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”.

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.

Felicity Plunkett (ed.): Thirty Australian Poets

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011, 285pp.

The significant poetic productions from the declining months of last year seem to have been anthologies. Not only is there this intriguing collection of thirty poets – all born after 1968 – edited by Felicity Plunkett but there is also an anthology, interestingly different but covering similar ground, edited by John Leonard called Young Poets: An Australian Anthology. And, as well as these, there is Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s daunting Australian Poetry Since 1788. Though, generally, I avoid reviewing anthologies I will try to cover both the Leonard and the Gray and Lehmann in later months on this site.

Anthologies are weird and fascinating reading experiences. In many ways they are rather like poems themselves. They have an intention (to encapsulate a national poetry, to show what interesting things newcomers are doing, to raise the profile of poems the anthologist likes and diminish the reputation of those that he or she doesn’t, etc) but the possible meanings of the work often overtake its intention. Like poems they have a personal stamp but they also have a context – the context of other anthologies. Like poems they have complex and important internal structures: are they to be arranged chronologically and if so should it be by date of birth of the poet or by the period in which the poet floruit. This is a more important consideration than it seems: Kenneth Slessor and R.D. FitzGerald were born within a year of each other but the former, precocious, is really a poet of the twenties and the latter a poet of the thirties.

The intention behind Felicity Plunkett’s Thirty Australian Poets is, I think, to showcase (an unfortunate but useful word) the work of poets who have risen to prominence recently and perhaps, also, to give critics like myself, who have a dim and fragmented perception that a poetic renaissance (largely led by women poets) is taking place, the chance to see the group in toto and make some decisions about what is happening. And some evaluations, too. In this respect it is a very cool and clean anthology, eschewing subjective judgements at every point where it can. The poets are organised in alphabetical order by surname so that it is not a judgement of the quality of their work but merely the result of an alphabetical accident that the poems of Ali Alizadeh are placed first and those of Petra White last. (Alizadeh’s Iranian origins prompt me to make the point that the divans of the classical Persian poets – Hafez, Sa’adi, et al – are organised in the same, neutral, way whereby the poems are placed in alphabetical order according to their final, rhyming words. A Western equivalent might involve something like organising a collected poems not chronologically but according to the poem’s first letter so that the Index of First Lines became, in effect, the contents page. It’s an intriguing rethinking and one that it might be interesting to try with a Collected Auden or Graves, say.)

Similarly there is no weighting of representation whereby we know that the anthologist considers one poet to be more significant than another because the former gets more pages allocated than the latter. Here everybody gets about five pages. I like this because, when I am doing my thinking about the quality of these poets and the nature of what is happening in Australian poetry, I don’t have to enter into a debate with the anthologist. Many anthologists are inclined to be opinionated and the reader’s fight with them (on the subject of individual choices and omissions, both of poets and poems) can obscure the wider issues. Felicity Plunkett is as anonymous as an anthologist can be and brings to mind (another “showbiz” analogy, I’m afraid) those award hosts who have the good grace to get off the stage quickly and let the real stars of whatever show it is get on with the job. In fact it’s not entirely coincidental that images of award nights keep sliding into my prose here. There is a slight sense about Thirty Poets of a public performance where everybody – in alphabetical order – gets their five minutes to show what they can do before being replaced by the next act. There is nothing wrong with this. If you wanted to know what was happening in, say, Australian stand-up comedy, then giving thirty comedians five minutes to do their thing in front of an audience might be a lot better than a show put together from what some entrepreneur thinks are “the best stand-up comedians in Australia” carefully organised (according to the structures of comedy whereby some acts work well as warm-ups for others) to emphasise particular performers.

In keeping with the anthology’s general tone of a calm dispassionateness and an overall lack of indulging whims or vendettas, there isn’t too much that one could object to in the choice of the thirty poets. There is a strong argument for including Graeme Miles whose first book (reviewed on this site) was an interesting and challenging one and one could make a case for Adrian Wiggins and perhaps Brett Dionysius, Liam Ferney and some others. Certainly they wouldn’t look out of place (or tone) in this anthology, especially if they replaced some of the weaker selections. And there are others who might have had some sort of claim. But, all in all, this seems as good a presentation of a generation as one could ask for. We aren’t told whether the editor or the poets actually chose the poems but I suspect it was the latter in collaboration with the former and the selections involve a mixture of published and new work. The poems chosen do seem, in the case of the poets whose work I know well, to give a good sense of a poet at his or her best. But the format does have a slight levelling quality. In the case of those poets whose published work is probably uneven (I’m deliberately avoiding names here, rather than being vague or coy) five pages of poetry can make you think they are stronger than they are. Those poets who are marked by their ability to write very different but equally strong poems end up being reduced slightly in a volume like this. If one read the books of these thirty poets I think one would feel that the poets’ abilities and achievements were much more varied than Thirty Poets alone suggests. And then there is the issue of the way a poet’s work is “set” in the arbitrary, alphabetical context of other poets’ work. To name names, for once, at the end of reading this book, I felt that, yes, Elizabeth Campbell, Emma Jones, Bronwyn Lea and Nick Riemer were terrific poets, absolutely individual voices doing their own thing. But I wouldn’t necessarily have expected this based on a previous knowledge of these poets’ work. I did plan to read the book in reverse as an experiment to determine how much of this reaction was really a response to the setting of the poet’s work, but time and deadlines caught up with me!

