Brendan Ryan, Small Town Soundtrack (Hunter Publishers 2015)
I’ve previously read three books of Brendan Ryan’s poetry: Why I Am Not a Farmer (2000), A Paddock in His Head (2007), Travelling through the Family (2012) (the links are to my blog posts). Given the extraordinarily consistent focus of his work, I tend to repeat myself when I blog about it, so here’s something I wrote about Travelling through the Family:
Brendan Ryan’s poetry is deeply rooted in place, specifically in what this book calls blister country, in western Victoria. [He returns] 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 revisit 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.
To a large extent, Small Town Soundtrack is more of the same, and the world is richer for it. There’s more of life away from the childhood environment, and a more elegiac mood, as the small farms and their communities are falling into ruin. To the ambivalence of no longer belonging to the dairy country is added the pain of seeing that it no longer exists in the same way. (A personal resonance for me: my childhood home, sold out of the family, was recently knocked down, bulldozed into a trench and buried. The farm may be about to be subdivided or become in part a retirement village.)
The book is in four sections: ‘Small Town Pastoral’ gives us what it says on the lid, a number of glimpses of small town life – character sketches, parental duties, unexpected tragedies, schoolyard politics; ‘Songs of the Clay Mound’ is a handful of poems about music and its associations – ‘every place has a song to tell / a chord that strings out desire, a glissando slide into memories that taunt’; the ten poems of ‘Towns of the Mount Noorat Football League’ celebrate the role that football competition once played in farming communities, ‘once’ being a key word there; then, with ‘Cow Words’, more than a third of the book, we are back with memories of farm life, family past and present, his relationship with his parents then and now, and – of course – cows. The cliche about not being able to take the country out of the boy is a cliche because it contains a deep truth, a truth that this poetry explores. Sometimes it does so lightly, as in ‘Cows in India’:
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.
(Incidentally, it’s been said that Ryan is in the same tradition as Les Murray, but a comparison of their tourist-in-India poems highlights the huge differences between them: Ryan’s identity as a farm boy never leaves him; Murray can look at cows, camels and the Taj Mahal with no hint of his own farming background influencing his perception.)
At other times, with fascinating complexity, as in the third sonnet of ‘Succession’:
Something about a place I can’t escape to
swings like a pendulum toward me,
as if returning is the answer or the question to avoid.
I couldn’t be the farmer stammering through
conversations, red-faced with the wrong words.
I couldn’t be the farmer shouldering a load of flies.
Returning has become the ritual we have learnt
to talk about, the succession plan we had to achieve.
I walk around the farm carrying my fear of electric fences
listening to the hum inside insulators – an energy
running free. Cows remember the kick,
I remember my father catching me out
while I shifted the wire in the Rape paddock.
Letting go of land is letting go of memory.
I respond to Brendan Ryan’s poetry as a personal gift.