J. S. Harry: New and Selected Poems

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2021, 306pp.

One of the really distinctive voices among those poets whose careers begin in the 1970s belongs to J.S. Harry. She shows no particular allegiances among the groups, anthologies and received influences (usually American) of that period, doing her own thing in her own way. This new, posthumous collection forms a kind of companion piece to Giramondo’s earlier Not Finding Wittgenstein – a gathering of her Peter Henry Lepus poems – and together the two provide an ideal introduction to an unusual and fascinating voice. In addition, this New and Selected has a valuable introduction by Nicolette Stasko which, although it provides little in the way of standard biographical information (dates, occupations, travels, correspondence, etc), does give a strong sense of what the author was actually like as a person (something lacking in the most scholarly of recent literary biographies, built out of months spent in a library among the subject’s papers).

She is a very hard poet to describe adequately even though fifty years have passed since the publication of her first book, The Deer Under the Skin in 1971 – the fifth book in the Paperback Poets series of the University of Queensland Press. I’ve been reading her work since that time and find myself coming up with shifting notions of what is at the core of her poetry. After looking at this Selected, I’m inclined to see its central tension as a drive towards lyrical forms tempered by a distrust of many of the features of that form. This distrust is something shared by the poets of her time, some fearful of the dominance of a homogenised “lyrical ego” (rather a straw man since good lyric poetry is likely to present the self as something even more complex than theoreticians of the unstable created self are apt to imagine), others preferring to attempt to adopt the models derived from such contemporary approaches as “field theory”. Most, perhaps all, seem to be fearful of a kind of lyric smugness, or even the lyric kitschiness of the worst of the Georgians. In Harry, dealing with this distrust takes many forms. Sometimes it is countered in the structure of the poems themselves while at other times it produces a whole series of balancing poems devoted to issues of language, logic, poetry and meaning: Wittgenstein, Russell and Ayer tend to make appearances here.

The very first poem of The Deer Under the Skin, “The What O’Clock”, looks like an attempt to write a contemporary conventional lyric poem:

A puff-ball
on a slim green stem
is more attached
to earth than I.

The wind will tear
its seeds away -
perhaps they’ll root - 
Words root. My words? Mine?
. . . . . 

If first poems in first books often establish a sort of keynote, I think this does exactly the opposite: it lays down an extreme beyond which the rest of the poet’s work will never go, in fact may even fight against. I think – although I haven’t checked exhaustively – it is the only poem in her entire corpus that uses the first person pronoun as expressive of a conventionally simplified personal voice. In dealing with dandelion seeds it also risks being twee: as I’ll show later there is a recurring element of what has to be called “tweeness” in Harry’s response to the world (ducklings, the soft noses of animals, mossy hollows, compound adjectives, etc) and one of the tensions in her poetry is how to allow this in as a genuine personal response to the world while at the same time exercising a poet’s toughness. Interestingly “The What O’Clock” is revisited in a later poem, “Whistling the Fluff” from the 1995 volume, The Life on Water and the Life Beneath. By that time the nature of Harry’s interest in levels and in the balance between creation and destruction had become a little clearer. This poem is interested in three elements: the breeze, the seed and the fluff which enables the seed to find a home before itself being destroyed. The seeds themselves can be carriers of new life if they are lucky to fall into mud (or, as in another poem, into a “clump of horseshit”) but they can also fail and end up as food for the local birds, “taken out” as a memorable phrase says, “by some / gutblocked Duck of Chance”. The structure of the poem is to abandon any simple celebration of “a whole new / green generation” of “gold-flowered / weed dandelions” and switch to focussing on the fluff which carries the seed and which, unlike the seed, is able to exist, if only briefly, in the air.

The tensions between the drive towards lyric and a more analytical poetry of forensic examination especially of language but also of poetry itself, is often expressed in the structuring of the poems within her books. In The Deer Under the Skin, that opening poem, “The What O’Clock”, is followed by “How Old Pity Left the Poem” which imagines the poet killing pity (one of the expressions of tweeness) by extreme GBH:

So then I smashed him up
bashed his face and bled him
he slid down the wall
The blood brightened
his greasy clothing . . .