As I said at the beginning, anthologies are, in a way, like poems. The aleatoriness of the procedures of arrangement means that these hundred and forty-odd poems are not naturally sociable with each other and one of the pleasures of anthology reading is to trace unexpected motifs as though this were the work of a single mind. There is a lot that is hermeneutically interesting about this procedure and both Felicity Plunkett (in her Preface) and David McCooey (in his Introduction) do this to some extent. The idea behind this sort of reading is that, like poems, anthologies reveal patterns that might well come from somewhere else.

This reference to McCooey’s introduction leads me to the most difficult of questions which it would shame a reviewer to ignore: What are the features of this generation of Australian poets? I’m so old that the issue of the challenge posed by the “academic” poets of the fifties (Hope, McAuley, Buckley et al) to the “Bulletin” poets (Wright, Campbell et al) is not merely an historical one. I have thought long and hard about these issues of poetic generations, their ruptures, influences, internal relationships and continuities. Most descriptions of poetic periods are very impressionistic and would not satisfy a professional historian let alone a scientist. Chris Wallace-Crabbe memorably spoke of “the habit of irony” when dealing with the poetry of the fifties and I spoke of the need to “make it new” as the imperative behind the “generation of ”˜68” but these were very gestural statements. Accepting, though, that it is probably impossible to give a completely accurate account of thirty poets, I’ll describe a few, equally subjective, impressions I have at the conclusion of this book.

Firstly, it is rather a shock – though it shouldn’t be – to see how professional these poets are. If the generation before were often the product of Creative Writing courses taught by poets who had managed to get jobs in universities and often looked out of place alongside the (declining) establishment of literary scholars, these people seem to be teachers themselves, almost always with doctorates. And they often teach something more demanding than Creative Writing. Judith Bishop (whose “It Begins Where You Stand” was lovely to re-encounter) describes herself as a professional linguist; Michael Brennan works in the Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University; Claire Potter “spent five years studying and teaching in Paris”; David Prater and Jaya Savige are both doctoral students, the former in Karlskrona, Sweden, the latter at Cambridge (Emma Jones has a Cambridge doctoral degree in literature). I might be confusing two elements here – professionalism and multilinguality – but I think they are closely related (John Mateer, Ali Alizadeh and Danijela Kambaskovic-Sawers seem to have had multilingual upbringings). At one level this professionalism seems entirely admirable. But of course there is a darker side and my second impression of this anthology relates to this. There isn’t much madness in Thirty Poets. Those working in a surreal tradition (like Louis Armand or David Prater) work in the thoroughly familiar (dare I say acceptable and professionalised?) tradition of reworking and rebuilding existing texts. The complexities of the poems of, say, Maria Takolander or LK Holt, seem interesting and challenging complexities rather than confronting ones. Other poems have a lot of emotional intensity and weirdness (Bronwyn Lea’s “Born Again”, which readers have a habit of remembering, stands out here) but it isn’t something that is going to change your ideas of what poetry can do. This response was provoked by coming across, very late in the book, Samuel Wagan-Watson’s “Night Racing” (“night racing through the suburbs / of white stucco dreaming . . .”) and realising that there was nothing else in the anthology remotely like this (though angry, aggressive poetry is not usually something I prize). It reminded me of my reading of Benjamin Frater’s 6am in the Universe (reviewed on this site). That is “mad” poetry though with a perfectly coherent aesthetics/metaphysics behind it. Should he have been included? He would have been the youngest poet in the anthology and his voice would certainly have stood out. But it would also have skewed a reader’s response to what this generation is like. It isn’t like the poetry of Benjamin Frater.

David McCooey makes the good point that the work of these poets “shows a profound knowledge of poetic precedence” and I want to explore this a bit. It is a useful idea because it brings the textual manipulators in out of the rain and under the umbrella where the (generally) lyrical and meditative poets are camped. I would approach this issue from a technological angle: this is the first generation of Australian poets writing under the aegis of Google. Whereas previous generations might have been addicted to particular forms – the villanelle and then the pantoum – now we find centos; there is one by Kate Fagan in Thirty Poets. To write a cento is perversely difficult enough but to read it respectably – almost impossible in the pre-google age – is simplicity itself nowadays. And it isn’t only a matter of locating and relating to poetic precedences. What would once have been the result of a monstrous, obsessive erudition, an interest in the most arcane byways of some subject (which, for some reason, is often a feature of the make-up of a poet’s mind), is now easily available at the writing desk. In a sense we are all erudite now and can “get up” things unimaginable to much cleverer people (like Hope, Buckley or McAuley). In The Best Australian Poetry, 2009, Liam Ferney introduced his complicated poem (which blended the Australian High Court with a host of popular culture references) with the off-hand comment, “You can google the rest. I did”. That registers an important moment. Thinking this through further, though, leads me to see it as a possible positive that someone who was, himself, very erudite, John Forbes, would have approved of. Erudition itself is not going to be as impressive as it once was and poems will be forced to work for themselves rather than rely on some wonderful piece of arcane knowledge inside them. And apart from Google there are the combinative powers of the personal computer. Everone knows how John Tranter exploited the capacities of the Breakdown programme and while it must have taken Laurie Duggan hours of painstaking work to assemble his set of anagrams of the names of Australian poets in the 1970s, children could now do this effortlessly as a party game.

