Liam Ferney: Hot Take

Santa[sic] Lucia: Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, 2018, 76pp.

Reviewing Liam Ferney’s previous book, Content, I said that it seemed made up of poems which spoke of immersion in popular culture tensioned by a Savonarola-like loathing of the trivialities of public life. There was also a third element, a kind of autobiographical thread which allowed readers glimpses of a professional life spent as a public affairs consultant. Hot Take points in the same three directions although there are significant developments.

Those for whom Hot Take is their first experience of Ferney’s poetry may find aspects of it initially alarming. For all that it is so impressively au fait with contemporary life and its idioms it never, poetically, acts as mere comment. The poems’ structures are much more sophisticated and though John Forbes is often cited as a precursor, there are vast differences of tone and manner between the two (despite a group of references to Forbes and to the poetry of his greatly admired Frank O’Hara). And the distinctive style can’t be swept under the carpet of a loosely woven idea of surrealism. It’s the balance of (and tension between) the three elements that prevents the poetry being mere hipsterism, mere sneering at contemporary mores or mere autobiography.

One of Ferney’s most common ploys is to begin with a grand simile which ropes an item from popular culture into a context where you might not expect to find it. Thus “Requiem” begins, “a sock falls from the line / like the market / responding to rumours of Grexit . . .” The aim I think isn’t entirely to be “shocking” or even surprising, more to begin the poem by widening the possibilities for imaginative co-options. “Herrera” begins with the experience of driving through a traffic jam along Brisbane’s Riverside Expressway and begins, in both title and first lines, with football references:

We unpick the world’s catenaccio,
a Pirlo in an actual traffic jam . . .

You have to know of midfielders Ander Herrera and (the recently retired) Andrea Pirlo of course to make much sense of this initial gambit and this relates to an important issue in the “cultural immersion” dimension of Ferney’s poetry. Although contemporary popular culture is a medium in which are all, willy nilly, immersed, it is also a very spotty set of competencies. True, we have the sense that a certain generation in a certain geographical setting will share a lot of likes and interests but being an amateur expert in, say, underground Brisbane bands isn’t going to imply a similar competency with the bands of Sydney, Montreal or Berlin. I have no trouble at all with Ferney’s football references – Pirlo, catenaccio and Herrera; the Red and Black Bloc, the Blades and Addicks, and Berisha, or with the references to cricket’s Jack Iverson – but I’m lost with Peaches Geldof and the innumerable financial acronyms. I even had to look up the meaning of the book’s title. Popular culture is also transient with a vengeance, moving out of focus as quickly as it is grasped: one shudders to think of the amount of research and the volume of the footnotes that any number of breezy invocations of items of contemporary culture are going to need in anthologies a few years from now. This rapidity of change may be what “Threesome” is getting at when it says, “At the time it seemed like our time / had come but it was past before / anyone had tweeted about it”.

None of this grumbling is in any way an indictment of Ferney’s poetry which isn’t a celebration of popular culture or a polemical attack on lyric poetry’s attempt to rise above it while aiming at the “universal”. I read it as an attempt to broaden imaginative possibilities by co-opting references to make surprising conjunctions. And “Herrera”, for example, turns into quite a complex meditation which has, at its heart, the defence-splitting pass as a symbol of an elegant solution to barriers rather than a violent crashing through:

. . . . .
The pass weighted like a gull rising
on a sea breeze liberates us or
bars us from the skin of our soundtrack.
This is the threat of our days
in the middle of the beginning of the end.

He refuses fate;
our trucks make the night’s last delivery
in the deserted streets of the industrial estate.

It’s a complex and fascinating poem which begins by contrasting the traffic jam close to the centre of the city with the less “real” more “virtual” world of outer suburbs dependent (as I read it) on credit, the most virtual form of wealth. At the centre the poem asks, “Does anything actually prove our bona fides / in streets we have walked forever?” – a reference to the odd feeling of unreality that the contemporary world of identity and credit checks involves.

That these issues arrive “in the middle of the beginning of the end” chimes with an apocalyptic element that is more pronounced in Hot Take than in the earlier books. And throughout the book there is an interest in beginnings, endings and renewals applied to public and private life. They can be read both ways: the individual’s life reflects the wider crises, but an individual suffering personal pains can also, in the style of the “sympathetic fallacy” upload these into cosmic significances.

