Tracy Ryan, whose new and eighth full-length poetry collection we’re celebrating, Hoard is also a four-time novelist (Vamp, Jazz Tango, Sweet, Claustrophobia), a memoirist and translator. Her work has been acclaimed in multiple commendations and short-listings and has received the Times Literary Supplement Underground Poems Award; the ABR Poetry Award (2009); and twice won the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards for Poetry (2008; 2011). This collection was co-winner with Jill Jones’s Breaking the Days of the 2014 Whitmore Manuscript Prize.
From the remarkable debut collection Killing Delilah, through to the magnificent Unearthed (Fremantle Press 2014), Tracy has delivered poems of such arresting image economy and tensile musculature, that so many, no matter how strange and unsettling, assert their uncanny logic with retrospective inevitability, at times seeming to deliver in a mindflash an x-ray of the reader’s own psychic nakedness. This poetry is charged by an uncompromising feminist poetics and an intensity rare in a culture that often shopfronts irony at the expense of affective appeal and resonance. Not that irony’s ever lacking here – far from it, but it’s irony of a higher order – an irony that pulls on the soul.
This poet is a resistant phenomenologist for whom the ease of language must be made difficult; she is the concrete thinker undoing routine concretions and conflations. At its most quickening poetry hosts a space for juxtapositions, that according to the routine imaginary and reflex semantics are oxymoronic; it’s a space where paradox thrives and disrupts the purring continuum of bland; it’s language acutely re-earthed in us, releasing intensified currents through its lifelines.
Ryan returns, from her corner of the Irish diaspora in south-western Australia, to the Irish peat bog; which as a form of wetland has suffered great abuse both rhetorical and material – because of its in-betweenness: being neither quite liquid nor solid, zoned with the abject and thus, repressed, if not negated by drainage and infill, despite serving variously as placenta of birdlife, or the invaluable carbon sink. It has been treated like women’s sexuality as something to be controlled if not murderously suppressed by ruinous husbandry. More recently, wetlands in general have been reappraised thanks to the long struggles of eco-activists but not so, it seems, the peat bog, whose cultural shaming has been so frequently allied to classist and sexist reductionism – 38% of Irish bog habitat has destroyed between 1995 and 2012, according to statistics Ryan cites on p. 32.
So in her own words Ryan brings her ‘feet of drought and tinder’ back to the bogach – which in Irish and Scottish Gaelic means soft – to read there the hoard, not just of hidden artefacts brought to light, but to activate the slumbering potential of bog-speech, to catalyse our thoughts through bog’s eco-poetics. These are poetics drawn from an open, interrogative approach, an auscultation, of what the bog might have to say for itself, of its appeal, material and sentient. Of the bog I might’ve been tempted to say ‘she’, but cautioned by Ryan, from reflex gender alignments, especially where soft is concerned, I will not say she. ‘When first I saw you/spoke rock and soil to me// & like the new born/I must imprint’ (from the first long and superb poem ‘The changeling addresses Ireland’, p. 5). And here you notice the ambiguity of ‘imprint’: is it transitive or intransitive; is it in the body or on the page – the elision of the object invites us to read both. The eco-ethics are subliminally performed in these echo-poetics: through subtle seismics of word-music, through assonantal chains, the sly alliterative threads, through the orchestration of blanks and gaps, of ‘hummoch and hollow’ as speaking ‘nothings’. The slow fuse of the image-work finds ignition through the concerted effect of all these things – recovering so much that is lost through abstraction and quasi-automatic catchphrases of our instrumental or ritual transactions.
This is the concrete worker par excellence, undoing routine concretions, bringing matter back to life through poetic interruption and rearrangement. In the space of this slim, beautifully designed production by Anthony Lynch, poet-publisher of Whitmore Press, Ryan plays host to the unheard and unsaid in ‘hearsay’. What we might, by reflex, call the descent into the undifferentiated mud becomes here an exquisitely Derridean reader of difference – the bog as hoard of corporeal integrity and golden artefact. The bog is celebrated as the anaerobic preserver of life, gobbling as it does CO2 from the atmosphere.
The collection entertains an ethics of what Heidegger called co-respondance between bard and bog-hoard: the space of the poem hosts the multiple aspects of peat bog: the bog of oblivion; the bog of loss; the bog of archive; the bog of data retrieval, whether of pollen, farming, social or religious practice; the bog of secrecy; and of the secret’s betrayal; the bog of slow decay; the bog of denial, or of willed oblivion, and of mnemonic appeal.