It finishes with the identification of victim with abuser: pity is, of course, the poet herself: “I am the bugger he said / I am yourself”. This is followed by a three-line poem, “Guinea Pigs” – “on bad days / it is sweet to watch them / nibbling their lives like grass” – again lyrical but dangerously close to the cute. The fourth poem is the important “The Little Grenade” which is exactly about the tensions between lyricism and its opposite, though here the opposite is not a poetry investigating the philosophy of words and meaning, but a poetry of explosive action. It doesn’t, however, necessarily consider “explosive action” to be simply a politically incendiary result (the dream of many poet-activists of the sixties and seventies). It’s a bit more complex than that:

The little grenade
wanted poems that explodexplored
or pushed candles
inside the pumpkin people
to make flames sputter and drip
where their darkness bulged. . .

And the friend of the little grenade is on the side of a sensitive response though this isn’t described in terms that are entirely approving:

The he that was a friend of the little grenade
liked poems that sat fatly in the middle of stillness waving their feelers
The poems that he wrote were lumpy mattresses
stuffed with kapok. Or flock . . .

Although it is a poem of oppositions, the conclusion suggests a kind of compromise: “there will be room for explodexplore and stillness / in one of the corners”. It’s also intriguing that in tone and conception, this poem is designed to be read in Hans Christian Andersen mode – the ultimate in twee. Conceiving the central characters as “a little grenade” who has a friend described as “the he that was a friend of the little grenade” is not so far away from the world of ugly ducklings and little mermaids. Again, as with the decision to open her first book with “The What O’Clock”, I think it is a matter of deliberately raising an issue that the poet finds causes tension rather than suppressing it.

Evidence for this as a carefully evolved strategy is present in the way the next two books repeat the structure. Hold For a Little While and Turn Gently begins with its title poem, an overt discussion of kinds of poetry, perhaps expressly the “explodexplore type”

. . . . . 
He conceived of a style that could
                 rise up	off its page
and stop us cold as the steelpoint
sunk in, upto its hilt,
                  yet making fire
in the belly . . .

The poem further separates itself from lyrical assertion by using a technique Harry adopts in other poems: that of allowing the voice to be a parody of a bemused bureaucrat:

. . . . . 
What he did say was
that the Cora Indians	do not find it meaningful
            to distinguish
between the words of a man and his deeds	between
the sounds of a “mind”	and the moves of a body.
When we had proved, to our satisfaction,
that he was not	a Cora Indian, (and that there was,
            for him, some slight nuance
between the sound of the idea-knife in his
   “mind”	and the feel of a blade in his body)
                          he was quite dead . . .

At any rate, “Hold For a Little While, and Turn Gently” is followed by a poem in full lyrical mode, rabbits and all:

Already Someway Off

and peaceful
in the distance far
from the small fires
the smells
of the raw
meats cooking,
there is a clearing:

a rabbit
the stubble
on his cheek;
the sun
moves out
through a rift
and suddenly
it is evening

As with so many of Harry’s lyrics, this contains its own “anti-lyric” elements. A peaceful scene contains rabbits but also the smell of cooking (something rabbits, and other innocent animals, might well be subject to). Death and violence are always present in such apparently arcadian scenes in Harry’s poetry.

Not to over-emphasise this point, the same structural set-up occurs in her next book, A Dandelion for Van Gogh. The first poem is the first part of a diptych the second part of which turns up half-way through the book. “Parts of Speech as Parts of a Country” immediately follows an epigraph by Russell pointing out that the meaning of words is “distilled” from their use rather than the other way round. Both parts of the poem, “I as Desert” and “He/ He Tried” narrate the same surreal story in which someone escaping the accusation of consenting to conventions by breaking through a wall (“its alive / crustations of habit”) finds themselves beheaded by a single axe-stroke on the other side. Not a straightforward poem but it is followed by one of Harry’s best, straight-lyric pieces, “Temple-Viewing”,

mute as lovers
a pair of spotted turtle doves
enter the green silence

walking on round
brown wooden stones
sunk between
white pebbles

it is the japanese garden
to a japanese temple
the dwarf bamboos
sway in the wind
              to the soft
      of the windbells

