Liam Ferney: Boom

Wollongong: Grand Parade Poets, 2013, 82pp.

The best overall description of the central quality of Liam Ferney’s second book, Boom (his first, Popular Mechanics, was published in 2004) might well lie in the last sentence of this book’s “About the Author” note where it says, “His passion is life”. It would be hard to disagree based on the poems themselves. The tone of voice is intense, insistent and, on first acquaintance at least, gives the impression of very little tonal modulation, almost as though the poems were conceived with one eye firmly on how they would perform when read. But the energy that sustains them undoubtedly comes from the material, a passionate engagement with life itself. The issue, of course, is “Which life?” since we all live multiple lives: physical, social, cultural, intellectual, creative (let alone the issues when life is considered apart from the individual – evolution, biology, cosmic life).

One’s first impression is that the dominant kind of life which the poems of Boom are interested in is cultural life. They are enmeshed in popular culture in a series of different ways. It’s no accident that they begin in Korea during the 2002 World Cup (football) and finish on a train in China at the time of the Beijing Olympics of 2008 though, as I’ll explore later, there are other significances to this patterning. The way Ferney’s poems operate is always to bring cultural references into a poem by way of simile so that connections in cultural life are being continuously made and the ambit of the poem is being continuously opened to these aspects of the world. Ferney’s similes are a long way from the po-faced “explanation-theory” of traditional rhetoric and they serve to shake the poems out of the cosy set of references that the subjects might come with and into new, equally meaningful contexts.

This all sounds very abstract so some examples will make things clearer. “Push Kick Dreaming” is a poem from late in the book:

From Old St. to doorway
in a fug of hip hop and
hacked morning smoke.
The two goons fumbled
with a pane of oval glass.
Their half-furnished office,
as empty as the new divorcée’s
social coterie; and for an instant
I am Daewon Song meets
Jackie Chan chase cliché
360Ëš flipping to manual
a miraculous obstacle
dodge before the tepid
consolation of burnt milk
in a tube station latté.

I think this is a rather marvellous little poem. It belongs to a small group in Boom which lean towards the lyric in that it captures a single moment in a fluid, fairly unified, three-sentence syntactic gesture. Often Ferney’s poems are staccato utterances but here there is a fair degree of elegance. And the poem, of course, celebrates a moment of elegance, of skilfully dodging two workmen suddenly struggling with a pane of glass. We might have expected that the poet would say that he had discovered something like his inner Dennis Bergkamp (or, more likely, his inner Zlatan Ibrahimovitch) but the comparison is with skateboarding and movie chases: both Asian. Against this, at the cultural, imaginative level, is the fact that the half-empty office for which the glass is destined is compared to the social circle of a newly divorced woman, all done in language whose connotations are French. The title is a martial arts manoeuvre in an Australian Aboriginal structure and the setting is London’s Liverpool St tube station. In other words, the poem is centrifugal at its core, closing down on a single revelatory (and suitably humble) experience while at the referential level opening out into a very wide set of imaginative references. At least, very wide on a cultural level.

All of this inclines a reader towards seeing Ferney’s poems as being essentially “about” cultural immersion. They are, in this view, not so much surrealist as realist representations of the processes of experience (ie of life) focussing on the way culture provides us with a set of references for experience and even how contemporary popular culture bombards us with such references at a pace and density that other centuries never knew. Another poem in which the similes connect us to popular culture is “AM”. It too might well be, at heart, an autobiographically based lyric dealing with a relationship’s breakdown though the evidence that this is the direction a reading should take is, characteristically, expressed as a popular song, “Breaking up is hard to do”. At the centre of the poem – a poet’s moment of lament for the limited way he has approached experience – we’re told, “i’ve tackled this world like a hapless defender / wrongfooted by chicka ferguson // his emerald raiders pomp”, an invocation of a definitively eighties footballer.

Also on the issue of similes and cultural reference there is the first poem in the book, “Think Act”:

Still a prima donna maradona soars
the hand of god seems as unlikely as hess
the sick swan descends sans plan and
it’s easy to get marooned behind the lines
say goodnight to itaewon’s bum fluff gis
tumble down hooker hill bright lights fried mandu
wankered in a cab through the window
the mantra of apartments and pork signs
across the han seoul is cyberpunk memories
in the fugitive drizzle a thoroughbred gallops
across the cabbie’s fake timber dash
. . . 
at home on the telly Korean newlyweds
roadtripping through the alice a eurobeat
skinny tie b-grade with ponytail
a getaway in a stolen souped-up xu-1
that was the eighties nobody stayed for the dailies

My reading of this – not entirely confident – is that the style of the Korea of Ferney’s time there (2002) is being seen as an embalmed version of the eighties in the western world. The Maradona reference is to the great footballer’s hand-balled goal in Argentina’s match against England in the Mexico World Cup of 1986, a metonymic symbol of the eighties on many possible levels. I’m not sure about the reference to “hess”. At all points before writing this I assumed it was a reference to Rudolph Hess who, famously, flew to England in 1941 to try to broker a peace between Germany and England. I had intended to go on to speak about the way in which the centripetal drive of the similes takes the poem out of its decade into the forties. Now I am nervous that everybody might start telling me that there was an eighties band called Hess or that it might be an acronym for a government department or industrial process (Ferney’s references are full of acronyms). On the other hand, Spandau Ballet – named after the prison where Hess served his life sentence – is, of course, a famous eighties band.