Here the word c/leave encapsulates some of these oxymoronic tensions, between cleave as ‘cling to’ and ‘leave’ or ‘pull away from; between the diasporic uprootedness and stick-in-the-mudness; between identity and difference; the bog remembering what would be repressed, ‘wreaks chthonic havoc’ (‘Under’ p. 9) as this poetry does.
dressed like a well but still treacherous it courts a fall (‘Under’, p.9)
Here we’ve got the sense of the mythic, the well being magical conduit between worlds lower and upper, between frog and prince – and the subtly suggestive verb ‘courts’ does all the work: of the royal high brought low. The bog, wearing its carpet of moss, its peaty layers, its strange carnivorous blooms, ‘courts a fall’ for those whose fail to ‘read’ it in its own terms.
Here hoard itself spells the ethics in poetics
hoard in the wrong hands gets melted down recast as meaningless commonplace precious (‘Hoard hurt’, p. 19)
The difference between exquisitely wrought objects that the bog ‘respects’ is, on their unearthing, treated with contempt in name of reduction to marketplace value; so goes Mallarmé’s distinction between currency and gold; the poet re-establishes the economy of the gift or of sacrifice against that of exchange value. Thus of the 5000 year old golden torcs recovered, it’s the ‘heft’ that talks here, the body’s intimate encounter with its weight, which Ryan celebrates – not the shine to the I/Eye that escapes this reductive economy:
I need not the sight but the heft of your beauty (‘Hoard bereavement’, p. 21)
In itself unmarked like the Platonic chora, the bog opens something like a pre-linguistic space and while it challenges the principle of naming, it becomes itself the borderline of the mnemonic, the beginning of the map generative of the name. ‘Bog mnemonic’ – ‘this wet portent/dense ledger’ […] awaiting our undivided attention.
The changeling poet returning from centennial removal is in excess, the great-great et cetera; the digresser from the line, the diasporic offshoot, always in principle the revenant.
denied corruption this go-nowhere this little stickler who lies unqueenly on territorial borders no rooted yew to stop her mouth to stem unhallowed utterance once breached (‘Bog speech’, p. 27)
This Plathian reminiscence is very telling: the yew is ghosted by its second person homophone, the pronominal mask of the masculine Other in Sylvia Plath’s poem, wagging its death-dealing blacks. Here the order of the bog undoes the hierarchical, the taproot, the surveying maps of ownership. It celebrates the liminal, mocks all king- and queendoms. Thus we must also, in the logic of the liminal move beyond the gendered implications of bogach. In the spaces here Ryan shows the ruin of the collective imaginary:
A mirror is not a lake is a dark mirror tarnished over mass-swollen near opaque till we call her bog thinking her soft long suffering (‘Landfill horizon’, p. 35)
The refusal to reduce: the metaphor of the (cancelled) mirror is a mise en abyme of Ryan’s activist poetics: the (k)not of resistance; the refusal of the politics of anthropomorphic identification, of the reductive equation or captivating binaries which align the soft with the exploitable to be raped. And the aggregate portrait sent back by the bog treated as ‘negative mirror’ becomes our own destruction: when we reward its softness by making a tip of it.
The bog accommodates the nothing as something; it remembers; it holds its voices; it marks the parlous history of the negation of the wetlands in dangerous mythic or metaphoric conflations. The bog only pretends to cover up; it is active archive preserving difference: you call her nothing but she remembers. This is: ‘the utter resistance /of ground that isn’t’ (‘Bog road’, p. 38).
Another aspect of resistance, this time proliferative, and rhizomatic is celebrated in the Bacchae-like furze associated with the bog district of the Irish midlands:
see what can bloom from nothing come to fruition out of confusion vulval and dentate her terms ungraspable given to proliferation queen of the barren the margin of past glories largesse and opulence all but forgotten futile the burn set by tenant or farmer the hopes of management she’s in her element (‘Fire climax’, p. 45)
This quasi-inclusion through the rhyme ‘ement’ enacts the viral invasion of what husbandry would extinguish – a delicious ironic revenge on the agents of violent repression.
In ‘Revenant’ the poetics are superbly active in performing the call of the title
Revenant Come back to vacancy where formerly whole nests of torcs lay one above the other each level a buffer meant to divert the casual robber first bronze then silver but best was deepest don’t say it you were so sure no one could reach there Over this turned ground you hover discarnate now persuaded whatever you had & amounted to was here & so you wander (p. 44)
Whereas the tremulant R, as the rhotic ‘R’ is gorgeously called, is left unpronounced by many English speakers, and is only ghosted in the changeling’s tongue, here it comes back triumphantly through the soundscape of this poem, just as, it can be said to haunt the whole collection.
And so the eco-poetics at work here resoundingly revive the tremulants cruelly repressed in our habitual rhetoric and ecocidal practices. All power to you Tracy Ryan: congratulations on Hoard, this magnificent new work of poetry.