Brendan Ryan, Travelling through the Family (Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets 2012)
My father was a sugar farmer in North Queensland, who ran a small herd of cattle and never swore in front of us kids, if you don’t count an occasional ‘bloody’ in all male company. He used to tell a joke about a farmer from the back blocks who was taken to the big city (which we understood to be Brisbane) to speak at a conference about his use of organic fertiliser His talk went down well, and afterwards, one of the city folk approached the outreach officer who had brought him. ‘That was very interesting,’ he said, ‘but couldn’t you have told him to say “cow dung” or “manure” instead of “cow poo”?’ The officer replied, ‘If you only knew how hard it was to clean up his language to say “poo”.’
That might give you some idea of the pleasure I found in Brendan Ryan’s poem ‘Cowshit’, which includes these lines:
Smell of country air, of cowshit in the grass,
in the dairy, on farmers’ arms, on jeans, shirts,
leather aprons, cowshit dripping off the rails,
squeegeed down drains, piped into paddocks.
One farmer’s waste becomes a supermarket essential.
It’s cowshit economics. The word that dare not
be admitted determines class, roughness, is
the perfume in a dairy farmer’s bedroom.
The poem goes on, and includes such fine turns of phrase as ‘the soft explosion beneath my feet’, ‘little green haloes are spread across the paddocks’, and:
Cows on the road always leave a Hansel and Gretel trail,
a splattering that reflects the meditative sway of their walk.
Anyone who has worked closely with cattle would have to be touched.
Likewise, anyone from a big Irish Catholic country family would resonate with the way ‘Walking through Family’ ventiloquises the mother keeping the children on track, culminating in the line ‘AnnetteTheresaMichaelBrendanKathrynDennisDavidPhilipKieranRebecca‘. I was the middle child of five, and more than once my mother called me MichaelEddieElizabethMaryAnnJohnny.
Brendan Ryan’s poetry is deeply rooted in place, specifically in what this book calls blister country, in western Victoria. The three books of his that I’ve read return again and again to his early life on a dairy farm, to what it means to live away from it as an adult, or to revisiting it, even if only to drive through. It’s a rich vein that yields poetry about natural and human landscapes, about cattle and working with cattle, about living in a big Catholic family in a rural community, about masculinity as a son, a brother and a father, about memory and meaning, the powerful interplay of place and identity. In ‘Self-portrait’:
These paddocks have made me,
shaped the way I look at mud around gateways.
I watch myself walk ahead
into paddocks and more poems.
__________Sisyphus had nothing on this –
pulled to the farm I grew up on
walking through paddocks I can’t live with.
This book is in four sections. ‘Blister Country’ sets the scene with a series of poems about that landscape – it’s a landscape full of figures seen in close-up: kangaroo hunters, abattoir workers, dairy farmers, the ghosts of Aboriginal people and the squatters who slaughtered them, fire fighters, holiday-makers, cattle, and the now urbanised poet, his daughters, and his insistent memories. ‘Cowshit’ is in this section.
‘Travelling through the Family’ and ‘True Confessions’ get more personal – portraits of family members and unsparing accounts of relationships in the former, and in the latter an ‘I’ who is much more in the foreground. ‘Walking through Family’ is in the former, ‘Self-portrait’ in the latter.
‘Driving’ comprises dozen or so glimpses of the world as seen from a moving car, including the world inside the car – the driver’s reflections on where he has been, where he is going. I read most of this book when I was in New York City, for a couple of weeks, and finished reading it back in the familiar surrounds of Marrickville. Marrickville isn’t exactly dairy country, but still derived serendipitous pleasure from the second last poem of the book, the sixth of a series of ‘Driving Sonnets’, which ends:
my worth is judged when I open the pub door.
The town generations escaped from, in dreams return to.
Just in from New York, I cannot compare its avenues
to this wide main street that knows too much about me.
It’s not ‘I love a sunburned country’. It’s not patriotism. It’s not nostalgia. It’s not Judith Wright’s ‘my day’s circle’, ‘my blood’s country’, or if it is it’s much more specific, and not at all romanticised. I’ve pretty much lived in cities since I was sent to boarding school at 13: Brendan Ryan’s poetry doesn’t so much make me pine for the country of my childhood as regret that my relationship with it was terminated so abruptly.