the page as a page rather than as a hoist for a message, that recognise the freedom of handwriting and resist the hegemony of typography (Davidson, McGann, Werner and Howe); or that account for the ‘non semantic’ (Forrest-Thomson). These theories themselves draw on criticism associated with concrete poetry and works such as ‘Un Coup de Des’ as well as the histories of the avant-garde. (83)

If Europe is good for theory, North America is good for the academic work of today. Primary among these is Marjorie Perloff, who supplied a blurb on the book’s back cover and who is invoked with regularity. However, Perloff seems to me to be the arch settled and settling critic of the white American avant garde. As a node in the network of contemporary writing, one might question not only her relevance for work on colonial Australian poetry but also her politics. Witness recent criticism of her by Mongrel Coalition, Fred Moten, Kim Chen, C A Conrad and others.

This heavy quotation and reference is evident throughout. I recognise how it mocks some undergraduate idea of academic writing and enables assemblage, a defining part of the work, to be meta-commented upon. Yet this seems at odds with an independent impulse, with autonomy as a political and authorial subject position as possibly enabled by the Harrison quote early on.  This is, of course, not to establish a false binary between voice and assemblage either, or to dismiss a speculative enterprise. Paradox is, of course, not a failing in and of itself, but the implication of such importation is to undermine the importance of the local. It might appear global, but it is possibly a colonised manoeuvre. There is a lot of Australian literary criticism in the archive and reading against the paradigmatic straw man grain might have enabled a different perspective. As it stands one can find in Clement Semmler or Vincent Buckley or others, a complicated way of reading that might not be as settled as Farrell makes out. This is supported by the lack of discussion of the Australian field in general. To take only genocide studies what of important work by Attwood, Reynolds, Tatz (161)? The broader question to ask then is: why can’t we apply an unsettled reading to theory and field and not only poetic text?

This framing is despite the fact that Farrell is a very adept close reader. When it comes to the Australian poetry in and of itself there is nuance and insight. Readers should pay attention to his criticism of Norman Harris’ ‘Letter to Jim Bassett’ (104) and drover bush texts (186). This insight is there too in the section on Ngarla songs. However, in some of the Indigenous sections there is slippage that I think is symptomatic of Australian academic culture more generally (25). In one passage that talks about the democratic semiotic possibility of the equals sign Farrell writes it ‘resembles Indigenous philosophy rather than settlement sentiment’ (80). I would be interested to know how one can sustain such binarism. There are several other moments like this. This collapsing of specificity may, though not necessarily, be read as an ahistoricising gesture, for it collapses important distinctions and arguments. How should ‘we’ collapse Roe and Neidjie, Bandler and Pearson into a thing? It flattens the diversity in other words, which people on the inside of the discourse may find important. This is not, though, a defense, in a positivist sense, of linearity, or of cleanliness, just a comment on the need for consistent attentiveness to frame and context. Indeed, the heterodoxies, contradictions and complications of a thing, if it could be said to exist, called Indigenous philosophy remain submerged in Writing Australian Unsettlement precisely because the texts quoted are Freud and Deleuze not Indigenous people themselves as they exist in ethnographic and self-authored texts (see Deborah Bird-Rose, Sally Treloyn, Magabala Books (Various).

Mascara readers may be particularly interested in chapter 3, which examines Jong Ah Sing’s The Case. Farrell writes against other critics, who ‘in demonstrating their concern with The Case’s biographical and historical significance, largely treat its poetics as a barrier to truth and usefulness, rather than as a contribution to a remarkable assemblage of a new kind of English, and of a new kind of poetic text’ (66). Instead Farrell makes the compelling claim that the poetics of Sing’s work are important in and of themself and ‘how Jong’s inventive practice unsettles notions of Australian writing’ (67). It is one text I would like to seek out for myself, particularly for its visually arresting style that Farrell discusses.

Settlement as a word has currency in academic debates now, but the elasticity of its deployment in this work, undermines a politically astute and historically attentive reading. You can’t build an empire on sand, but nor can you build a humpy on water (see 157). Notwithstanding its problems, Writing Australian Unsettlement, is a major intervention in the dialectic of un/settlement and makes for entertaining and challenging reading. It is necessary for those with an interest in Australia, avant garde reading techniques, colonialism and poetry.
ROBERT WOOD has published work in Southerly, Overland, Plumwood Mountain and a variety of academic journals. He is currently completing a PhD at UWA and is a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly. His next book, heart-teeth light-bitten crownland, is due out from Electio Editions later this year.