& the doves
who are visitors
from india

nod & bow
at the ground as if
they were in accord

with both the customs
of the place
& matters invisible

It’s a wonderful poem in its own way even though, just as Harry probably didn’t want this to be the only kind of poem she is remembered by, so a reader wouldn’t want his or her entire poetic literature to be written in this mode. But, as in all good lyrics, the reader is invited (or expected) to contribute to the poem, fulfilling the wish of the poet quoted on the blurb of The Deer Under the Skin that “there should be room in each poem for the imagination of the reader to work in”. In the case of “Temple-Viewing” there are allegorical issues to be recognised: these doves are from India which is where Buddhism originated before spreading east in its Mahayana form. There are also contextual elements in the form of markers of those situations that, from the rest of her work, we can see that Harry is especially sensitive to: here it is the wind which sways the bamboos and activates the windchimes. In a sense it is the same wind as the one which disperses the seeds of the puffball in that first poem. It also brings sound into what seems to be an entirely visual representation and this is a technique used in the fourth poem of A Dandelion for Van Gogh (the alternating structure is continued) where a visual portrait of the goings on at a lakeside is finished with sound: “A crowcoloured dog / gallops over the hill / while the voice of his colour / caws above him”.

The idea of contextual elements in the form of distinctive responses by a particular poet leads me to look at some of Harry’s very distinctive, and endlessly repeated interests. These are not to be dignified by being called themes but they are, instead, I think, characteristic patterns of thought and, as such, take us closer to one area of Harry’s creativity. In fact one of the reasons for Harry’s remaining such an interesting poetic voice for a reader may well lie in the fact that we can see the shape of her mind a bit more clearly than we can for most other poets. Perhaps the most dominant element in her mental setup is a sensitivity to vertically organised layers, something forshadowed in “The What O’Clock”. Sometimes these layers are allegorised out into a simple binary of upper=life versus lower=death. But sometimes there is evidence of fertility-in-corruption in the dark underworld where, for example, in “Wind Painting”,

. . . . . 
there is one fat gold
dandelion for van gogh
tethered by its own sap
in the black damp shade
by a clump of horseshit

Here, as often, any tendency of lyric to move towards the cute is countered by a healthy linguistic vulgarity of image and word.

In the layering of these poems there is also the issue of death and destruction, something closer to a theme than the cast of a poet’s thought. “Navigating Around Things” from The Life on Water and the Life Beneath, begins as a typically Harry-ish lyric description of a scene, unusual only in that it is immediately declared to be “windless”. We meet cardboard cartons that seem to be imitating birds before meeting actual galahs themselves – “eyes only / on what is relevant to galahs”. The next to appear are galloping horses, typically, for Harry, producing “in the ovens of their bodies” steam from one end and dung from the other so that an object moving horizontally generates material that moves upwards and material that moves downwards. The horses are photographed by a man, fittingly described as a “downwardly mobile young professional” on

. . . . .
  an “indefinite
unpaid vacation” – from a job

with a broking office; not at all
suspicious he’s been

“floated”, on the air current,
outside a high-up window,
like a Kleenex with snot on it . . .

Eventually the poem turns to the life beneath the water which is comprised mainly of eels who have developed the unpleasant skill of sucking newborn ducklings down:

. . . . .
the large eels suck like centripetal force
that drags the water
out of the bathtub
                      & suddenly
in the dying dark
alone down an eel
goes a trusting fluffball . . .

This interest in layers and the various ways in which they can be allegorised is everpresent in Harry’s overtly lyrical pieces but it is present also in the non-lyrical ones. The title poem of The Life on Water and the Life Beneath is an extended narrative of a man taking a boat out into the waters over a town which has, Adaminaby-like, been flooded. We find, at the end, that it’s a suicide poem. The man has lived with the genetic scar of having had an axe-murderer for an uncle: the genetic heritage being conceived as something lying beneath the surface of an individual. The whole lengthy sequence is interwoven with references to Debussy’s tenth prelude, “The Sunken Cathedral”. And in the previous book, A Dandelion for Van Gogh, there are two poems which rework layers in a parody of bureaucratic incompetence. “This Explains” is a solemn denotative analysis – entirely misguided – of the difference between a chimney and a ferry presented as a kind of report:

. . . . .
You say	this explanation	does not fit	your problem’s appetite . . .
If only	you had told us sooner -
instead of hazing us	with that query, about
chimneys, ferries, & cargoes – what you needed to know
we could have projected
an entirely different	set of developments, specifically
designed to locate
                  “ideally suitable stocks”
of consenting human heads . . .

