8th & Agony
Punk Hostage Press
Reviewed by Kelli Allen
In the introduction to Rich Ferguson’s debut poetry collection, 8th & Agony, Bob Holman writes that “the words come at you like it’s just a conversation among folks, but then it’s like he’s talking thunder.” Yes, thunder, but also the smoothness of a barely recognizable wind, and the sensual wet of steady rain, and the oppressive need of dry dessert heat to occupy every space, every particle of the air. Ferguson’s poems are like that—they are organic, alive, part of an atmosphere we all live within, but seldom take the time to discuss and dissect. His words are for us and –of- us, becoming at once a celebration of the breathing body and also a communion with the words we give to each other—this gift of language from one group of folks to another, from the poet to waiting listener.
It is difficult not to image a shade of Whitman in this collection, which is broken into three sections: Origins & Sin, Journey & Suffering, and Destiny & Enlightenment. Ferguson invokes the desire to be seen as physical presence, to share his personal experience of his relationship to the objects in the shaky, temporal world and then offer explanation and explication for why his own impressions are vital, important. His voice does not allow us to look away from the damaged buildings lining a street, or the damaged women and men swimming through one stage of living into another. There is much of The Hero’s Journey sketched-out in these sections. We can imagine Jung’s bright mandala circling its elephants, horses, bows, princes, maidens, arrows, and gold as we read through these poems. Ferguson begins his own quest with “Where I Come From.” In this poem he offers us this notion of beginning, of birth, both ugly and visceral, and reverent with quirky abstractions:
I come from Are you sure we should be doing this?
From the Grim Reaper’s belly button lint,
………babbling Scrabble pieces, and an abracadabra thesis.
I come from the vibration of bells;
………bells singing down into
………the places deep inside us,
places deep inside us that say…
Every moment is a breath / Every breath is a word /
Every word is love / Every love is now /
Every now is everything…
I come from hummingbird beer burps,
………..from evening’s first song in a cricket church.
The physical body is present in all of the poems in this electric collection. We are given moments of the body’s first pleasures, its anguish, its unpleasant realities, and its closeness to mortality. Ferguson wants us to remember that we are skeletal, and that our own journeys give us flesh. He tells us this while always remembering where the structure begins, as in “Bones:” “Sometimes I feel like I’m filled with bones—/Bird bones/Lullaby bones/bones sung heartbroken and moaning through some/Hangover Radio bones/Dust bones/Shadow bones/Alone bones.” There is Ginsberg in this poem, and some very early Ferlinghetti, and we are treated to Ferguson’s interpretation of the Beat vibe, the roll and swish of the hip as we bounce from short line to short line.
There are stories in these poems, too. Narratives of boy-meets-girl-explodes-in-lust-pain-joy populate the collection. Titles sing their own brief tales such as “Grow Wings or Cease to Be,” “Because of Camp,” and “world without dogs.” Ferguson is above all a storyteller, or rather, a story singer. He uses language to continue our oldest traditions of gifting the tale, sharing the fabric of verse through sound. These poems beg to be said aloud, and more than once.
“we voice sing,” a nod to Philip Levine, functions in style as song lyrics formed into a poem with the backslash signifying breaks in tone, meter, bridges. I think of Etheridge Knight and his sexy swaying jazz poems, which used this same style to make the reader sing the lines, feel the breaths between verses. This oddity in form comes toward the end of the collection and serves as something of a prayer and a call-and-answer for community and togetherness.
There are two prose pieces (“A Dedication” “On Becoming an Urban Legend”) in the collection, coming toward the book’s end, and their language is a departure from the tone Ferguson tapped into throughout the first two sections. In these long blocks, he decides to tell it like is, give it to the reader straight, with language open and engaged:
This one goes out to those whose spines are lightning rods. No wonder the blazing, brilliant light follows you wherever you go. This one goes out to Generation Elation, Generation Elevation, Generation Regeneration. This one goes out to those who can scrape the old, crippling stories from their bones. Make themselves Tabula Rasa. Blank slate. Brand new day. Anything & everything is possible. This one goes out to all the dogwalkers, streetwalkers, freedom riders & freedom marchers. This one goes out to those who are far from homogeneous. (“A Dedication”)
Here, the dedication is to the Reader, the one being given the package containing the lesson, the one with the swift pat to the shoulder, the smile from poet to reader, the author’s heart open, pulsing, pushing his message into the ear. In “On Becoming an Urban Legend,” we are shown a map of sorts, in one long rant with comma after comma, sending the reader down the hole of destructive self pity and illusionary redemption, and sadness that we all know too well. He begins with a single, sharp sentence: “Becoming an urban legend is simple.” The prose is anything but simple. Here, as in no other place in the collection, the reader is given a hard mix of the urban, hot, greasy, -now- of the jumbled, voyeuristic coma we frequently try to claw our way past. This is a sexy block of prose, though a real departure from the high-hopefulness of the collections other poems.
I want to say that Rich Ferguson is a mystic poet living in a city where mystiscm is rarely allowed. I want to say that he gives us something of ourselves when he admits, “Yeah, you and me/ we’re tired of crash-and-burning down/ our bird-bone shrines/ to fleeting time.” I want to say to Rich, Thank you for asking me to be brave, to find the beauty in a broken bottleneck, a wandering feather, in my own regret. I want to say, Thank you for asking me to sing with you, however briefly, and letting me return to your poems, your assertions that we are in this together.
Rich Ferguson has shared the stage with Patti Smith, Wanda Coleman, Bob Holman, Ozomotli, and other esteemed poets and musicians. He has performed at the NYC Fringe Festival, the Bowery Poetry Club, and is a featured performer in the film What About Me? He has been published in the LA TIMES, Opium, and has been widely anthologized. Ferguson is a Pushcart-nominated poet, and a contributor and poetry editor to The Nervous Breakdown. His poetry collection 8th & Agony is out on Punk Hostage Press.