By Brendan RyanPoetry Hunter Publishers
Travelling Through the Family
Travelling Through the Family is the third major collection from Brendan Ryan, a poet working in the tradition of Les Murray and Philip Hodgins.
Ryan grew up on a dairy farm; his poems bring rural Australia to life through a clear-eyed and provocative vision of the way the land and our treatment of animals moulds the people who work with them.
‘Like any artist or writer, you’re drawn to things that move you the most,’ Ryan told the Age. ‘I want to give my side of things. I want to write about the country from a rural perspective that doesn’t necessarily romanticise it.’
But the farm is by no means his sole subject – his topics include small towns (and their dedication to football), family past and present, domesticity in the suburbs and reflections on his Catholic childhood. There are homages to fathers and daughters, as well as self-portraits where the influence of a country upbringing is rendered in sobering, resonant style.
‘His poetry, with its unflinching portrayal of dairy farming and associated small-town life, is surely essential reading for inner-city cafe habitués,’ wrote Geoff Page in the Australian, reviewing this collection.
These coolly lyrical poems unfold a clear-eyed, yet often wry view of the pragmatism implicit in rural survival, the brutality in animal treatment, the recognisable incidents in the rituals of extended family, as well as some unsettling experiences engraved in history.
Ryan commemorates a Victorian landscape that evolves in memory, through carefully placed vernacular and precisely economical description, in which the past and present ultimately cohere into layered tolerance. Many poems enact the rhythms of driving in which passing observations piece together some elegiac, though often amusingly laconic, portraits.
Brendan Ryan’s fourth collection of poems continues the exploration of his experiences and heritage as son of a western Victorian dairy-farming family, memoried through the eyes of a now grown man who didn’t become a farmer, instead a school teacher and poet.
One of a Catholic ten children, reared in the days of the DLP, Ryan has been quoted as being intentional about his fix on rural themes and his background.
In an article in the Age in 2008, Ryan told Michael Winkler, ‘Like any artist or writer, you’re drawn to things that move you the most. I want to give my side of things. I want to write about the country from a rural perspective that doesn’t necessarily romanticise it. Some people criticise and say you’re doing the same thing, but hopefully each time you write about it you’re doing it in a different way. This is the landscape, images, ideas that speak to me.’
Biographically, Ryan has been linked to Australian poet Philip Hodgins (1959-1995). They share a dairy-farming origin. There is also in Ryan a similar intention to use plain-language speech and a laconic, rhythmic delivery to explicate rural experience without sentiment.
And a poem in Travelling Through the Family is titled for Hodgins, exploring two dreams of Ryan’s in relation to the poet. In it, Ryan notes of Hodgins’ poetry and approach, the ‘direct nature of his address’. The reader is directly addressed in Travelling Through the Family, almost unremittingly. Sectioned into four parts – one devoted specifically to his birth-family and named after the title of the book – the collection is the experience of a long tale being given you, from Ryan, poem by poem. Like a panorama which has been minutely sectioned, the poet’s glance is attentive to a selected part. There, he collects a flow of details and images in an attempt to impart its liveliness as re-lived in memory and as made into meaning by and for him now.
In some of the strongest poems and stanzas in the book, this works. After encountering them initially, you are called back to re-read them, later.
Among these are the closing lines of ‘The time of day’, describing the carting of livestock to sale yards, jockeying with each other to remain upright as the trailer rounds each bend: ‘their need to depend upon each other/ becomes a kind of terror./ By the end of my teaching day/ their throats will be cut.’ Here also is the opening stanza of ‘Fire-spotter’s view’:
Ash Wednesday, she is busy talking across land
to other fire-spotters. Like broken lines on a map
their voices sailing between mountains
reading wind and scurried earth,
her German accent, their hard listening
from the Otways to Mt Warrnambool.
One of the stand-out (also because unexpected) poems in the collection is dedicated to the minutiae of the parent at home with small children: ‘hours slipping by like astronauts floating off into space’, ‘… the sense there are other people living/ beyond the finger marks on the glass sliding door,// your life advancing in the inches/ you hadn’t bargained for’. Companion to this is ‘Walking a daughter to school’: ‘She has awoken something in me./ A way of surprising myself/ of thinking out loud, risking/ what could be the right thing to say.’
However, another Ryan poem devoted to his birth-family, ‘Walking through Family’, unfolds mostly as ‘list’, an archiving of images and notes from which no discovery is made and then ignited. There are a number of other poems which do not match the best in this book, also.
To discuss these overall, you might consider how the ‘laconic’ and everyday telling of Hodgins is nonetheless an experience of each word driven like a nail – the decisiveness of his language and craft is absolutely tough. From this the discomfiting ideas underpinning the work spring into vitality. ‘Shooting the Dogs’ would be an example.
So, in Ryan’s collection, an alternative trajectory might have been not ‘through’ family/memory, but instead, ‘into’ and ‘under’. A further exhumation, perhaps, of the dark hints accomplished in a poem like ‘A stabbing’. Here, Ryan is parcelling out hay with a brother, the tractor put into low gear to steer itself, and as he goes to cut the bands on the hay-bale:
…I thrust the knife
in deep as a family history; his screams
muffled by wind and hayseeds. Blood
inches from his thigh.
Ryan goes on:
We continue feeding out.
Front wheels of the Ferguson twisting
over thistles and cowshit.
Steering wheel jerking between hoof prints.
A winding golden trail, forever, behind us.
Jacinta Le Plastrier is blog editor at Cordite Poetry Review, publisher at John Leonard Press, curator of the Gilgamesh Modern Salon, and recently completed a Hot Desk Fellowship at the Wheeler Centre. Her new book of poems, The Book of Skins, will be published early 2014.
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