Santa[sic] Lucia: Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, 2016, 87pp.
This impressive and engaging collection continues in the vein of Liam Ferney’s previous book, Boom. We experience the same immersion in the complex allusions, codes and structures of contemporary popular culture while at the same time registering a kind of distance from it. For a temperamentally late-adopting, island-dwelling recluse like myself it all constitutes a bit of an education and I’m aware of the irony that it is the technology which usually disseminates this culture that also makes it possible, by reading Boom and Content with your Google page ready for action, to make sense of the references. I now know at least the basic information about subjects like John Hughes, Insane Wolf, The Gentleman’s Jolly; I even know what a fixie and a noseflip is.
Ferney is often seen as the kind of poet we go to for an experience of cultural immediacy, an immersion in the ever-changing world of fads, fashions and acronyms. Although his work is very different to that of, say, Pam Brown, Laurie Duggan and the ever-influential John Forbes, it can, clumsily, be pigeonholed as belonging to an approach to existence which won’t accept that poetry’s essential interest is in the deep, personal experiences (birth, love, death and things in between) which are inflected, but never radically altered, by whatever cultural milieu (or, for that matter, language) the poet happens to have been born into. The life experiences, in other words, which don’t have brand names. But pigeonholing like this always seems to finish up obscuring more than it reveals. Ferney’s poetry has its own issues, tensions and dynamics, and they need to be looked at.
It seems to me that it’s a poetry pulled in three directions and it’s the pull that tensions the best of the poems. The first is towards immersion. Contemporary and “popular” culture provides almost all of the references, habitually in Ferney’s poetry, in a web of similes: where else could familiarity be likened to “the Freo Doctor / pushing DK through the final overs of a WACA belter” or a poem’s shapely conclusion be likened to “Senna’s // deadly speed”? Take “National History”, for example:
The port haze wheezes on the harbour & the oil tanker of regret Demtel demo’s dugongs when the propellers fire up & someone’s fiance flees for the fertile fjord of shittheyjustmadeup. Fisheyed noseflips & manual pads might’ve powered an early nineties skinny board tech sesh, but post-millennial they smell fear. Time to resurrect your boombox; go Jamie Thomas rawlarge / Iron Maiden style.
It’s in two balanced parts, the first is devoted to the present and the second to the past. The present is made up of related maritime images: typical of Ferney’s references he uses a neologism from commercial television – “Demtel demo’s” – for “slices-up”. The second stanza is built on decade-specific fads like skateboarding. The recommendation, surely ironic, is to retreat to the end of the last millennium, the time of skateboards, Iron Maiden and ghettoblasters.
And it’s no accident that this should be a poem which is, in a larger sense, about time (or Time), that great subject of Australian poetry in the immediate pre- and post-war periods, now long disappeared into the past. Here time is conceived as cultural time, its markers being changes in fashion. To be immersed in contemporary culture is, in other words, to experience a situation which is far from that of a kind of timeless continuous present. It is, on the contrary, to be obsessed by time because one is surrounded by rapidly changing markers of the passage of time. We can see something of this in a poem called “Date Night” where the protagonist (a bit like Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam) tries on – immerses himself in – the cool postures of post war cinema finding out that, for it to work, you have to be equipped with a scriptwriter completely in tune with the rapidly changing tastes of the audience:
. . . . . And these things don’t ever come good. Not unless you’ve got a scriptwriter blessed with a golden Remington and an almanac detailing exactly what next month’s popcorn guzzlers want in the Friday night makeout slot. And even if I was still there at the end the Forties were all over and the Fifties were yet to begin.
This poem is preceded in Content by “. . . of the Dead” another poem which is, in its way, about immersion. The poem attaches itself to Shaun of the Dead a film which asks to be read as a funny, profoundly hostile and canny critique of aspects of contemporary popular culture while being made in one of that culture’s topical genres. Here the speaker is a member of the inevitable living dead, shuffling along, waiting
while the eye-patched holdouts broadcast in some Krushchev-era bunker it happened so quickly: no d-day all Dunkirk
This is a sort of immersion that introduces a second drive within Ferney’s poetry: that of a desire to find a position in the contemporary world from which to critique that world. In my reading of “ . . . of the Dead” the poem piggy-backs the film’s comment – dangerous to endorse too overtly – that the “public” are no more than living dead, mindless absorbers of the material foisted on them by the controllers of cultural life. In other words it belongs to that element of Ferney which is aggressively positioned against the stuff that bombards our existence. If that means turning him into a contemporary Savonarola there is the evidence of an earlier poem from the book, “Fal0 delle vanita ”, which suggests that it’s a comparison he may have pursued himself though, despite the fact that the poem has plenty of references to rapid changes of taste (“Our dictionary is out-of-date. / The word coined by last autumn’s meme / highlighting its redundancy”), it is also, I think, an attempt at a personal poem and there is never much use for the personal in the pronouncements of Savonarolas.
