Brendan Ryan, A Paddock in His Head (Five Islands Press 2007)
The first poem in this collection, ‘I Know, I Know’ consists mainly of a list of moments from a dairy-farm childhood, benignly mundane moments with no obvious connecting logic and no obvious emotional significance: lights from the neighbour’s dairy seen at night, dogs dragging on their chains, ‘mum’ hurling tea leaves down a drain. Then the final line:
some days are rosaries that never end
For readers who might need a gloss on that, the next poem, ‘Catholic Daydreams’, has a large Catholic family saying the rosary, the kitchen ‘humming with Hail Marys’ and
My father’s dairy farming fingers
slip down the beads
as if each bead was a grip
on the Joyful Mystery
of ten children charging through
the Hail Holy Queen,
the tempo picking up
according to what was on T.V.
Most of the poems here are shot through with that kind of Catholic sensibility: a sense of the holy unceremoniously embedded in the mundane, messy, painful, occasionally joyful, often strenuous, mostly inarticulate everyday life on a small dairy farm in rural Victoria – and in the farm escaped from, remembered, missed, revisited. It’s sacramental but not at all solemn, in fact not at all pious. There are hints of the Benedictine motto laborare est orare, but without religion.
And many of the poems are like rosaries: lists of things observed like beads, evoking fragments of story associated with each one. Like this, from ‘Tower Hill’:
Driving into the crater
past shelves of basalt, clinker and limestone
I wait for my aunt’s stories.
She remembers a king tide claiming the paddocks
a house being lifted, then taken away by a river.
In the few poems of city or town life, the sense of place and the sense of community are just as strong. From ‘Summer Conversation’:
Three days of heat
and the lounge expels us to the backyard.
From over fences
an accordion being played
footsteps in the back lane,
neighbours on their front verandah
with Greek radio and a well-hosed footpath –
they watch everyone who passes.
In this and his previous book, Why I Am Not a Farmer (my blog post here), Brendan Ryan has maintained a remarkably tight focus on this one subject: the life of a small Catholic farming community and what it means to leave it for a town life.
In case I’m giving the impression that this poetry is naive or monotonously single-minded, I’ll mention ‘Naringal Landscape’, a conversation with a Clarice Beckett painting that seems to be called 7 Naringal, Landscape.
The bush we don’t see closes in like memory.
A clump of eucalypts floats above the horizon.
The silence of the paddocks creeps outside the canvas.
Late afternoon, smells of heat and rye grass thickening in your head.
I’ve just read that he has published two books since this one: A Tight Circle and Travelling through the Family. I’m glad to report that the latter book was shortlisted for the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, which seems to mean I’m in good company in wanting more of his work.