Gig Ryan: New and Selected Poems

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2011, 209pp.


Gig Ryan is not an easy task for a reader and an especially difficult task for a critic. But it is a task that must be undertaken because her body of work (nicely introduced by this two-hundred page Selected Poems) grows progressively more impressive. It has a consistency and intensity that simply forces itself on readers. It isn’t going to go away and we need to come to grips with it better than we probably have. One’s first response, as critic, is to be tempted to resort to the most basic level of description of difficult poetry which is to describe one’s own difficulties in the face of it. Really, of course, that is describing oneself rather than the poetry one is confronted with. At a slightly more engaged, analytical level one could write about the features of her style that stand out – which are, in fact, given how consistently they are deployed, worth thinking of as the Ryan idiom. One could write quite a bit about her fractured syntax whereby capitals introduce sentences that are not necessarily completed as in these fairly representative lines from “Achilleus” a poem in her fourth book, Excavation:

. . . . .
Perpetually a drag
Music greases its haggard souvenir
the muffled snow flicks down
and reckons you’re clapped in death
I watch the fight from the brown shore
The two in my head turn like a supermarket

I don’t know what close means, being dead all a life
Whatever comes, comes. Unergonomically, you crawl
in bed the sad cathedrals He looks at the gun windows
Writing swims into its pin
my mother’s white seashells
the slicing river.

Secondly there is her wonderful metaphoric language, especially the similes. I think someone elsewhere has pointed out that of all poets, Ryan is the one whose metaphors and similes are utterly unpredictable. To drag some out at random (one per book), “His eyes / romantic as aluminium strewn against a sea-wall”, “This slop hovering in the background like a new Hawaii”, “when you go out generously like armour”, “He stands in the doorway like freight / like fuel”, “Monotonous branches scratch the ditchy air”, “the cribbed tectonic music”, “the past’s porphyried gas”. These are not easy to generalise about, but they do have a shock value which disconcerts the reader in a valuable way. At any rate they are so far from what one might expect that they can be seen as part of a war on rhetorical predictability, always something that one feels should be a component of the higher reaches of poetry.

Ryan’s metaphoric language, if it is part of a rejection of the poetically-expected, meshes in with a third feature of her style: there are no lyrical graces. The poems are – to generalise crudely – hard, harsh and intense and never woo the reader with any superficial sexinesses. In this her work contrasts strongly with that of her friend and sparring-partner, John Forbes, which almost always, through its sinuous syntax and meditative shifts, remains attractive even when at its most incomprehensible. I always get the impression, reading Ryan’s work, of a stony (and honourable) refusal ever to let her poems be charming. But it’s a complex issue: greater artists than Ryan have been happy to operate from within a world of fixed expectations and to show that they could do even this rhetorical, generic stuff better than others. Beethoven, told that his slow movements reduced people to tears is reported to have said, “They’re supposed to”.

Of course, describing her style in this kind of generalised way commits the crime of seeing her work as a unit, immune to change. There is a clear shape to Ryan’s career and it needs to be registered, though the difficulty of the poems and especially the difficulty of distinguishing between dramatic monologue and “lyric” statement means that the shapes of these changes aren’t as clear as they are in the cases of other poets. But, looked at as a whole, there is clearly an “early” period made up of her first three books: The Division of Anger (1980), Manners of an Astronaut (1984) and The Last Interior (1986). The poems of these books, difficult as they are to summarize, seem built around inner-city relationship politics. As the title of the first book suggests, the authorial position is inclined to be angry, though ”rage” may be a more technically correct term than “anger”. My favourite line – which captures this perfectly – comes from “By Water”: “I want to throw up. Where do they make those people?”

At first you think there might be a model in those series of portrait poems that try to map an ethos: sequences like Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” or Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. But Ryan’s poems are made more complicated by a surreal cast and by the reader’s difficulty in separating lyric from dramatic monologue from “ironic portrait”. Who is the speaker of the opening of “Armistice”?

His dishonour fractures at the messy gate.
It clinks like betrayal. You couldn’t give a damn.
Define anger, and I’ll tell you how I feel,
saying it as a liturgy into the massive aerodrome of days. . .

Or of the opening of “All Over Like a Prelude”?

You with your shining emotional hair.
He’s off to the disco, wow, get fucked by a man.
It’s Friday isn’t it. This is the itinerary he says,
one more shot, and we’re heroes.
What’s your clever story? I’m gullible as a lake,
glassy and no kids. It’s still love.

Kick. It’s your dead and doped-up brain
nothing matters to. Here in the land of the sublime,
we’ll roar tears. . .

