Brendan Ryan: Small Town Soundtrack

Santa[sic] Lucia: Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, 2016, 91pp.

Brendan Ryan’s first book, the strikingly titled Why I Am Not a Farmer, mined the personal experiences of growing up in the West Victorian country north of Warrnambool on a dairy farm. In a sense, reasons for not being a farmer could be said to form the basis of most of the poems, an unlovely catalogue of hardness to humans and, more especially in this book, to animals: dehorning heifers, hauling calves out of cows, watching a bulldozer bury cows which have been burnt alive in a bushfire. It is what nowadays would be called anti-pastoral, a tradition in Australian writing which begins with the great Henry Lawson stories. But what is striking about this first book of Ryan’s, and the subsequent ones, is a lack of the polemical edge which is so much a part of this tradition: there is no sense, in other words, of a narky contempt of one writer for other writers and even for readers. In Lawson, this appears as a loathing of those writers peddling comfortable illusions about the rural life, in early Murray it is a contempt for cosy urban elites who see themselves as superior to those who work on the land with their “sparetime childhoods”. Calmer explorations of this world can be found in some of the poems of Geoff Page and in Gary Catalano’s first book, Remembering the Rural Life, as well as in the poetry of Philip Hodgins. In fact the last of these appears in an important poem in Ryan’s third book, Travelling Through the Family, important because Ryan here does his own positioning of himself within these rural poetic traditions.

“Philip Hodgins” is made out of two dreams about the late poet. In the first Hodgins is seen driving a tractor around the edges of a diminishing square. The process is like mowing but the tractor is harrowing instead, building up lines of dirt. Like a classic Freudian dream it is built on a verbal pun, here on the word “lines”:

. . . . . 
                                     The windrows of dirt
are stopping me from entering the paddock.
I want to ask him about his lines
yet sense that I will never get close to him.
He seems to be on a mission to work the paddock
to its own manic rhythm. I measure my distance,
windrows of dirt brush against me.

In the second dream Hodgins is pointing a shotgun at the poet demanding that he continue the former’s work, naming him, in other words, as an heir. It’s significant that one of the themes of Ryan’s work is the complicated ways in which farmers who have worked unremittingly all their lives have to take a wider view as they age and begin to make plans for some kind of transference of the property after their retirements (a hard step to take for most) or their deaths. Just as Ryan’s poems have, from that first book, tried to explain his reasons for leaving the farm, of not being a conventional heir, so this dream tries to explain the reasons for not taking up Hodgins’ metaphorical baton. It seems to be a matter of that polemical edge, of the directness and bluntness of statement. The second dream is worth quoting in full:

In another dream he is holding a shotgun at me
pointing it between my eyes. He is looking down the barrel.
He seems tired, resigned yet determined.
This is about the time I am writing my thesis
on his poetry. His rhythmic lines intersecting in my head,
His untimely death, direct nature of his address - 
There’s nothing in these dying days
consumes me and I live in two worlds,
grappling for an argument like a rock-climber
who has lost his footing, arms and legs flailing
for a ledge. He is looking down the barrel at me - 
Now it is up to you, to do this work
which confounds me. I am not up to
such direct statement. One of those moments
in a dream where I feel myself sweat,
wake soon after. A dream to burden the day - 
his words, that stare down the barrel.

Perhaps it’s a rejection of a kind of abruptness and directness that derives from certainties. Ryan, perhaps, feels much more equivocal about both farming and poetry. As a reader, one wants to go on speculatively and suggest that perhaps there is a kind of paralysed indecision at the heart of Ryan’s poetry. Though it poses the question of why he left, many times, and seems to continuously circle around issues of how we carry the past within us, how that influences how we act in the other lives we now lead as parents, as city-dwellers, the question never gets answered to the extent that it no longer needs to be asked. To return to the geometry of the first dream, the tractor doesn’t zero in on the last and central section of the paddock but instead circles continuously.

