Career by Liam Ferney Vagabond Press, 2011.
This review is based on Gig Ryan’s launch speech for Career which was delievered at Melbourne Trades Hall on Saturday July 9, 2011.
Liam Ferney’s second book, the chapbook, Career, weaves all kinds of punchy twisting lingo into poetry – influenced by the fact that this was written while living in South Korea, hence the punning title. When surrounded by another language, one becomes acutely aware of what is peculiarly English, and untranslatable – “in the fugitive drizzle a thoroughbred gallops / across the cabbie’s fake timber dash” (‘Think Act’). The influence of John Forbes pokes through many of these poems – in his use of simile, for example, but Ferney’s poems follow their own crazier, more abstracted, path. If there is resolution, it is in the exhaustion of pouring every cranky crumby accoutrement of contemporary existence into these poems: his poems are not littered, but bejewelled, with the insistent shouts of everyday life – the songs, the TV shows, the movies, journalism, current affairs – “post-it notes flapping on the microwave: / you are your own cinema vérité soap opera” – all laid out in poems tailor-made for aficionados of Korean alcohol and cigarettes, Italian zombie movies, acronyms, and abbreviations of all kinds:
when you consider it skynet only considers itself
so we say to the fish go forth and conquer
they prosper on the fourth floor of the flophouse
propped between the bathhouse and the driving range
after the funeral they confirm it you were always
better than your caste there is no substitute
for thinking but abc asia and soju come close…
(‘sign on the dotted line’)
Underneath much of the humour, there’s nostalgia for a lost paradise “that was the eighties nobody stayed for the dailies” (‘Think Act’) – as also in Duncan Hose’s One Under Bacchus, where the quest for some higher metaphysical truth is always stymied. The constant critique in every adjective and verb implies an alternative:
Where drifters suit up for the army while they dish out
free money at the sandstone graduation & I make do
the prospectus of delight was a myth
similar in scope to the lone gunman theory
or the story of a bunyip nicking cattle”
There’s a recurrent ‘taking the piss’, ‘taking the mickey’, a perpetual self-deflation, of laughing at one’s own expectations/aspirations/dreams before anyone else can – maybe this satirising ourselves first is peculiarly Australian, or perhaps simply the postmodern condition. “I learned surrealism / from travelling exhibitions / then did my best to forget it” – that is, we bear the weight of past culture that’s distant in time and place to us in a comparatively traditionless New World. Having seen via CNN the murderous results and mostly the collapse of the pompous British and American empires, so an evangelical high seriousness is one we avoid (though you wouldn’t know this leafing through some recent yet timeless literary mags).
show up at the temple and it’s mug’s luck: priest out to lunch.
This life is on fire & some kid has buggered the extinguisher.
Get down low & go go go, Alice’s carbon monoxide opera,
the second rate tragedy sends me asunder
a Ramsay St. fault line, an Australian Dostoevsky:
The Bloody Idiot.
Another thing I admire in Ferney’s work is that’s he’s not afraid of overdoing it with deliberate battering consonance and alliteration as in the opening lines of the first poem ‘Think Act’:
still a prima donna maradonna 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
There’s also an underlying theme of varying types of masculinity to be consulted, admired, or measured against, Mike Tyson, Mark Waugh, pizza boy – and the book’s title, Career, perhaps emphasises how these types of Aussie masculinity don’t seem to fit with poetry, or maybe it’s as if the fact of writing poetry is going to be enacted like a prize fight –
you get suckerpunched:
using bigger & bigger words
as if somebody had tattooed
a scrabble player’s aesthetic
over poetry’s flexed bicep”
But it’s this tension, this conflict, that drives the poems – and the first poem’s title ‘Think Act’ also draws attention to this fake conflict between action and reflection, that is, the poem is the act of thinking, and is both thought and action, as tough, as noble, even as pathetic, as any other.
But there’s also a quieter more reflective tone in some poems, as in the almost classical ending of the final poem, ‘Expecting Turbulence’, as the poet flies out of Seoul, reflecting and summarising his travels:
Nothing left but Brando, Malden and a fugitive KAL ticket,
when they say no more Tennessee soda pop
the leaves on the peninsula melt red in the coming cold,
we’ve swapped maps on the in-flight distance demonstrator
and this land, my memories of you,
close like the year in the days after Christmas.
This seems to update Oscar Wilde’s aphorism from The Picture of Dorian Gray “Art is not the reflection of life, but the reflection of the spectator.”
Liam Ferney seems to be wrapping himself in everything that’s western, pointing to the distance between himself and a foreign culture he can’t truly participate in, but only observe – the poems as a shroud of consciousness necessary to assert one’s existence in a crowded foreign place, that allow one to write an identity, and these poems certainly achieve that distinction.
Art/poetry becomes a weirdly permeable chain-mail – or even a cyclone fence – where identity forms against the alienation of the foreigner.
– Gig Ryan
Gig Ryan is Poetry Editor at The Age newspaper (Melbourne) and a freelance reviewer. She has published numerous books including New and Selected Poems (Giramondo, Australia, 2011); Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, UK, 2012); songs with Disband, Six Goodbyes (1988), and Driving Past, Real Estate (1999), Travel (2006).
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