David Gilbey Reviews Jordie Albiston and Liam Ferney

18 November 2013

In the wonderfully accomplished sestina ‘Andy Goes to College’ the overblown irony of the first lines suggests that ‘she’ is a latter-day Helen of Troy. Her life, measured by cigarettes and wind, and fouled by the failure of capitalist and colonial narratives, comes to stand for the ‘indifference’ to ‘humanity’. It’s a fine, cynical riff. As these examples suggest, the poet often adopts an almost oracular stance, decrying the woes around him, foreshadowing, even while disbelieving, a kind of doom. In that sense, Ferney’s poems are modes of satire – excoriating and admonishing without recommending solutions.

The poem ‘that thin mercury sound’, for instance, suggests an eerie sense of fatefulness, a sort of memento mori ‘beyond CCTV’:

the base jumper poised like a civilization
on a precipice of wasting military assets
before a leap into faith and squashed Midtown gum

Ferney pushes his sense of a lost consciousness through a welter of comparisons. His poems rely heavily on, and delight in, the force of similes. It can be wearing. Consider, for instance, how the similes amass:

Lost in a hard drive somewhere between
formats and a nasty Trojan horse the length
of an absence stretches like a hair band
co-opted into service as a lock on a galleon
mid-ocean stranded twixt tradewinds
like that commercial only melancholy…

‘Somewhere between … like … as … like’: this is dense and demanding poetry, requiring multiple consciousness shifts and a ready (Wikipedia-savvy?) literature- and culture-surfing capacity to stay with the poems’ thinking. Ferney’s jaunty iconoclasm may in fact epitomise his own methodology: ‘when mysticism has deserted religion / it’s not enough to face down the beast with popsicles…’

This is not the case in the poem ‘one of us has chosen to come to the sea’, an almost elegiac and touchingly elusive poem about a kind of death, a kind of separation, the taunt of memory that seems to combine filmic and mythic narratives behind migration and refugee journeys:

why were you always there when there was killing to be done
you were never brave enough to leave the bodies in back fields
you threw me a handful of dirt to build an island
when there was no killing you found some to be done

The Boom of Ferney’s title is counterpointed by ‘bust’ – a critique of failing markets and global capitalism. Ferney considers these failures in poems acknowledging Frank O’Hara, Robert Lowell (‘Frontier Lands iii: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’), Dostoevsky (‘Saturday’s Typhoon’: ‘The Bloody Idiot’), Henry Lawson (see the clever take on ‘Loaded Dog’), Bob Dylan, The Smashing Pumpkins, spaghetti westerns, cricket…and a host of ‘friends’. The company can be bewildering for a reader following Ferney through Brisneyland, Korea, UK and Europe. There are some compelling twists, though:

your best alphabet hovers over the edge
like the smell of iconoclastic vegetables
composting underneath the kitchen window 
                    (‘Home Sweet Home’)

The oddly optimistic ‘The Bastard Sun’ makes me think, for some reason, of Auden’s ‘Musée Des Beaux Arts’ and T S Eliot’s ‘Preludes’, with its acceptance of the mundane continuity of ordinary, tainted life as a context for human communication:

in contaminated alleyways we scraped cheap meth
with cancelled credit cards we are far from home…
when she leaves he will only remember her breasts
the steel-studded nipple a vine creeping up her flank
clinging to the promise of a better tomorrow
			like a mite to the last bulb

Though is there a flourish of Herrick’s Cavalier rococo in the vine/flank image? But Ferney is also mesmerised by his poems’ brief epiphanies:

As elegant as a dropped violin
	in its last moment before Stradivarius and
floor meet greet and become one
		(all at the same time)

That is to say, ‘elegant’ only in the contemplation of the aesthetic image, in the mind holding the words’ suggestions – not the act itself. In fact, Ferney’s poems are less ‘about’ the ‘outside world’ than the hypothetical transactions created by the words on the page – his art’s rich imagination.

Ferney’s final poem, ‘K61: Beijing – Kunming’, continues a note of eschatological pessimism, echoing that other modernist-nihilist Slessor’s ‘Night Ride’:

We shoot from the hip like field surgeons knee-deep in bone
saws & gristle…
it’s five o’clock fireballs
	like a marshmallow forgotten on a twig

Reading Ferney’s poems is often a fast, furious ride. I think of him as a contemporary Vorticist railing against the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of transnational Australia.

Albiston’s the Book of Ethel begins with Ethel, as a revived subject, a second incarnation of the historical Ethel Overend, Albiston’s maternal great grandmother, apostrophising ‘Life’:

So Life!   we meet once more   you
& I   in concert   concord
happy agreement to do
until done   my act   your stage
make   lie in it   this! my bit-
part   play   World   with me aboard
a Speck!   & then gigantic
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About David Gilbey

David Gilbey is Adjunct Senior Lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, President of Booranga Writers’ Centre and Hon Secretary of ASAL. His most recent collection of poems is Death and the Motorway (IP, 2008).

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