It’s true that the first book flirts with the possibility of mining his childhood experiences and producing a kind of rural version of confessionalism deriving from the weirdness of being one of a Catholic family of ten brothers and sisters working almost continuously on a dairy farm. As Murray says “I can tell you sparetime childhoods force-fed this / make solid cheese but often strangely veined”, and yet, as many critics have observed, you have to stand outside of yourself to get this sort of perspective: you have to have become somebody you weren’t before you realise that the earlier you has a marketable story. I think, again reading speculatively, that Ryan must have realised that there is a directness about the confessional/expose approach to writing about the rural life that didn’t answer to the way that the issues appeared in his own creative life where they act as a generative mechanism that rejects being reduced to certainties. I’m suggesting, in other words, that we might stop positioning Ryan within the complicated maps of poetic pastoralism and think of him, instead, as an obsessive poet, returning again and again to the issues that generate the poetry. The true binary for him might not be rural versus urban but childhood immersion in the immediate world versus adult disenfranchisement. If we take a single event that recurs a number of times in poems throughout the books – the time when his father worked in the knackery and brought the stink of dead animals back to the house in his car and on his clothes – we could say that what is important is not the specific nature of this trauma (fairly mild, on an international scale) but the very fact that it recurs, generates poems, and can’t be purged – a bit like Dickens’ very unrural experience of the blacking factory.

One way of looking at this new book, Small Town Soundtrack, is to see it as widening the way that this central obsession can be explored. It’s in four sections and though the first of these is called “Small Town Pastoral”, it is the title of the first poem, “Outsider Pastoral” which really establishes the key since the section is made up of poems about unease in different situations. That first poem, a little puzzling on first reading, turns out to be a strong piece in which the poet, an expert in the rules of community belonging, enters a pub and observes three regulars. Since the two men are described as possibly mountain men and the woman is expert enough as a hunter to make fun of city-based tourist hunters, the odds are that this is in upland territory. Readers of Ryan will know that his poems about the rural life take place in the “intimidating flatness” of Western Victoria with its occasional blisters of ex-volcanoes – “a moonscape of low-lying paddocks” as a later poem calls it. Although it’s never stated, you have a sense that the landscape in which this pub is set increases the sense of awkwardness that the poem wants to focus on:

. . . . .
One more pot and the glances will extend
into questions.
Where are you from? What are you doing?
Growing up in the country, I learned
there is a line running like a fuse
between here and away,
between the jokes accepted
and the contentions that hold sway.
Is it better to drink with the locals
or rest your foot on the rail bristling
with accusations?
. . . . .

It says something about the hypersensitivities of Ryan’s poetry that the atmosphere which in other, more clichéd poems (and hosts of genre novels), would be heavy with physical threat is marked only by an intense awkwardness. The poet is an expert on belonging and knows the general rules but even rural environments are self-contained. “Grounded Angels” tells the story (part of it repeated in another poem) of the man who buried his mother and then his wife two days later. When he buried his father, his ten year old son

stood in a lounge room
taking in the cousins, the silences
as if the person we had been thinking of

had quietly left the room.
Out of politeness, the boy grinned
as if it was a trick he could call upon.

Of all the images of unease, belonging and not belonging, this is one which stays with me: it’s an exquisitely awkward response on the part of the boy but it also makes sense. (This kind of poem goes back to a group in Why I Am Not a Farmer including the wonderful “Country Parents in Town”). In “Dairy Farmers at the Beach”, we meet father, mother and the children on a brief outing to the coast, another symbol of unease in an alien environment: “For they are an inland people / the beach is a type of joke not to be taken / as seriously as a basket of washing, / shifting the dry cows, or getting ready for Mass” and, in another poem, a man waiting while his wife buys underwear, “happy to be on the outside / as if entering between the bras / could instill a type of vertigo / a paddock he’s not used to”. But the setting is as likely to be urban as it is rural: we meet a single girl at school reading during recess and parents picking up kids. A spell of walking the dog (an activity where the sense of unease is mitigated by the fact that you are in the charge of an animal with its own, different sense of belonging) runs the poet up against an individual who is about as far from belonging as it is possible to be:

. . . . . 
I think of the old man who used to stop me:
I hate this area, I grew up in Geelong West.