What intrigues me about this poem, and Boom in general, is its underlying autobiography or, rather, the nature of its underlying autobiography. These poems aren’t just about registering the experience of cultural immersion, they also want to stand outside the flood and observe and comment about what is happening. The comparison of Korea with the west in the eighties, for example, is an objective observation. It also has an autobiographical basis in that, because he was born in 1979, the eighties are the first decade that Ferney could be said to be a participant in. And so to say that contemporary Korea can give you a sense of what the eighties were like is also to say that by going there you can relive and evaluate your cultural past (as though someone like myself could experience the fifties with an adult’s intelligence and perception).

Compulsive simile-making (a key feature of the style) is a way of bringing popular culture to bear in these poems but it also has, inevitably, a throw-away quality – there simply isn’t time to explore exactly the relationship between, say, traffic chaos in Hong Kong and “half / tracked leggies // dispatched / to the / outfield”. Just as “Think Act” is built around a more detailed comparison, “Farewell Dick Whittington” is built on a comparison between the Pakistan cricketer Inzamam ul Haq (brilliantly described as “the Oliver Hardy Bradman”) and Ferney himself. It’s a comic comparison rather than an act of inflation. I read it to be, structurally, an expansion of a typically Ferney image, something like, “Ultimately a failure I return home like Inzamam ul Haq trudging back to the pavilion”, but it might also derive from the observation that these occurred at the same time, “Inzy and I take our bows: different stages, same week”.

Once you begin to look for it, you realise that this book is full of judgements about contemporary life that require something more distanced than the registration of immersion – of seeing your life, as one poem says, as “your own cinéma vérité soap opera”. The sequence “Millenium Redux Lite” is an example. And it has a conclusion in which Ferney is distanced to the point where he can observe and evaluate himself:

. . . . . 
who says the naughties cant be fun
just get the rules down:
it’s mob life
once you’re in the pocket
you  pay

i float off
into the universe
a sceptical astronaut
only ever in it for the uniform.

Obviously I am reading this fairly “straight” as having the same kind of reasonably uncomplicated presentation of the self as a lyrical poem like “Push Kick Dreaming”. There’s a fruitful tension between a poet’s judgement on the vapidity of the modern world, a time when “a million ipod headphones bloom” and the energising quality that comes from being as au fait with its rules, references and languages as Ferney is. This leads to a tone of excitement that is, simultaneously, contemptuous. Again, the move towards reading these poems more autobiographically leads one to think that the soured view of much of the contemporary cultural context is often a kind of imposition of personal disappointment. Things obviously go wrong in Korea, for example, and two poems, “Seoul Survivor” and “Expecting Turbulence” reflect this, the former beginning “my saison en enfer & get rich schemes / evaporate like colonial best intentions / or foraging all over town for vegemite”.

Some poems and poetic modes in Boom do force the reader to resist the temptation to read them in this conventionally “lyric” way. “The September Project”, “Andy Hardy goes to College” (a sestina), “That Thin Mercury Sound”, “Bad News for Good People” and “Frontier Lands” are a group of long poems which appear close to each other. Some of them have underlying fictional narratives. “Frontier Lands” is a collection of five poems which, though given the titles of recognisable Westerns, display a surreal mode that is hard to describe with any confidence. The second, for example, begins:

the trickster / form guide believer / takes counsel from his viziers /
born to circumstances king tide / no parade of elephants /
can ease the emptiness within / what is now amiss / that Caesar and his senate
must redress / scorned benefactors / the fourth string donkey work toiler /
the great unbequeathed / dazzle drunk on topaz mosaics . . . . .

The best I can do with poems like these is look for those processes of suggestion and transformation that many surrealist poems are obsessed by. Doing that you could see how “believer” might (just) suggest “vizier” (through some connotation of ancient history) which would in turn suggest “king” which would, in turn, produce “tide”, and so on. But it’s a reading practice I wouldn’t want to place much reliance on here. “That Thin Mercury Sound”, on the other hand, exploits grammatical ambiguities in a way that recalls John Forbes. In this poem almost every verb can be read as a noun so that the opening line, “after the fire escapes and the security guards”, invites, if only momentarily, a completely different reading to the obvious one.

But, for the rest of the book, the autobiographical element is very strong. The first poem, which I have already quoted from, is set in Korea and the last is set on a train in China in 2008. Significantly, the key fact is one of motion. In “Think Act” Ferney makes his observations about Korea from inside a taxi and in “K61: Beijing – Kunming” he is in motion in a train. The arc of narrative between these two poems is also the arc of his own life in the “noughties” and the final poem gives the places and dates of composition (“Hanam-si – West End – Brixton – Da Gindi: 2002-2008”) in a way which is conventional but here, especially meaningful. As in the first line of this poem. Whereas there is quite a complex variation in the book between first, second and third person stances (and a fuller analysis of how these poems are often simultaneously immersion and distanced judgement would have to come to grips with this), this last poem is a letter beginning, “dear paul: my itinerary is still being scripted”. A poem from Popular Mechanics concludes:

         i write in a flux
but to my justification

these things, like everything else,
happen very quickly.

A passion for life is a passion for a bewilderingly fast and fast-changing process.