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Review of Joseph Farley’s Suckers by Charles Ries

I wondered as I read Joseph Farley’s spare, plain spoken poems that have a haiku-feel to them, if environment dictated his migration toward poetry which his friend, mentor and well known small press poet Louis McKee characterized as “tight, disciplined lines, conversation, colloquial diction, and soft touch.”

I wondered if the challenges of being both a publisher and a writer doesn’t force one to compress language mirroring the compressed time one has to write. Farley’s skill at writing so sparingly is seen in nearly every poem of this collection, such as “Circles”: “I never could stand / for hours / watching a toy train / run in circles / the way my father could. / I always needed / a destination, couldn’t sit / a lifetime / in one place / calmly laying track.”

I asked Louis McKee about the dilemma his friend faced being both a writer and a publisher and he told me, “Joe is one of those people with a busy life, and the addition of publisher makes his schedule all the more hectic. The result is that Joe has too little time, and gives too little attention, to his own writing. Had he dedicated every moment to getting his own poetry out there, instead of fostering the work of so many others, me included, his selfishness would have been understood, and his mark greater and more greatly appreciated”.

Farley is the editor of Cynic Press which publishes Axe Factory Review, Low Budget Science Fiction, Low Budget Adventure Stories, Cynic Book Review, Vomit, and Holy Rollers as well as books by poets such as Louis McKee, Xu Juan, Joseph Banford, and others. I wondered what drove Farley’s style and he told me, “I am fascinated by traditional Asian forms. English language imitations often miss the complicated metrical and rhyme patterns in Asian poems, especially in Chinese poems where tones are supposed to match or repeat in a certain manner. As a non-tonal language, the best I’ve been able to come up with in English is striving for repetition, when possible of a consonant pattern with near matches permissible and occasional rhymes, off rhymes, and near rhymes thrown in, but I never let ideas of form get in the way of what needs to be said. I’ll sacrifice the anticipated pattern for an emotional, comic or philosophical riff. I’m attracted to form, but don’t want to become trapped in it. I also think about the visual sense of a poem, how it looks on a page. Prayer and chanting fascinated me as a child. Some of this incantation quality rubs off on my writing. Cummings, Bukowski, Lowell, Roethke, Etheridge Knight, Verlaine, Mallarme, O’Hara, Williams, and Levertov have all been liberating influences in one way or another. Louis Mckee is responsible for holding my feet to the fire, and forcing myself to ask the question, Is this good enough yet?”

McKee, who met Farley as a student in his high school, also got Farley started as a publisher. Their first collaboration was Axe Factory. Farley says, “I was sort of conned into doing Axe Factory by Louis McKee when I was an impressionable youth. He bailed out after three issues. Being a creature of habit, I continued. McKee was a teacher at my high school and gave me the poetry and editing bug. Before I met him, my main interest/desire was to write science fiction, fantasy and possibly pornography. He thought I had more talent as a poet, so I blame him for corrupting me.”

And here is what McKee says of his friend’s work, “What I like about Joe Farley’s poetry is how disarming it is. It is smart, but at first taste you might not think so. He will write directly (or so it seems) about the commonplace, the everyday. He’ll do it casually, and in a colloquial voice. And then your eye trips over a word or phrase, or you see something from the corner of your eye, and suddenly the poem seems not so casual, so ordinary. Farley is concise, and precise, and clear. And clever, fun to read. His best poems are those which deal with the personal—often sad and uncomfortable moments brought into another light, one that can glimpse the world in a grain of sand (if you excuse the stolen image). His social and political poems come with a healthy cynicism, and that same wry humor that strips the discomfort off the personal. It is, I guess, this “voice” that I think makes Farley’s poems such a pleasure to read.”

Here is another example of Farley’s precise writing, “Supplicant”: “the emperor / walks / in the surf, / pant legs / rolled-up / toes digging / in the sand // a small crab dances sideways / away from a wave // the emperor / wipes / his glasses / stares / at tiny / legs / on the empty / bench.” Many of his poems leave, and are intended to leave, the reader suspended in image—a weightless feeling that is numinous. He has taken narrative poetry, stripped it down, kept its story line, and filled it with white space. These are effortless and relaxing poems to read. Again, in “Portrait”: “When the time came / to paint her portrait, / we opted for a nude. / The artist started with her ass / and spent a year there, / then six months / on each leg. / The breasts took a decade. / And the face? / He says he’s / coming to that / real soon.”

Farley again and again, shows masterful restraint. One can follow the theme, find its center and softly land with the aid of only a few words. As in “Suckers”: “catfish fed / under the waterfall / glued to the green / stone dam // how many years / since I’ve seen anyone / catch a fish here? // the rapids froth / with detergent; / the factories upstream / look the other way” And again in his wonderful poem “Pussy”: “An iris / in full blossom, / a split peach, / a pomegranate / eaten from / the center out. // Few things taste / as sweet on the tongue, / few words sound / as fluid. // She followed me home. Can I keep her?” Just a great, great piece of writing.

I admired the spare, quiet insight I found in Suckers and the remarkable skill that it took for Farley to whittle these poems down to nothing but their soul.

Cynic Press
P.O. Box 40691
Philadelphia, PA 19107
ISBN 0-9673401-4-4
Paper, 116 pages
Price: $10.00

First published in Free Verse.

View bio for Charles Ries Published in Spring and Summer 2005

About HDM

Half Drunk Muse was one of the first poetry ezines. It was founded in 1999 and ceased publication in 2006.

Questions/comments? Email samiller@halfdrunkmuse.com.