But the material of this faux proposal is based around issues familiar in Harry’s poetry: the interest in the horizontal motion of the ferry as opposed to the vertical motion of the smoke. The fact that the chimney stays still while the smoke passes vertically through it, reminds a reader of the comment in another poem, “it is strange to speak / of the hill as ‘rising’ / when the hill / stays exactly / as it always has”. “This Explains” is also a poem that tempts interpretation. I have always, for no real reason that I can justify, associated it with the Holocaust even though those victims were moved by rail rather than by ferry. But someone must have put in tenders in the correct impersonal prose, to actually build the extermination camps. On the other hand, it might be more humorous poem that it seems, something like the Monty Python sketch in which the architect presents the design of his housing block replete with rotating knives.

“The Gulf of Bothnia” also uses a deliberately non-lyric voice to deal with the levels peculiar to that upper branch of the Baltic Sea where water of the northern part is virtually fresh (from the large number of rivers feeding it) and that of the southern part is salt. At the same time the land is rising out of the sea with what, in geological terms, is considerable speed. This is a poem where the levels are not of earth to sky or of the above-water to the underwater world but rather of levels within the water itself. The anti-lyrical element is present in both the images used and the tone of the narrator’s voice:

. . . . .
boat houses sit in cow paddocks
falling green on their knees into grass
waiting for the sea to come back
& the boats to visit -
much as grandfather & grandmother
might’ve waited	for “life” to come back
to visit them 
on the old-age farm – had they lived
by the gulf of bothnia near the top . . .

Two poems from the “New Poems” section of an earlier Selected poems, “Brindabella a Shot for the Seventies” and “Mousepoem” are good examples of where this lyric vs anti-lyric opposition has developed later in Harry’s career. The former is a description of a complex scene that, for all the fact that it seems superficially like Harry’s other lyric descriptions (“Sleepers in a Park, Centennial . . .”, for example, or “Walking, When the Lake of the Air is Blue with Spring”) is drenched in blood and death. A trout is being gutted and inside it is a beetle which had fallen into the water and been swallowed; nearby is a fox which has been shot (the poem’s title puns on the two meanings of “shot”) while it was on its way to kill the young of a wood duck. But the processes of life go on: flies breed on the dead body and parrots feast in the trees:

. . . . . 
he hangs now in the poplar
ropestrung by that brush

flies make their reproductions 
where he swings red in the sun

red & green
king parrots gorging
on green apples

high	four thousand feet up

“Mousepoem” is an example of structure by misdirection. The context is one of erotic disappointment – “Her lover departed / to the warm purry / bed of his wife” – which has resulted in a poem. This poem is described as so slight that “if a mouse breathed on it, / it would collapse”. This common syntactic ambiguity (the poem would collapse, not the mouse) enables “Mousepoem” to move into the mouse world:

. . . . .
        the mouse which is made
of tough, mouse material, whiskers, ears,
small, quick, risk-assessing eyes
. . . . .
Who would wish for blind, hairless
mouse-children, but a mousy mother?
Does a mouse wish
or are children merely what happens to it
wishless but wanting?

and so on for the bulk of the poem until it returns to the character’s poem of loss in the final three lines. In other words, the excursion into the slightly twee world of the mouse is structured as a distraction from the mental anguish which is the real subject of the poem. This represents, I think, a later poem’s view of the temptations of cuteness which Harry fears.