What the poems of these books teach their readers, I think, is that we need to suspend the usual desire to ferret out the poet’s stake in the action and instead to see them as a continuing kaleidoscope of dramatic portraits animated by an almost disengaged rage. The more you read early Ryan, the more interesting the short, pamphlet book, The Last Interior seems because it is made up of a long series of truncated portrait pieces. It is a book I have read a number of times without feeling confident about the principles behind its construction, while being perfectly sure that it is not at all random. I used to imagine that John Tranter’s “Red Movie” might be a model because it is composed of fragmentary portraits but in that sequence the structure is a very conscious “field” which means that the reader is required to abstract the portraits. You couldn’t imagine doing that in Ryan’s case since the emotional involvement prevents abstraction and the last two sections (a series of elegies and a set of portraits) are moving to the point of being harrowing. Coolness is not the tone of any of these poems or an acceptable environment. How distanced the author is from her own rage is going to remain an imponderable until someone writes about this poet and her poetry from a more knowing position than I do.

The best known of these early poems is “If I Had a Gun” which was always going to be a good anthology piece. In fact, as I can testify, it is a wonderful teaching poem. Students’ initial responses range from “Good on her” to “Can you say that? Isn’t that a hate crime?” and, of course, you get to run through all kinds of framing devices including dramatic monologue (ironic or otherwise), conscious or unconscious humour, irony, hyperbole etc etc. But the crucial thing is that in its surface clarity it is not at all a typical early Ryan poem.

Reading Excavation (1990) is a very different experience and this selection helps readers with that fact by shifting “On First Looking into Fairfax’s Herald” to the beginning of the poems selected from this book. It and the second poem, “1965”, look outwards to a far wider world than the inner-city suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne. And as they look out, so their techniques are different. “On First Looking into Fairfax’s Herald” is like a slightly surreal collage of news items from the Sydney Morning Herald and “1965” (“The river winding red and green with corpses / She told me / They stood them on the banks / and shot them. . .”) is about Indonesia’s year of living dangerously. These are brave poems and one can’t imagine Ryan comfortably entering an environment more suited to Bruce Dawe. I don’t think they’re successful but they are successful in remaining true to Ryan’s idiom:

. . . . .
The millions of Opposition glues powerlessly together
This President? Tin.
out of earshot
The thick rivers. we parcel in our heads.
in Indonesia in 1965

But one wouldn’t want to make any crass generalisations about a new, open and outwardly turned style. The fifth poem in the book, “Chorus”, is as dense and challenging as anything in Ryan’s work:

I wake up without deception
a phone chatters off the hook
Wrapped in silence
the climbing yellow moon
Your parties never get delivered
He skates backwards
I retrieve
darkness and clearness
the flaming roses
What I said a sham
Your door waking the street

Already left.
Their talking scatters meaninglessly around the table.
It trinkets back behind the head
The head comes into view with its death-weight,
its torpor . . . . .

But the fact remains that although there are poems like “Chorus” as well as portrait poems and monologues about drug culture, there are still, in Excavation, a whole set of poems that face the sort of “contemporary issues” which are experienced by watching TV news or by reading Fairfax’s Herald.

This Selected Poems includes thirty-seven poems from Ryan’s next book, Pure and Applied, a high rate of retention which confirms that the author thinks that it is her own best book. I think it is, too. For a start it seems a more open-textured book, getting its power not by compression but by variety. It has portrait poems and monologues as the earlier books do including “Last Class”, the monologue of an academic giving his last class which, almost miraculously in Ryan’s work, could conceivably be written by someone else. It also has some very fine examples of monologues which are collections of its subjects’ (and victims’) actual speech, like “At the Laundromat”, “London Saver” and “Interest Rates”. Because these are subject to Ryan’s disjunctive style, they can be much more powerful than their mode (the irony of self-revelation) usually lets them be. “Eating Vietnamese” is a fine example:

“I’ve got a lot of doubts but he’s so considerate
I’m looking for a psych
to work through. He’s digital
where I’m a klutz, but living out of bags
was just too gross, scatting home to change
and then work
I’m trying to get him to smooth the place
You should stay too. The country’s lush
I want to hammer on my own for once
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?
I guess you’re going to soon
These places make me horny
It’s honest to see the way they kill”

This poem exploits one of Ryan’s strengths which is her capacity to record women speaking of the general malaise of their relationships but ultimately self-revelation is more damning than the kind of authorial contempt for both partners in the relationship that one finds in the earlier poems. This method also lies behind two poems about China, “One Hundred Flowers” and “Winged Victory” both of which mimic the propaganda-speak of the Chinese government, the former over the Tiananmen Square massacre and the latter over labour relations behind the great Chinese export drive.

Also in Pure and Applied are, for the first time as far as I can see, poems of travel: to London, Rome and other stops. These are strong poems and at no point mere poetic travel journalism. The distinctiveness of style means that we are a long way from tourist brochures or even critiques of tourist brochures. “Travellers from the New World” does seem a fairly light comical representation (“An American to the husband ”˜You do the outside I’ll go in’”) but others like “Voyage” (“Bitterness and rancour lathe inside / the heart’s bowled walls . . .“) and “Forfeit” (“Unreal world I see from the cave with opinion, change and decay / and then the blinding forms”) are complex and quite disorienting.