The way he waited at the picket fence,
his discontent at 93.

Bare carport, blinds drawn
his liver brown brick veneer

caught in the creep of McMansions.
How did he wash up here?
. . . . .

If the first section is a set of variations on the theme of outsider unease, the second section, “Songs of the Clay Mound”, is built around the idea that, as people age, popular songs move from being something that sets the body dancing to nostalgic doorways into the past. “Where the Music Takes You” is made up of a list of destinations beyond such doorways and “The Music That’s In Us” says, “Songs from pubs and shops leave me ajar // the way snatches of Barry White in the supermarket / can hurl me sideways into a decade”. Songs are not only triggers of a return to an earlier personal world, they can also be portals to an alien world: “Across the Universe” is a fascinating meditation on the way in which John Lennon is part of the poet’s childhood life but he has no part in John Lennon’s life,

The local radio station hammered “Just Like Starting Over” while I squee-jeed the cow shit across the yard and into the drain hole. I often wondered if John Lennon could imagine this was happening. He was somebody I’d grown up with, taken for granted, like a cousin I once fought with . . . . . Central Park was in another universe.

The third section, “Towns of the Mount Noorat Football League”, looks initially like a clever way of organising a set of studies of the towns of the poet’s immediate childhood area. All told it’s a bleak picture of rural decline, “Pubs closed, churches sold, the store’s windows / exposing clumps of unopened mail, upturned / food display cabinets – the end of a town [Garvoc] / or the view of a former self”. But the notion of a Football League is more than just a structuring device because it points up the way in which Australian Rules football (and the same applies, presumably, for Rugby League in outback New South Wales) acts as a unifying agent. As someone devoted to “the round-ball code” I’ve probably been guilty, over the years, of looking down on these other, rather homely versions of football but it’s well to remember what a cohesive force they are, more cohesive than religion since religion has many divisive and combative sects but there is only one Aussie Rules. It’s celebrated in earlier poems like “Saturday Morning” and “Man on the Gate”, where it is “A small town’s investment in belief. / A community finding something to do” and where we meet the image of grounds where cars can park nose to the boundary.

Although the final section of Small Town Soundtrack is less tightly thematically organised than the preceding three, all of the poems chime with Ryan’s earlier poems. It’s true that “Cows in India” and “Shanti Shanti” are brief excursions into a sub-continental exotic but the observer brings, as ever, the paddocks of his own childhood with him: “The first time I saw cows in India / I wanted to round them up. // Yard them, milk them, close the gate / on a paddock, watch them nod along a cattle track. . .” There are poems like “At fifty” which attempt a slightly broader self-definition than those deriving from an obsession with locating the self: “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”. But perhaps the most intriguing is “Camellias” unusual in that is contains none of Ryan’s habitual tropes. Superficially it is about gardening but at heart, I think, it is a meditation about Ryan’s own poetry. He finds himself picking up some fallen camellias and placing them in a circle around a garden bed made up of salvias, Lamb’s Ears, Grevilleas and a single Manchurian Pear:

The contrast works and I realize it is one of the few
creative acts I have achieved this week -
placing fallen petals around the edge of a garden bed.
. . . 
I will come to notice the camellias in the coming week,
feel the kick as from a recently finished poem - 
something layered in doubt but flickering with surprise,
the way one snake story sheds its skin for another . . .

Not a straightforward allegory about what he thinks his poetry is made up of but it needs to be compared with a similar poem from Travelling Through the Family, “Self Portrait”. That poem speaks of walking ahead “into paddocks and more poems” of “half-succeeding in understanding / yet knowing my limits, self-doubt increasing with age / with rage”. Here the setting and metaphors are rural whereas in “Camellias” they are urban but, when speaking of poetry, they share a tentativeness as though Ryan’s central theme is something that can’t be dealt with definitively, can’t be exhausted.