At any rate there is a great deal of the judgemental in Ferney’s poetry and this is an area where the poetry gets put under a lot of pressure. Immersion in the contemporary always has a kind of poetic life because of the sheer novelty of previously unheard brand names and inventive hipster argot. But judgment is pulled towards the familiar tones of parents and Old Testament prophets. And there are plenty of quotable examples in Content: “Lonesome Death” begins with “We have been unable / to master // the ethics of war”, “Mugabe” contains the lines “We have traded greatness for convenience, / our atrocities are those of acquiescence” and the book’s first poem says openly “Isn’t it enough that we have already / diminished ourselves?” Of course it’s possible that this tone is to be imagined as being in quote marks, a repetition and brief, theatrical inhabiting of a common tone. It’s even possible to defend it as being ironized: part of the contemporary “system” is a space given to cliched and impotent attacks on that system. But I think that would be drawing far too long a bow. Instead, it might be better to acknowledge that there is a Savonarola lurking inside Ferney and that the anger animates many of the poems while at the same time producing a lot of poetic challenges.
Evidence for this might include the fact that the first and last poems of Content – the frames or bookends – are overtly angry poems. “When God Dies” takes on Queensland’s appalling public media:
So let’s get this straight: we don’t do state funerals - but what we do do is tabloid extravaganzas starring Valmae Beck? . . .
The poem imagines a film built out of filmland aliases (George Eastman, “Polanski, / an Alan Smithee stand in / for Joe D’Amato”) in which Godard’s Anna Karina “Goes under the axe blade in this / sub B-Grade faux-Bergman B&W shocker”. All of this is a complex take on the mechanisms of B-Grade culture but the poem finishes in the poet’s own voice (though the initial metaphor comes from the B-Grade examples of a different genre):
& I stick to my guns because the newspapers in this town only report reliably on gossip, slander & opinion.
The final poem, “The Comments”, whose title must be derived from the usually bigoted and often delusional comments that readers add in the space under journalists’ accounts (as a devoted follower of the EPL and a reader online of English sports journalists’ analyses of its matches, haud inexpertus loquor) is an openly angry piece which does summarise much of the book’s material:
Forget everything you know. Or don’t: haunt your secularism, & define yourself by the memes you like. Abandon all coherence as long as you balance that marble between outrage & having no skin in the game. We have never had so much data, so many stages to rehearse the sound & the fury & that’s why my poems let me say what Insanity Wolf won’t. Nice Guy Greg tells you It’s all Brady Bunch in the end - but it’s not It’s Ted Bundy rampaging through a Florida dormitory. Marcia, Marcia, massacre. Even a tree branch mince’s meat. Don’t look surprised - you fucking deserved it.
That’s quite a tour de force and, like all such, takes a lot of risks. Again, although it could be surrounded by all sorts of protective shells (it’s ironized, it’s a dramatic monologue, etc), I think it is the purest expression in Content of the Savonarola side of Ferney and, significantly, that is the one he wants to leave readers with. It also reminds us that he wants the title of the book to be stressed on the first not the second syllable. And, poetically, it seems a success to me, not least because its mode is so difficult in poetic terms, far more difficult than to invent a poetry driven by immersion in the contemporary.
If immersion and anger are two components of Ferney’s poetry, the third is the autobiographical. They come together in those poems which see him in his role as a public affairs consultant irritated by the difference between real reporting and “press release journalism”. You get a sense of it in the second poem of the book, “Monsoon Season”:
. . . . . instead there are crickets & cigarette filters even though I quit smoking before Christmas & I never learnt to play the guitar & if there’s no time for an obituary stick to a hot issues brief to cut through the Boss’s clutter & make sure the hagiography is on message ready to be spliced up for some news director’s jollies so when the cycle rolls over in the morning the frumpy bloggers know exactly where you stand
Although in conventional lyric poetry (built on the idea, as I have said, of “universal” experiences) autobiography is a normal mode, in poetry such as Ferney’s, it is something poetically difficult to do well. As anger is. Forbes is a model here though one is never sure whether the brief glimpses of feelings and personal experience which his poems contain are strong spots or weak ones. Connected to the autobiographical is poetry itself since the most significant part of a poet’s life is his or her poetry. There is a strong tendency in Forbes (and in Ferney) for poetry as an art to be one solid “universal” phenomenon that can act as an anchor point in a world-view which is usually anxious to show that such anchors are a mere chimera. Forbes’s “Sydney Harbour Considered as a Matisse”, listing the features of contemporary life, “girls reduced to tears just once, blokes in // sports cars fuming, their parasite careers . . .”, ends memorably
Can art be good enough to save all this, plus perfume of frangipani blooms crushed on sandstone piers? Maybe just.
And you feel the same drive in Ferney’s poetry. “Old Physics” begins with a description of the way quantum mechanics (“the chancers // played dice / at the deity’s funeral”) replaced the previous model, interestingly metaphorised as “carvery classics, // dim sims, Chiko rolls, // potato scallops and / chips gold as glory”. But the poem’s real interest is in how any physics can be used to describe poetry, though the metaphor used for poetry itself is one derived from mechanics:
How do you use physics to explain a poem? A hardly measurable deceleration into a corner the slingshot setup for a home straight with all of Senna’s deadly speed . . .
To me all of these issues: immersion, judgement and autobiography (with a poet’s art being one of its crucial components) are riddled with interesting problems. It’s fascinating to see Ferney navigating between them as well as making a high percentage of satisfying poems in the process of doing so. One of Ferney’s poems in Boom had a fine description of its author as “a sceptical astronaut”: “Two Zone Weekly” from Content finishes with a description of the poet and a fellow passenger on a city council bus (the latter reading a “phonebook-thick teen vampire love novel): “we are both of us shucking oysters / diving blindly for pearls”.