8th & Agony by Rich Ferguson, Punk Hostage Press, 2012
Reviewed by GEORGE WALLACE
Rich Ferguson has cracked open the egg of the Southern California experience in 8th & Agony, his new book of poems published by Punk Hostage Press.
The book's not about health risks of raw or undercooked eggs, obviously. And it ain't about nourishment or culinary grace.
It's about shallowness—a palpable emptiness at the heart of the Southern California experience.
The shallowness surrounding us, he seems to cry, runs deep.
I tend to have high expectations of L.A. poetry, imagining that I'll be entertained by cinematic glitz, breezy sophistication and glamor—tempered by the social ills of SOCAL living, of course. Somewhere between Randy Newman irony and barrio rage. Or maybe the cynical alienation of a wannabe Bukowski.
To his credit, Ferguson gives us something remarkably different from any of these.
To be sure, he has his moments of fascination with cinematic narratives, enthralled as any wild western outlaw poet ought to be with the garish outlines Jim Morrison offers us—motel, money, murder, madness. Instead, Rich Ferguson monologues along, bemoaning how sick he is of the empty beautiful suffering. And we cannot help but jog along as he "toe tags at the morgue of the melancholy," bemused with the glum set of empty choices L.A. offers its denizens.
There are many layers to the L.A. experience, from the blatantly make believe to the dishearteningly real.
At times, his characters are reduced to the smalltown humility of a John Cougar Mellencamp song. Boys who will never score with any of the hot chicks at summer camp or willing to put their leg in a cast and carry crutches to get attention. "Daddy," says a young girl as she introduces one boy taking her on a date, "I'd like to introduce you to all the mistakes you have ever made in your life."
More impressive are his depictions of lives relegated to the B-side. Self-effacing, almost ludicrous characters in need of a fame fix. Lonely outcasts hoping to stumble into a situation where they can become an 'urban legend'—even if it just means showing up at the emergency room with the cotton end of a cue-tip stuck in your ear. Bones talking to bones in a sad, corrosive Hollywood bar.
The caliper of Ferguson's measuring is painfully acute as we examine the separation between a Bond Girl and a girl on Sunset Strip on a Friday night in a short skirt looking for speed and a free drink.
Yet his compassion is deep: "For those always ending up last in the soul's inner-beauty pageant," he writes, "I wait for you."
8th & Agony offers its reader the gamut—thrills and spills, and morose frustration. This is an amusement park ride infused with the terrible knowledge that the ground is rushing up to greet you.
Okay, it's probably no surprise that the methods employed in Hollywood to achieve a rich and meaningful life are not much more than a Gordian Knot of fame, glamour, and unachievable charismatic style.
What IS surprising, and a delight, is how effectively, in 8th and Agony, Rich Ferguson slices through that knot.
If you want a poetic taste of the unadulterated, unglamorized L.A. experience, it doesn't get much better than this.
Rich Ferguson has shared the stage with Patti Smith, Wanda Coleman, Bob Holman, Ozomotli, and other esteemed poets and musicians, and is a featured performer in the film What About Me? His work may be found in publications such the LA TIMES, Opium, and numerous anthologies—including great weather for MEDIA's It's Animal but Mercifuland, in collaboration with Crystal Lane Swift, the forthcoming The Understanding between Foxes and Light. Rich is also a contributor and poetry editor to The Nervous Breakdown. website
George Wallace is author of twenty-five books and chapbooks of poetry and is an associate editor at great weather for MEDIA. An adjunct professor of English at Pace University in downtown Manhattan, he is also the writer in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace.
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