Within Pure and Applied, Ryan experiments with materials of the past, most notably the sonnet form, the monologue, and with Greek myth and literature. This continues into Heroic Money, although she extends her poetic transpositions of cultural legends to include the likes of Paganini and Pushkin. With both, there is an air of staleness, ‘The new futility follows me abroad / Puffed wedding of nostalgia and amnesia’ (in ‘Paganini’); ‘but I had wished it ended […] ‘Goodbye my books’/(and dies)’ (in ‘Pushkin’). As a ‘Great Artist of nostalgia’, the poet is left with terms like ‘remnants’, ‘strands’, ‘an edge’, ‘wilt’, and ‘drift’. Poems like ‘Rameses’ align the poet to Egyptian emperor and poem to monument, with both subject to fall in ‘the spongy world’. ‘Oh Anachronism’ discerns, ‘Great Feelings have left me/Uplifting nature I don’t buy into//We book a place to talk/where I smirk on your behalf’. And in ‘The Global Rewards Redemption Centre’, the poet-speaker declares, ‘I continue my existence as a negative role-model’. Likewise, the ‘broken carpet’ of ‘Virtue’ is a ‘model of dissolution’. The volume has an air of sadness and devolution about it.
Ryan’s new poems form a considerable section of this collection. The elegiac mood of Pure and Applied continues, articulated most directly in ‘The Last Spring’ which mourns a death from cancer, the museal fading of past loves, and the sun coming up ‘like serial murder’. Yet in ‘City’, the request to ‘Make it a double I’ll join my friends sooner‘ is counterpointed by the observation: ‘Addictions in the recycle bin / When you have to leave the cities of nostalgia’. There is an awareness of the dangers of dwelling on the past as much as a drifting into such a state. As with Pure and Applied and Heroic Money, mythic figures such as Ismene, Antigone, Iphigenia, Aeneas, Daphnis and Chloe appear in contemporary guises. Other historical figures include Savonarola and Tchaikovsky. Once more, there are poems that lay bare the arrogance of the national agenda in poems like ‘Kangaroo and Emu’, which exposes the chance operations of Australia’s immigration policies:
‘We decide who comes into this country’ by algorithm or parachute ‘and the circumstances in which they come’ with always the assumption that anywhere is better crimson paddock and peppercorn or clattered heath he can’t beguile a punter of woe riding out of luck.
The ‘slush fund’ of being Australian is married to an inward-looking cultural cringe, with the possibility of change quashed through the desire for the same, even from those on the edges: ‘We stick with what we know / says the marginalled’.
Perhaps an example of the sheer finesse of Ryan’s poetry is found in the poem ‘Parting Winter’. It too has an elegiac tone in its depiction of the contemporary professional life:
Twinned letters, formal as nothing now is, the flight napkins sewn with sums, statistics, possibilities over the pointed seas, ‘the cost of ambition’ Skelter your lives
Adding pressure to the geographical scattering of selves are labour’s dictates of ‘No idle chat’ and ‘less time off’. The possibility of ‘When will I make amends?’ is never resolved, emphasised by the line standing alone. A sense of home, generally the domestic space of the house, ‘snips shut’, and the ‘pool-blue sky’ from the plane ‘turns to frost/and years you never see cast over’. Here, Ryan captures the gathering ice on plane windows as symbolic of the freezing of relationships, the ‘parting’ from ‘twinned’ existence. Against such finitude, the written exists as both trace and promise, ‘Even just a glimpse of your handwriting would be enough’. The poem is made more powerful through its condensation of imagery, the sparseness of words on the page emphasising the skeltering of life.
In Ryan’s New and Selected Poems, we are lucky enough to get a distillation of a long-spanning body of work from one of Australia’s best living poets. Engaging with Ryan’s poetry is not an easy trip. The drugs that are occasionally referred to in Ryan’s poems suggest that its subject matter is often bleak, that it covers material that we often prefer not to look at, opting instead for that which is sedated, comfortable, and blinkered. Ryan’s poems seek a zone of discomfort but that is precisely the zone of thinking.