Before I finish this brief report from the strange poetic world of J.S. Harry, I need to say something briefly about the Peter Henry Lepus poems because, although they are collected in Not Finding Wittgenstein and generally omitted from the chosen poems in book under review, this does have a section of new Peter Henry Lepus poems as its final section. These poems were a major development for Harry although they were, to me at least, puzzling when the first appeared. An imaginary rabbit, straight out of the world of Beatrix Potter is allowed to wander through texts, free in time and space, and meet up with those philosophers whose true subject is language and meaning. In having a “famous fat little British rabbit” as its protagonist, it brings into the world of analysis of meaning and the nature of words exactly that element of cuteness that marks popular culture of the late-Victorian/Edwardian ethos and still has attractions today. It is, I think, Harry’s way of dealing with this element in her approach to the world which is, in earlier work, dealt with by alternating the lyric with the forensic/surreal and it suited her well and produced a kind of poem that works for both poet and reader. In allowing a cute rabbit to wander among complex texts these poems symbolise the tension between tendencies in the lyric and explorations of meaning that I’ve been focussing on here. As poems they are, in keeping with Harry’s later work, rather bleak. They are set in the Iraq of the gulf wars among a cast not of philosophers but of journalists and scholars. Peter himself is engaged in a double comical quest: he is “researching” a book on the pre-socratic philosophers and, at the same time, trying to get into Iran because a friend of his, a huntsman spider named Clifta, has read Omar Khayam’s line about Jamshed and Bahram the great hunter and thinks that Bahram must be an ancestor of hers. The complex set-up of the Peter Henry Lepus poems ensures that these new (and final) ones cleverly balance the cute with the bleak.

Judith Rodriguez: The Feather Boy & Other Poems

Glebe NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2018, 136pp.

It’s a sad fact that The Feather Boy is Judith Rodriguez’ final book of poems. She died late last year. It comes after a long publishing lull. Once having gotten underway as one of the four Brisbane poets of Four Poets in 1961 (where she published as Judith Green) she published books at a fairly conventional rate up to her New and Selected Poems of 1988, but after that her publications became rather sparser. The Feather Boy is really a retrospective collection of poems written after that date – as she says on the book’s cover “These are poems of nearly thirty years”. The cover also apologises for the resulting lack of “a tightly-themed book” before going on to say that the times demand a book of varied concerns and interests as do the variety of “people encountered”. There is a clue here to the book’s genre. It seems to me to be a “final book”, a certain kind of “late work” in which the author allows him or herself a good degree of latitude. I was struck by the similarities with Gwen Harwood’s final book, The Present Tense with its “Six Odes for Public Occasions”. In Rodriguez’ case this means including poems which lash out at the outrages of the period and those that celebrate friendships – usually those in which the friend has already died. Comic doggerel poems get to be included (the annual ASAL parody nights have a lot to answer for here) whereas they would have never made it into earlier, “straighter” books. All in all, there is a certain unbuttoning in poetic matters and a focussing on the humane values of friendship as the dark comes ever closer and everything is pared down to essentials. In fact, friends – in this genre – perhaps replace children as the centre of intimate interaction, presumably because, in advanced age, one’s children have long since metamorphosed into separate and probably reasonably distant human beings.

The first “unbuttoning” involves Rodriguez allowing herself to be furious, in verse, with the public issues of the last thirty years. This is a case of the poet joining the broader community and sharing their outrage. The period from the late eighties to the present is, in Tacitus’ words, “rich in disasters . . . horrible even in peace”, although compared with periods of equivalent length – 1914–1945, for example – relatively light-on for horrors. There are poems about suicide bombings, pre-Fitzgerald corruption in Queensland, Abu Ghraib, and the imprisonment of the Uighur writer Ilham Tohti. The most important and desperate of these for Australians was the boat-people “crisis” initiated by the arrival of the Tampa with its rescued refugees. In retrospect it is a central event in Australia’s history, reminding those who blandly assumed that Australia was a country of decencies (albeit, fairly dopey decencies) that it could show another face. Though John Howard will obviously bear most of the opprobrium of history – for encouraging and cashing-in politically on this sudden revelation of a hidden dark side of Australian culture – both political parties, at different times, followed the ugly trail of demonization.

