Brendan Ryan, Why I Am Not a Farmer (Five Islands New Poets Series 2000)
This is a slim volume of poetry, published 10 years ago, so what are the chances of it still being in the shops? As it turns out, the chances are a hundred percent at Gleebooks, thanks partly to the poet’s name being towards the back of the alphabet so that the book is shelved just off the carpet where only the diligent searcher will see it, and partly to the cover, which includes a clever photomontage of dairy cattle in a paddock with Melbourne’s skyline towering in the background but somehow manages to look like a pamphlet issued by the State Department of Agriculture. Of course I’m glad I was able to get a copy, but sad that sales have evidently been so slow. Perhaps other readers of Brendan Ryan’s article on the Ash Wednesday fires in the current Heat will be stirred, like me, to seek the poems out. There were at least five more copies there in the middle of last week.
Rural life tends to be romanticised in Australian poetry – or deeply imbued with identity politics. You don’t have to go back to the 1890s. Here’s David Campbell from ‘Cocky’s Calendar’
The hawk, the hill, the loping hare, The blue tree and the blue air, O all the coloured world I see And walk upon, are made by me.
Even Les Murray, from the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, mostly keeps farm work at arm’s length, as in ‘The Family Farmers’ Victory’:
Cane work was too heavy for children so these had their childhoods as not all did, on family farms
Brendan Ryan’s poetry in this book is spattered with the shit and blood of work on a dairy farm. ‘Losing to the Cow’, for instance, is a graphic account of a bull calf’s difficult birth. ‘The Benefits of a Rotary Dairy’ takes the reader into the process of milking a herd of cattle. (Brendan Ryan spent his childhood on a dairy farm in western Victoria. On my father’s cane farm in north Queensland, we only ever milked two cows, and I didn’t do any actual milking, but the poem rings all sorts of bells for me just the same.)
Back then, most cows had names. You knew their history by the type of knot you tied their outside ankle back with. A double knot for the heifers and mongrel choppers who kicked in a three-foot arc, and kept you wary, a single knot for old Jerseys like Mary, who dragged her teats in the mud and stood in the bail meditating before the nail holes of light in the door.
Alan Wearne gets it right on the back cover: ‘these clear, sombre pieces make the reader exclaim “So that’s what it’s like!”‘
My high school Latin teacher said you could tell Virgil was a city man because in the Georgics he speaks of cow manure as disgusting. Brendan Ryan may well be citified, but he doesn’t shrink fastidiously from the details of labour on the family farm. He’s not whingeing. He has no obvious chip on his shoulder. And there’s no self-pity, as there would be if he took on Les Murray’s ‘not all did’. There is nostalgia perhaps, but it’s not so much a vague yearning for a lost home, as an ache to integrate, to come to terms with experience. In ‘May Day Reunion’ he meets another refugee from the district (‘it’s our eyes that give us away’):
As the reason for leaving becomes the need for another beer, the idea of going back becomes a type of union against being seen on the street as someone's son who can't get a job. Still, we lean forward
Really , I don’t know if anyone else has written as well as this about what is after all a very common experience, the migration from small rural community to city life.