A final subjective impression concerns the sexes. If this is the Age of the Professionals, I had also expected it to be, poetically, an Age of the Woman. My sense from reading the new books emerging over the last ten years was that a fairly high percentage of the good ones were by women. Publishers like the excellent Giramondo Press seem to make a policy of publishing women poets. Picking up Thirty Poets and knowing that in today’s world an anthology without any particular axe to grind would have to aim at equal gender representation, I expected to find quite a number of make-weight male poets. This isn’t what happened. For some reason, perhaps to do with the levelling quality I spoke of earlier, the poetry of the women doesn’t seem dominant at all. Related to that is the fact that, of those poets I would have omitted if I had been editor, more than half are women and the poets that I listed previously as ones who might have been included in an anthology like this without raising any eyebrows are all male! Thinking about this, I have come to the conclusion that it is “the age of the woman poet” but that the anthology doesn’t entirely reflect this. In other words I trust the subjective impression I have from reading all the individual books over the years above the impression I have from this anthology.

I said that anthologies have contexts, just as poems do. To put it another way, anthologies are aware of their predecessors. Thirty Poets alludes immediately to one of these, John Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry, by choosing the date 1968 as the earliest cut-off birth date for its poets. That’s an elegant and generous gesture, I think, although there is a big difference between a birth date and the date at which a group of writers make an impact. The poets of the “generation of ”˜68” were generally born after the Second World War. But Thirty Poets also seems to be the younger sibling of an anthology published in 2000, Michael Brennan and Peter Minter’s Calyx. I think Thirty Poets is, as an anthology, a far superior book exactly because it does reflect a single generation. Calyx’s virtue was that it anthologised interesting poets but they came from what appear, now, to be two quite separate generations. I also want to make connection when I read Thirty Poets with an anthology from 1968, Rodney Hall and Tom Shapcott’s New Impulses in Australian Poetry (also published by the University of Queensland Press). That anthology had a very strong sense of a generation (it turned out to be the one between the Bulletin poets and the ’68 poets). It too was organised alphabetically though it was much more “interventionist” than Thirty Poets in that it varied the number of poems by contributors and included highly interpretive introductory notes to each poet by the editors. In retrospect (and, probably, at the time) the faultlines within that generation were fairly clear. There were Brisbane poets (Hall, Shapcott, Malouf, Rowbotham, Croyston, Green and perhaps Harwood), Melbourne “university” poets (Buckley, Jones, Wallace-Crabbe, Simpson, Taylor and perhaps Dawe), Sydney poets (Lehmann and Murray) and a number who could either be seen as “unaligned” or loosely connected to one of these groups (Beaver, Smith, Stow). I mention this to ask whether the same (or similar) lines can be drawn in Thirty Poets. There are Sydney University poets here, there is a Melbourne group published by the John Leonard Press and so on. If they can’t be confidently drawn now, will they become clearer a few years on. Living in the Google/Amazon/Internet age means that groupings are likely to be matters of sympathy rather than proximity (let alone class or gender, those subgroups beloved of sociologists). All poetic texts are available, as influences, to everyone and so there are less likely to be poetic “gateways” in the form of elder poets lending books or supervising reading groups.

A final two points about this excellent book. By encapsulating a generation it turns the older poets (who were born before 1968) into a generation as well. This is something that I don’t think they were before and they might not like being now. That dividing line means that major poets like Anthony Lawrence, Judith Beveridge, Peter Boyle, MTC Cronin, Adam Aitken, Emma Lew and a host of others (these were literally the first names that came into my head) have become isolated into a kind of group. I don’t think this is a bad thing because their work is different to that of these thirty poets and seeing them as a generation might encourage us to attempt a more complex description before looking for continuities between them and the poets of this anthology.

Tom Shapcott edited Australian Poetry Now in 1969. In many ways it has the fewest continuities with Thirty Poets being a bit of a grab-bag. But, for me, it was a very exciting anthology introducing (or allowing the authors themselves to introduce) a host of poets I had never heard of. It caught the idea that a poetic renaissance was occurring by not predefining the nature of that rebirth at the editorial level. So in many ways it is crude. It has a hoax poet (Gwen Harwood’s Timothy Kline) and a lot of poets who didn’t sustain significant careers. But more than Thirty Poets it conveyed a sense of a lot of new (and often weird) things happening. If Thirty Poets recalls New Impulses in Australian Poetry then it is possible that there is room for an anthology that recalls some aspects of Australian Poetry Now, publishing people who are young, have not produced a book and who have appeared only in journals or online.