Gig Ryan’s New and Selected Poems

By | 4 May 2012

Yet, perhaps we can see Ryan as enacting what Steve Evans terms a ‘disobedient poetics of determinate negation’. That is, to paraphrase Evans, the poem names particular incidents of oppression and situates them in a recognisable cultural space or milieu. It evaluates those incidents and takes a position on them. The conditions of those incidents may be contradictory. The poem displaces events from the strict economy of a contradiction-riddled real time onto the plane of a symbolic address that anticipates a future in which those contradictions no longer determine human action: i.e. it anticipates a post-patriarchal future. While Evans applied his concept of ‘disobedient poetics of determinate negation’ to Cortez’s poem, it is a useful framework in considering how Ryan effectively negates an oppressive, omnipresent gendering and works towards a ‘not-yet’ available set of relations between men and women.

Poems like ‘Sum’ in Ryan’s second volume, Manners of an Astronaut, also foregrounds the gap between the current world and what might be:

In another world, this gesture could be sweet
and you could just stand there, symbolic of things.
But meanwhile, people add things up
and the total is in your head. My actions escape me.
I remember water shining like a cage, and not you so much.

And in ‘Half Hill / Half …’: ‘What’s wrong? ghost of separation between thought and action / If you complain here, you’re talked out of history’. In both these poems, there is a sense of being stuck with negotiating the current world (‘The world holds you in place like hairspray’).

Ryan’s subsequent volumes build upon the first and second, such that the New and Selected Poems gives a sense of the cumulative trajectory of Ryan’s career. Indeed, Ryan’s poetry self-consciously explores the passing of time in terms of society, literary tradition and the person: ‘Marry the wind, the table, /a way to be civil, as sun recedes like a tail-light/somewhere, you cumulative bastard’. The title of her fourth volume, Excavation (arguments and monologues), explicitly suggests ‘mucking about’ with history, and this is reflected in Ryan’s experimentation with pastoral and myth. It is still focused on relations between the sexes but the alignment between capitalism and gender that can be found in the earlier volumes is more directly or frequently evoked. An example can be found in the impressionistic ‘Six Goodbyes’:

Emptiness follows all the yachts
The capitalists are friendly when you buy
‘Shakespeare saw that it...was the perfection of a woman
to be characterless’ (Coleridge reflects)
My ears are stuffed with men and the noise they make
A girl walks down the used lane with her pay 

Art, like yachts, and women are part of an economy dominated by men and money. While poems like ‘On first looking into Fairfax’s Herald’ and ‘1965’ are focused on global politics, ‘Disinformation’ alludes to the gendered underpinnings of cultural exchange:

Our clown Prime Minister jostles on the steps,
unable to dissemble,
unable to not be loved by Indonesia, France, Chile, China 
He troths the Bases, not alienated anymore
“Your women are beautiful,” says the Yank
in relay with his Navy darkening the harbour

Foregrounding the official union between the United States and Australia as a ‘done (patriarchal) deal’ against the head of State’s absurd desires to be loved by everyone, Ryan emphasises Australia’s feminised availability in the last lines.

In her fifth volume, Pure and Applied, Ryan focuses even more fully on a critique of globalisation and Australia’s identity within the world. A kind of sequel to ‘Disinformation’, ‘Two Leaders’ juxtaposes the prevarication and weakness of ‘Our Prime Minister’ against ‘The nice President’ who ‘tells us what to do’. As with Forbes’ poems like ‘On the Beach’, Ryan’s poem condemns government’s kowtowing to a global superpower while at the same time promoting a white imperial Australia: ‘Let’s lose the black armband glitch of history/and praise our forebears, clanking through shiny trees/and taming soil. Here we plant democracy’. Australia is likened to a property or empire that can be bought or sold, the Prime Minister’s ‘advertising hands’ commemorating entrepreneur-ism while welfare evaporates (‘hospitals stagger and schools cut’).

In ‘New Corral (August 1992)’, the speaker foregrounds how political decisions are shaped by media spin:

Between golf and fishing he sees the recent poll
and how when guns and deaths were flashing like an ad
respect went up and TV made a mint
Fearing, he swaggers. The crowd’s muzzle and pebble fade
His cabled mind, reeling a polluted catch
opts to clear the barn

The agency of the politician, whose gaming is both literal and metaphorical, contrasts with the muzzling of the crowd. The poem’s flagpole stands for the patriotic flag at war as much as the golfing green. Against the consuming leisure of the political leader is death on a mass scale, but death that is able to be edited and thus rendered more palatable ‘(The odd untidy charred arm can be cut)’.

Indeed, the morality of leisurely consumption applies as much to the Australian tourist abroad. The ‘authentic’ European experience is one that can be packaged and bought at a price (‘England was antipodean must / Switzerland was grouse’). As the speaker notes in ‘Travellers from the New World’, ‘They should just cordon off the Northern Hemisphere and charge admission in’. The actual experience of contemporary Europe challenges Australian preconceptions of a fixed base for a genealogy of self, ‘I thought there’d be more history here’. The same imperialising attitudes of consumption are applied closer to home in ‘Eating Vietnamese’:

This restaurant’s divine They’re refugees
Asians are beautiful don’t you think, quite hairless
She wore apricot chiffon There were kids everywhere
So demanding. Am I missing?

As with food, the arts and romantic love are often portrayed as mere consumables to be enjoyed (This is particularly explicit in the later ‘Eurydice’s Suburb’, in the lines, ‘After, we go to the Parthenon Thai restaurant in Northcote / Social workers cleansing their systems on art’s scaffold’). The memorable ‘Exchange Rates’, archly debates empirical realism, the possibility of measuring goods and even affective stances against one another:

I keep my books in plastic, my heart in the fridge
and don’t feel better than people screaming in the street
The Korean violinist plays ‘London’ Derry Air
I can’t read what he gives
For Deutschmarks a pile of cut papers
I wear out my shoes
While you fiddle with numbers
She wins the sincerity comp.
‘He never likes me when I’m out
As if I were supposed to be a jug
of assent’ the tapping snow
‘We love each other but we’re incompatible’
she goes, in the bank.

The woman’s declaration of incompatibility is ironised by being likened to the banking of money, that is, an act of investment. By the end of the poem, ‘all you had is gone’ and communication is one of desolate hermetic alienation, from ‘cell to cell’. In contrast, clichés (like ‘We love each other, but we’re incompatible’) remain loud, public, and still going strong as they ‘ache and sing ardently through the street’.

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