Liam Ferney: Content

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”.

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 divorcee’s
social coterie; and for an instant
I am Daewon Song meets
Jackie Chan chase cliche
360 flipping to manual
a miraculous obstacle
dodge before the tepid
consolation of burnt milk
in a tube station latte.

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 cinema verite 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.