One is always drawn to any poem which is simultaneously the first poem of a book and its title poem. Readers are always searching for a poem-poem, something that might help them learn to read an author’s poems. I can’t find such a poem in Ryan’s work but for a long time I thought that the title poem of Pure and Applied might be one. I had assumed that it referred to the poems’ opening out into political issues and experiences of cultures other than inner-city Australian ones, admitting that this movement might be something akin to “applied” poetry. When the book was published, I’d thought that the drift of the title was disjunctive, establishing two kinds of poetry: “pure” poetry and “applied” poetry. Revisiting this book, I realise that I was probably misreading the intention. It is a conjunctive title, affirming that it is poetry which is both pure and applied. Unfortunately the title poem is not a nice analytical piece lecturing about the two terms. It is a five-part poem about public media and I’m inclined to read the fact that the five parts are in different styles that we meet elsewhere in Ryan’s work as making some kind of statement about poetry. The final part, for example, is one of the monologues of collections of speech that I’ve already spoken about. The third part is a representation of reality as mediated through the Age’s “Good Weekend” (“The sheets wind milky green . . .”) and the second part records the numbing experience of television watching (“Politicians nod like priests / You slip in the crowded chair like 3 million others . . .”). But the first poem is something else:

The channel caves in his hand like a weak cushion
as news reads the screen
and curved along its poverty, a reflecting and equivalent desert
occupies geometry
which devalues each tincture my chatelaine
which people vacancy
like today’s harping and the litmus of his hair.

It’s hard to get this poem out of your head (where does “my chatelaine” come from?) but I have always read it as an analysis of television as a McLuhanish medium. Thus it is tempting to see it as being about the “purer” end of analysis which will somehow be joined with the “applied” – the representation of the experience of being exposed to the medium – to make a potent poetry. I’m not sure these hopes have survived a rereading of Ryan’s work but, as I’ll show later, they do resonate with other binaries.

What strikes one about Heroic Money (2001) and the new poems in this Selected is that although they continue the outward-, macro-looking view of parts of Pure and Applied (they are perhaps more interested in the mechanics of capital rather than the structures of culture) they never forsake the basic dense, disjunctive style of Ryan at her best. There are no simple portraits like “Eating Vietnamese” and certainly nothing like “Last Class”. True, the titles like “Rameses”, “Eurydice’s Suburb”, “Mary Wollstonecraft”, “Cosima Wagner’s Book of the Dead”, “Tchaikovsky in Italy” promise external cultural reference points that the reader thinks will be a help, but the poems themselves remain very dense. Take, for example, the opening lines of the innocently named “Iphigenia”:

Ships slinged in low elastic waters knock
who chug you to the altar
where old blood crumbles.
Orange fire tassels air.
You look out from the coast

back when twisting horses rise . . .
and clay figurines scout on your shelves
or back, lost geraniums shimmered August
and then expunge, then ”˜fluey tenants later, then tied between two screens
your binary presence more real than soft dawn
when ritual tatters
and reversible names converse over the galloping maps.
. . . . .

One doesn’t want to use words like “accessibility” because they are inclined to beg the question, but there are more approachable poems in Pure and Applied, especially in the scathing portraits of the Prime Minister and President (“Two Leaders”) and the Chinese monologue poems. Heroic Money and these new poems seem a retreat to a stronger, purer but less approachable style (though “Kangaroo and Emu” might be something of a partial exception).

“Purer”, of course, raises the issue of the extent to which this “pure” and “applied” binary (or conjunction) has any value in finding a way for a reader to get more satisfactorily under the skin of this challenging idiom. You do begin to see pairs. In Pure and Applied, “Interest Rates” is matched by “Exchange Rates” and in Heroic Money “Critique of Pure Reason” is closely and suggestively followed by “Critique of Practical Reason”. And then there are pairings like “Ismene” and “Antigone” and poems which are imagined conversations like “Electra to Clytemnestra” and “Ismene to Antigone” (in Heroic Money). I’d hoped that such poems might preserve this “pure” and “applied” dichotomy since the Electras and Antigones of the Attic Greek world are nothing if not pure and their characters convey all the issues that arise from obsession and moral correctness balanced against the more pragmatic characters like Ismene, Chrysothemis, Orestes and Clytemnestra. But if this is what is intended in these poems, it isn’t easy to see.

So the double perspective of describing the features of the “style” and impressionistically trying to sense changes in theme and approach over Ryan’s entire work don’t serve criticism very well. I am confident enough about Ryan’s status to feel that this is a critical failure on my part (though a very enjoyable and intellectually demanding process) and, like anyone in this situation, I would like to shift the blame a little. It’s a matter of critical desiderata. Ryan’s work makes crystal clear that what is needed is critical, biographical and poem-centred work on this poet that will begin to give readers a better sense of what happens when she writes and what editing processes go on in the writing. Ideally, I am thinking of something like the interview with John Forbes in which he speaks at length about “Four Heads and How to Do Them”. Even something as crude as a list of the poems which she herself thinks are her best would be a starting point (though it could be said that this is exactly what a Selected Poems like this does). At any rate, readers need more detailed critical assistance from people who are positioned so that they have an intimate sense of how these fascinating poems try to go about their poetic business.