Popular Mechanics by Liam Ferney
Interactive Press, 2004
Liam Ferney's Popular Mechanics is a collection of poetry that transforms words into a quick moving train of images and syntax. The author changes tense and pace rapidly and this causes the reader to be somewhat disorientated. At first glance these poems appeared to be jumbled masses of words; the writer appeared to be moving too fast; and the conceits that he builds out of modern Australian life looked far too incongruous and fragile to involve the reader.
This apparent unease, however, seems to be this reviewer's own fault, to do with the fact that I have probably been reading far too much of the monkish American poet Charles Wright. When contrasted to Wright's asceticism Ferney's oeuvre does succeed to engage with our current existence; and, by doing so, it examines our environment and creates a fast and energetic exhibition of verbal exuberance.
Popular Mechanics consists of a modern aesthetic created out of the distorted shards of popular culture that form a mirror image of contemporary Australia; it fuses these cultural fragments and poetry together in an incredibly vibrant kinesis. In 'Surfer's Paradise', for example, the poet represents his home state of Queensland with ambivalence as a scungy yet gaudy place, and creates an unsettling and moving verbal image:
A Neon sign with a lonesome cowboy silhouetted
against the sinking sun signals our arrival.
At the motel Virgil flicks back the mouldy curtains, the table recoils at the
Here, in the collection's first section, the old and new merge together as Surfer's Paradise takes on a hellish flavour, as if a holiday is just another limbo from which there is no escape. Yet the presence of the poet is a ghost and a marker of identity. If Ferney can say “I long for a rock star elegy” then this collection is about his coming to understand his place as a poet. In 'Boys Light up', for example, he compares his existence to the tabloid sleaze of the modern world:
Instead the heart fills (Ferney's) up with debris,
You don't have enough vouchers for the dump
and the bags in the basement fill (Ferney) up with maggots
But the verse stays in my head making me feel
like a skier trying to rehab a shattered leg.
The next section, 'The edginess of flight', is a mixture of different styles with a series of lighter haiku-esque poems and a selection of dense lyrics such as 'Supine' and the vast 'Corazan'. In the latter style of poems conventional sentences are discarded for clauses that cling together irrespective of grammatical structures. This section is probably the most experimental and disquieting. Ferney forces words together until they take on new forms and new meanings; some striking examples being “Hillwarrior potraven”, “bluecoatangel” and “candlestroked nightfucked”. It looks as if the poet is creating a new language out of disparate images that he strings together in a seemingly breathless flow of words. Perhaps this section of the book is too dense; it takes a little longer to unravel, although it is worth the time and effort.
The third section, 'The Sonnets', consists of an apparent lightness of touch and poems such as 'Sherwood' and 'Poem' are examples of Ferney allowing himself to loosen up. The section's finale, 'The cold chicken river murder mystery', is written in an entirely different style and it is a fitting excursion into Film Noir territory. It comes across as a folk song akin to Bruce Springsteen's depictions of darkness at the edge of town:
They bring you up to do just like your daddy done
It don't matter none that it was a game he never won
The loaded cards in a crooked poker hand are just
A hint of the way everything always shatters on cue
This poem could go either way; but it is kitsch, and Ferney is flexible enough to use different stylistic techniques without treating them as mere curiosities. It is perhaps the longest poem in the collection and it uses the repetitions of a ballad in order to generate rhythm.
The fourth section in the quartet, 'The Neon Highway', consists of compact and opaque lines of words that run on; in 'Who wants to be a millionaire', for example:
These frantic streets of late twilight
are my gift to you're their sounds the bus
line clamour a cigarette butt stubbed out
And again in 'Angel':
…A pot plant totters on the brink the wind gusts
it smashes Mexican orange shards
scatter across the ochre tiles they share the canvas
As a result of all this denseness these sonnets become vehicles for forging the disparate images and clauses into an unwieldy whole. Sometimes the poems seem overcome by the images and seem to exist merely as skeletons for the sake of the imagery. The narrative takes the backseat; and as Ferney thrusts through with his mysterious vision of Australia words pile up and ideas flow very fast. The only other thing similar to this type of poetry that I can think of is the work of the rapper Sole from the Anticon collective. It is not chaos as such, and at times approaches something beautiful in its adventurous flurry of images.
There is also a filmic quality to these poems; they read like fast flickers of jump cuts and swift camera work as words follow in swift successions. If anything, Ferney sometimes moves too fast from scene to scene, and one never feels sure of where the poem is heading because of the plethora of images sometimes taking over. Nevertheless, this uncertainty is also exciting, and Ferney's curiosity rescues him from what could be an over-abundance of concepts and images, and he is usually able to rein in his busied thoughts into something that makes sense. He is adventurous in his use of metre and his audacity makes this collection an unsettling yet rewarding one. There is a joyful silliness in Popular Mechanics that is missing from most modern poetry.
Scott Thornton is 24 and likes Hip-Hop and poetry in equal measure. He has a cat called Clarence. Liam Ferney is Cordite's poetry editor.