The very first poem, “(Happy) Endings”, announces the theme of endings and seems to follow it through at a personal rather than macro level:

what god gives on the day after the end
we mistook for a beginning

. . . . .

this time things will be different
a sportswriter’s breastplate for the world’s keen spears

                          & if we lose our friends
                          we’ll find them before we leave . . .

This adopts the tactic of squaring one’s shoulders and pushing on – and there is a good deal of the desire to tough things out in the book as a whole. “Aspirin: Take 12” is a bit of an assault on the role of pop music as a bland raiser of enthusiasm – “Take the Last Train to Parksville / all the way to poptimism, / everything will be all right / just sing this little song”. “Baguettes at the End of Days” has a title which evokes the apocalyptic and a content which raises the mysteries of contemporary existence – Peaches Geldof died twenty years to the day after Habyarimana and high tech searches can’t find the black boxes of lost airliners – but it finishes with the poet himself:

So I write poems about it
waiting for the butter to soften
& eat my breakfast at the end
of the world we built for ourselves.

The fatalistic but not necessarily entirely negative position of the individual is given at the end of “Greenslopes in March” where he is described as someone who has discovered “that if you dial up the moon and stare down the barrels / any great adventure can be tapped”.

But seen only from a non-personal perspective, history, especially the history of the future, doesn’t look too promising. “Notice to Remedy Breach” finishes with the human race as doubtfully legitimate occupiers of the planet  – “Too smart by half / we’re just squatters / Gaia waits patiently to evict” – and “I Like You But the John Locke Fan Club Can Get Fucked”, thinking about the behaviour of some football fans, says, “We’re all dickheads: it’s relative”. Another image for contemporary history is the crash. “Hungry Wolves” begins with a reference to the Dreamworld tragedy and “#sotheresthat” – admittedly a more personal poem – argues that although crashes seem sudden, there is usually a period before them in which they could have been predicted if we weren’t so keen on turning our eyes away from reality:

        And like a car accident it
doesn’t quite come out of the blue.
There are the long seconds before impact,
learning for the first time the wonder
of spring dawn malicking your new hair;
a tender moment wrapped around a grey gum.

“You Used to Laugh About” is also a poem finishing with a crash. The fact that the speedo is “jerry rigged to blow” suggests that it is referencing Speed but the rest of the poem seems to be more about a personal “crash” than an apocalypse:

. . . . .
        Nothing is a simple as
an aeroplane appears;
but if we get out in front of the story
         we’ll be better prepared when
we’re steamrolled by the heart’s highjacked bus . . .

I’m not entirely sure how we can get out in front of the story although undoubtedly “in front of” refers to placement rather than time.

I said earlier that this is a book interested in beginnings and ends – as well as the middles in the middle. It’s just possible that Shakespeare’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” acts as a kind of Jacobsonian generative text at the core of the book. It is quoted in “Modern Love” – “Tomorrow, & tomorrow, & tomorrow / are as faraway / as yesterday, & yesterday, & the Friday before” – and alluded to in “Leave” – “All our Armageddons”. It makes a good key text because in Macbeth the despair it expresses is both a response to objective reality and an expression of an individual’s depression which renders the entire world blank and meaningless.

All of this description really only supports the proposition that the same axes of popular culture, angry satire and autobiography, found in the earlier books are at work here. And they work really well: Ferney seems to me to be a poet steadily growing in sophistication and potency. The hip, throwaway tone of these pieces may alienate some first-time readers but the core of the poems, together with the complex ways they work, is neither cheap nor trivial. You aren’t going to get a conventional lyrical experience from them, tapping into the universal (and ultimately incomprehensible) experiences of life but they are turned towards life itself and not just the complex surfaces of contemporary life. The underlying image of the self – as lover, city-dweller – animates the poems and interacts in complex ways with the description of the state of the human race nearly twenty years into a new millennium. The ambivalent response to life – found in the already quoted finish to “Greenslopes in March” – is also beautifully expressed in “After the Rain”, another poem about a crash: “My city blossoms like an orchid or a cancer”.

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”.