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”.