Everyone knows the poetic problems that these issues present. A poet, wishing to, at least, express their personal anger is required to find an angle that will result in something better than mere journalism or demonstration slogans. But this raises the paradox that a sophisticated, nuanced and angled approach to some public event – the kind of thing that poets and readers of poetry expect – aestheticises the event itself, replacing the rawer emotions of horror or outrage by the altogether more comfortable one of aesthetic pleasure. Rodriguez’s poems in the first section of The Feather Boy work most of the familiar techniques ranging from eloquent repetitive syntactic patterns to angled, symbolic approaches. “Boat Voices” is the largest attempt here, mixing recorded speech (sourced from newspapers) with comment but I don’t think it can be said to be a successful sequence. “To Sleep, 1986” is a lot more successful because just as the title is ambiguous – a poem addressed to sleep or a poem about the experience of going to sleep – so the entire piece is built on ambiguities. The horrors the poems touches on – “necklacing” in South Africa and the abandoned citizens of Chernobyl (another problem for poems of outrage is the way in which events are reduced to a single verbal tag, a use of language that a good poet would be very resistant to) – are nightmares but they also, in Australia, tend to take place while the southern hemisphere is settled down in sleep. Horrors in the northern hemisphere are, in other words, nightmares that Australians wake up to.

The most intriguing of the poems in this section seems the most oblique. “The Feather Boy” is the first poem of the book and gives it its title. That’s being foregrounded with a vengeance. And yet it is so acutely angled that it leaves me, at least, not at all sure of its drift: in this it recalls Murray’s “Dog Fox Field”. There is a footnote to the poem which adds a little context: a “feather boy” was a child used by partisans to follow up an assassination and the material of the poem comes from Paul Valent’s Child Survivors of the Holocaust. The child’s task was to hold a feather under the noses of the dead, dying and unconscious and count to a hundred. If the feather stirred the victim was either unconscious or trying to fake death and the boy’s task was to call out to one of the men who would then cut the victim’s throat – “If I call, / a knife makes sure”. The poem itself doesn’t declare its sympathies – Polish partisan murder detachments and German occupiers seem alike ethically unattractive to innocent outsiders – but it does allow the boy to speak of himself as acting for the oppressed – “And I call, for us crushed in hiding, // for all of us scattered, parents, cousins, our fates / feathers in war’s updraft”. The poem is built, metaphorically, around the notions of calling and breath, and, as a result, one wants to approach it interpretively as a poem about the role of poetry itself in these ethically fraught situations. That would accord with its being placed first in the section. But it remains rather elusive: it could be saying that situations of horror (the Nazi occupation of Poland) produce such a distorted world that a situation in which a child become the arbiter of life and death is not to be judged simply. It might also be saying that a poetry attempting to deal with contemporary outrage shouldn’t be expected to behave like a polite lyric in an anthology.

The other three sections of the book – “Weather, Times, Places”, “Celebrations” and “Near and Dear” – have exactly the occasional quality that I have spoken about. The dominant impulse here is memory, a lot more interesting, at least superficially, that outrage. And Rodriguez has always been interested in the mechanisms of memory. Often, in this mode, a shortish poem acts as a kind of box in which a small cluster of memories relating to a friend is kept. The book’s final poems are about long-term memories – of father and mother. Again, in this mode, our interest in the remembered detail often has the task of keeping the poem afloat – something critical purists would deplore and “final book” authors happily embrace. But there are two poems which stand out as being better than this. Like “The Feather Boy”, they choose complexity and suggestion. The first of these is the book’s final poem, “Cordelia’s Music for Lear”. It’s position – balancing “The Feather Boy” from the beginning – should be a warning that their modes might be similar. “Cordelia’s Music for Lear” follows two conventional poems about Rodriguez’ father: moving acts of love and contrition. A passage from “Dad” will give an idea of what they are doing and how they work:

. . . . . 
At 99, frail, frustrated -
me off teaching in India -
you told my kids how clever
I’d been, a “natural”. Like Grannie,
your school-results framed and hung.
Dad, I weep at your pride.
How dear a tale. But me away, you died.

Died understood. I took
all you gave, the faith in family,
the English cousins, brothers
you hardly saw in the staggered
boarding at school . . . 

