Brendan Ryan’s poems have an entirely different feel, temperament and formality. Grounded in the landscape, habitation and (agri)culture of rural Victorian dairy country, though exotically taking in some Indian experiences and urban music sensibility, Ryan’s poetry is meditative (‘nostalgic’ is used a number of times), lyrical and, yes, pastoral. In ‘Inner Beat’ he writes: ‘I chose the focus / a guitar can give […] Something takes shape between the sink and the stereo / some other way of being occupied, lifted.’ Ryan’s subjective beholding is judicious and conversational, creating images and impressions that make him (and the reader) think and feel.
Towards the end of the collection, in ‘Camellias’, he suggests poems have an organic life of their own (poet as womb?): ‘the kick from a recently finished poem’ is ‘something layered in doubt but flickering with surprise / the way one snake story sheds its skin for another.’ Poems come to life, perhaps, in repeated iteration, like Ryan’s children, his music and even his cows.
In ‘At Fifty’, Ryan offers us a snakeskin: ‘I am still an old punk, / an Indian freak, a farmer’s son / besieged by superannuation, mortgages, infrastructure – / all the dead nouns lining up to be counted.’ We can see, indeed, some of the selves his poetry proffers, and understand his caution about latinate abstractions (different from his embrace of romance language modes – he’s not averse to the occasional villanelle) in his bucolics.
In the book’s first section, ‘Small Town Pastoral’, Ryan does position his (and his reader’s) sensibility firmly in the culture of Boeotia – more gently than the peers Geoff Page ascribes in his cover blurb, Murray and Hodgins. There’s a strong sense of Virgil’s Eclogues in these poems, tinged with Ryan’s own awkward, existential étrangerie. In the first poem ‘Outsider Pastoral’ Ryan sees himself as ‘an outsider nursing his beer’, by the regulars. ‘Growing up in the country, I learned / there is a line running like a fuse / between here and away.’ These are poems that point to the absence of heroism, deference about achievement: the football teams’ victories are short-lived and ghostly; the landscape is most remarkable for its flatness; back roads define a reticent sensibility. ‘Angels’ are ‘grounded … the way two loaded supermarket bags / balance a woman walking uphill.’ A ‘Man Waiting Outside the Lingerie Section of a Department Store’ is in ‘a paddock he’s not used to’.
The third section, ‘Towns of the Mount Noorat Football League’ echoes the emptiness of this refrain. In ‘Hexham’: ‘stony ridge country where the land rises / almost reluctantly, falters then recovers / to stretch into treeless plains.’ ‘Worndoo’, ‘the furthest ring / of my existence’ is bleak in that Lawsonian sense dismissed by Bonwick in 1857 as ‘A district ill-supplied with elevated influences’; to which Ryan replies (perhaps echoing Slessor), ‘He was predicting the rise while I am thrown / by the flattening of a district.’ And ‘Ecklin’ has ‘no mansions’ and ‘no hills’, its ‘corrugated iron changing room’ epitomising ‘a club that folded like a map that wouldn’t fold / its creases becoming roads / for school-leavers to flatten it toward the city.’
Earlier, in ‘Dairy Farmers at the Beach’ Ryan writes feelingly about his parents:
They stand on the beach, arms folded eyeing the waters as if watching the land for signs of history […] For they are inland people the beach is a type of joke not [to] be taken as seriously as a basket of washing
Ryan’s speaker knows he has ‘learned about duty’ and could not escape the ‘herring bone’ tracks of cows on his imagined life landscape. The title poem of this first section repositions ‘pastoral’ from ancient times in terms of a forceful series of images about his father’s works and days:
Shovelling bones and intestines onto a conveyor belt Skinning a dead horse or cow one minute Wiping maggots off his jeans, Tucking into a meat pie the next […] I can’t tell my friends where he is working. The Knackery. Rough as guts, they say. Getting out of his clothes, he gives us a hand With the night milking, leaving The smell of dead animals trapped in the car.
Like Murray’s ‘Blood’ poem, Ryan celebrates the defining presence of death and the Australian vernacular in traditional tropes.
In ‘Glenormiston’ and ‘Noorat’ Ryan records the underlying racism beneath the pastoral myth that settlement tropes frequently gloss. Niel Black, ‘squatter, parliamentarian’ ‘confessed to his journal each night’ that he ‘had no stomach for killing’. But he settles into the benefits from his predecessor, Frederick Taylor’s ruthless genocide ‘a moving line / to pounce on sleeping Aborigines’ by ‘patrolling his Run on horseback with guns drawn / to manage those terror-stricken Aborigines.’ And when (in a symbolic, overdue revenge) ‘the Purnim Bears, the League’s first / and last indigenous team whacked Noorat / out of the Grand Final […] won […] The League Best & Fairest, / the season’s goal kicking award. The League […] expelled them.’
Ryan’s poems are deceptively quiet, casual, vernacular, but their ironic subtlety often takes in the wide world beyond his backyard. In the prose poem ‘Across the Universe’ for example, Ryan writes about being with his sister ‘on the warm boards of a country bridge’, both of them wondering why anyone would want to shoot John Lennon, who seemed as familiar as a ‘taken for granted … cousin’. While ‘The local radio station hammered ‘Just Like Starting Over’ Ryan saw himself, cathartically or mimetically ‘squee-jee[ing] the cow shit across the yard (his universe) and into the drain-hole’. And ‘Sign of Peace’, about his reclusive uncle who only ‘wanted to […] grunt and shake my father’s hand’, points to unspoken dimensions of communication ‘like the sign of peace before Communion’ which links and contrasts Ryan’s Australia with what he writes of India: ‘a Brahman bull standing / in the centre / two policemen nursing rifles / asleep on a bench’ (‘Shanti Shanti’).
Brendan Ryan’s poems do not make a fuss or draw attention to themselves. They are modest, muscular, thoughtful – they feel like they’re around for the long haul.