Reviewed: Googlecholia, Michael Farrell, Giramondo
In the 1990s the artist Janet Zweig made a series of sculptures out of rather rudimentary machines: small computers were fed little bits of data, which was then printed out as text on long sheets of paper. In one work the computer randomly generated sentences made from ‘I think therefore I am’ (Descartes), ‘I am what I am’ (Popeye), and ‘I think I can’ (‘The Little Engine That Could’). Another comprises two computers on wheels, joined with the same piece of continuous form paper. The machines print out questions to each other, followed by answers. With each printed line, the paper-length between them diminishes. In the artist statement, Zweig writes: ‘They begin 25 feet apart; after four hours, they crash into each other.’ A kiss, perhaps.
This zany setup recalls the premise of Michael Farrell’s newest volume of poetry, Googlecholia. The poet sits at his computer and plays with the ‘many-armed search engine, Google represents both the boundless realms of the Internet and the reductive image of knowledge that we hold in our heads.’ This push-pull workout suggests a kind of delicious feedback loop; Farrell’s poems are about crashing into yourself and your own tastes again and again. One poem, ‘Enterprise’, turns about in the manner of Zweig’s computers—cultural capital is received and exchanged, eventually crashing in on itself in a passionate exercise:
Bought a sick poddy, nursed it till well to sell
then bought Don Quixote
Bought a torn, buttonless jacket. Mended, sold
bought The Tree of Man
Bought a rungless ladder and repaired and sold
it, bought A Room of One’s Own.
What is so titillating about the inbox, the timeline, the browser? It is not so much the interface(s) in and of itself, but the way it refers precisely to that which exists outside of it. There is a profusion of everything: we must look at it and keep looking, whether it delights or horrifies.
Books—as well as paintings, films, strains of music, old leaves—get folded in amongst the one-handed card-shuffle of the search engine’s infinite scroll. What we desire is always on that ungraced, unclicked, second page of Google search results.
For Farrell this way of being in the world leans towards a feeling of exhilaration just as it tilts towards agony. ‘Googlecholia’ refers to the various feelings associated with being online: which in the book’s blurb is described as reflecting ‘pleasure, satisfaction, joy, melancholy, anxiety, schadenfreude, boredom, nausea’. Yet Farrell’s book is not quite a ‘bestiary of affects’, as Sianne Ngai calls it in Ugly Feelings. Categorically, though, ‘Googlecholia’’s near cousin is Ngai’s ‘stuplimity’—the dysphoric convergence of shock and boredom; Farrell’s poetic project is far more invested in the pleasures of soft discovery than rigid definition. But this is not a gimmicky book ‘about the internet’ either. Rather, Farrell lifts the concept of the fervently clicking internet ‘searcher’ and recalibrates it so we experience a kind of drift mode.
Moving around online can only simulate the ways in which Farrell moves around his poetic subjects. For him, this is a rambling flâneurie more than a frenzied clicking spree, as the poet and speaker drift— to borrow from Guy Debord’s conception of the dérive—with a ‘technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances’. References abound in Googlecholia, each pulling with it a different mood. Writers, artists, and musicians work their way into the poems, mingling dreamily in stanzaic pairs and groupings: Gerald Murnane and Hot Chocolate in ‘Advantages of Stopovers’; Walter Benjamin, Usain Bolt, and Madonna in ‘Arcades Project.’ Titles include ‘Arthur Boyd Has Pink Teeth’ and ‘Where Her Refers to Lydia Davis Or Proust.’ One cannot help but be reminded of Frank O’Hara’s jubilant ‘Lana Turner has collapsed!’ or ‘On Seeing Larry Rivers’ “Washington Crossing the Delaware” at the Museum of Modern Art’.
Like O’Hara’s work, these gestures are as much an exercise in self-portraiture as they are an invitation for the reader to participate in the text through recognition and delight. We are given a password that unlocks Farrell’s world: the tricky invitation to explore a sort of reconciliation with the Google-mania such cross-referencing may induce.
That said, having many of these poems being built out of references and associations is no sign of a slack playfulness on Farrell’s part; it’s not ‘asemic’ by any means. They cut close in on uncomfortable, tender feelings before skipping artfully away. They are scribbly: poems that share a handmade complexity with the poet’s collages, which he regularly photographs and posts online. These faux-naïve artworks share a similar language to the poems—clichés and citations become bendy materials, the tongue-in-cheek rearranges itself from swiftly punning on the book titles of Christina Stead (‘Unread… Unwritten’), to spitting in the ‘keyhole to the past’ (‘In The Year Of Our Modernism 1922’).
Like many of the poems in Googlecholia, there are love letters to literature and pop songs threaded through that pushes the book toward an earnestness. Yet a quick-wittedness shrug-of-the-shoulder attitude is retained. Despite its stingy bitterness, ‘Enterprise’ still blows kisses to Farrell’s very first search engine, books:
Began a fashion line based on Don Quixote
enacted narratives I’d read: that is
The eight or so books, as if plays; had affairs
with all the actors
Learned about their body parts, some detach-
able all marketable
It’s reminiscent of these closing lines from O’Hara’s ‘A Step Away from Them’:
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
And so it is: Michael Farrell keeps a lot of books in his heart pocket, pulling them out, playing Google with us all.