But when we arrive at “Cordelia’s Music for Lear”, two poems on, everything is entirely different:

If I tell you your liegemen wait
and your monster horse
you peer through the crazed hedge
show off bird-tufts
and paste them with licky
to a horse-skull melting like candy.
You have to laugh.

Come from the twigs, summon
the lineage of straw
colouring-in our blood
to daub your scratches.
Father, I gather
your warrior-hand all bone
in my hand’s bowl,

in my shawl, in my hair’s shade.
My young esquires
paint birds upon their shields,
each golden eye
each rainy bird-voice
a washed soul beginning.
Lie soft, be called.

The fact that we are likely to be initially confused about what is clearly a very coherent poem is an indicator of being in the same room as a real poem. Again, the poem provides some context though in this case it takes place not in a footnote but in its title since Cordelia is the loving daughter whose love is not expressed and the non-expression precipitates the tragedy. Equally, since Cordelia narrowly predeceases her father, this can’t be imagined to be a poem like “Dad” to be sung over the parent’s body at the funeral. And the setting seems to be a childhood one of rocking horses and tin soldiers rather than the adult one. It’s not a deliberately surreal work, challenging the very notion of interpretation and there may be a key to it buried somewhere in Rodriguez’ letters or interviews or comments to friends, but for a reader it poses a lot of problems, not the least the meaning of the first four lines of the second stanza. All one can say, reading as an outsider, is that the poem’s tone suggests forgiveness, reconciliation and a final peace.

“Cordelia’s Music for Lear” and “The Feather Boy”, bookending this collection, opt for ambiguity and suggestion in dealing with, respectively, relations with parents (viewed from the perspective of age) and historical outrage. The other outstanding poem is “The Reading” which opts for complexity in dealing with friendship, the third of the The Feather Boy‘s concerns. It is dedicated to Shanti Devadasan an Indian friend with whom Rodriguez read Twelfth Night in a shop in a Chennai mall. And it’s the Shakespeare which continually interacts with their friendship to produce the complexities, Twelfth Night being the play of re-unitings (while Lear is a play of sunderings) made both significant and poignant by the playwright’s loss of his son, Hamnet, a twin whose surviving sister was called Judith. Rodriguez imagines herself playing the part of Olivia and Devadasan the part of the separated twin, Viola. She begins by thinking of the unlikelihoods of this reading in regions “Shakespeare never knew” but then immediately thinks of the reach of the great creative imaginations (especially one whose first name contracts to “Will”): a poet who set plays in Venice and Egypt is already at the border of the great unknown subcontinent:

. . . . . 
                                but given
a century, only a century, who knows?
Headed east by the Serenissima -
Philippi – Actium – the Nile, our Will
was ripening toward the Mahabharata,
the gallant tales, the gold-skinned delicate-
fingered dancing god and cow-eyed girls
and partnership in a Bollywood studio. . . 

But this is a friendship/sisterhood doomed to fracture since Devadasan dies before the age of fifty and no number of sacrifices or visits can stop this final sundering. The fact that she is buried on a place called Quibble Island provides another verbal complexity – this time a nasty irony in that all literature teachers might well be buried on a place with a name like that. As Rodriguez says, it is “somehow a comment on the mess of it all, / somehow laughter from beyond”.

It has been said that complexity (as opposed to complicatedness) is one of the features of “late style”. These three poems stand out for exactly that quality among a group of poems which is marked, if anything, by a loosening of poetic stays. Rodriguez’ great poems have always been those in which a very distinctive personality manages to find the right form in which to express itself so that, far from being lyrically universal, you have a strong feeling that no-one else on earth could have written them. “Nu-Plastik Fanfare Red” is one of these (interestingly the father makes an appearance there but only as a cliché, concerned about the effect his daughter’s painting her room womb-red will have on the house’s resale value) as are the magnificent “Eskimo Occasion”, “Writing a Biography” and “An Odd Voyage”. Though I’m not sure whether many of the poems of this book would be included in any retrospective selected poems planned for Judith Rodriguez, I think “The Feather Boy”, “Cordelia’s Music for Lear” and “The Reading” would undoubtedly be included.

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.