Brendan Ryan on the Lowlands of Moyne

Brendan Ryan, The Lowlands of Moyne (Walleah Press 2019)

I just read on Twitter that Brendan Ryan has been called ‘a poet of the cow pats’. The poems in this book may not celebrate cow manure as much as Ryan’s earlier ones, but they return to the apparently inexhaustible well of his childhood and adolescence in a large Catholic family on a dairy farm in rural Victoria.

I’ve just reread my three earlier blog posts about Brendan Ryan’s poetry, and it seems that anything I say about this book will be repeating myself. It’s not the poems: they’re fresh and full of discoveries, hugely satisfying. I have trouble finding fresh ways to express my love for them. So here are some samples from previous blog posts.

On Why I Am Not a Farmer:

Brendan Ryan’s poetry in this book is spattered with the shit and blood of work on a dairy farm … 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 … 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.

On Paddock in his Head:

Most of the poems here are shot through with … 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.

On Travelling through the Family:

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, and to what it means to live away from it as an adult. Or they 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.

Some poems in The Lowlands of Moyne move away from the farm district. ‘Lajamanu’, ‘Ampilatwatja’ and ‘Home’ go to remote communities in the Northern Territory. ‘The things they carry’, ‘Coconut workers’ and ‘Brick kiln workers’ go to south-east Asia. There are elegies for friends who have died. There are poems that deal obliquely with the headlines: George Pell (‘of a time that haunts / like a rash, of looking the other way’) is on the car radio in ‘Driving to Debating’; ‘Comfort’ has fun with the coincidence that the main detective and his wife in Midsomer Murders are named Barnaby and Joyce (‘Barnaby will be my moral guide’); ‘Intentionality’ celebrates tiny moments of suburban life while Scott Morrison replaces Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister.

But the subjects of most of the poems are vivid memories of life and work on the farm, of family and community past and present. Where they are not the direct subject, they provide a vantage point from which to understand and respond to the world. Nothing feels arbitrary or ‘Literary’, everything seems to come from a deeply felt, deeply integrated place.

For example, from page 55:

 When she lowers her nuzzle to the clover / the post chafes her neck, swings against her shoulder./ No more than a wooden spacer tied to a loop /of cyclone wire strung around her neck. /She wears her post as a cross, bears its weight /its annoying shape for the days needed /to corral wayward heifer. /Aversion therapy, designed to stop her twisting /through fences, the lone heifer who discards /the herd to freely wander. The same process /we use to justify drowning kittens in a hessian bag, /whacking crippled calves on the head with an axe /watching the cattle buyer jab an electric prodder /into cows reluctant to climb into the darkness /of a cattle truck. In moments such as these /we separate ourselves from the animals, /realise who we are to detach ourselves /from the fear of the cow we are selling. /Like chaining a dog or dehorning a bull /our aim is to contain something wild, /rebellious, a heifer who will twist her neck /to pull at rye grass on the neighbour's boundary, /her fence post bowing the barbed wire /before she pulls back, snickets of orange fur snagging. /She learns to wear her post /as a sailor wears an albatross. /Other heifers /keep their distance, shun her affliction. /Eeach time she shakes her head at flies /the post knocks against her side like a voice /reminding her to pause before fences.

The word ‘wearing’ in the title sets up a kind of riddle, which is soon resolved, as we are told that the fence post is a kind of neckwear. The first seven lines focus on the young cow’s discomfort and annoyance. The tone is sympathetic, even affectionate. ‘She bears its weight like a cross’ beautifully clarifies the visual image and invokes religious iconography of Jesus on the road to Calvary. But before the reader can leap to an animal-liberationist sense of outrage, the fence post is described as an ‘annoying shape’: the heifer isn’t so much a sacrificial victim as a thwarted rebel, or even a free spirit lumbered with an irritating impediment.

Lines seven to 10 explain the rationale for the fence post: it stops her from wandering away from the herd by making it impossible to go ‘twisting / through fences’.

In a surprising shift in tone, lines 10 to 20 invoke many other ways that humans (‘we’) treat animals in utilitarian ways. The actions listed are harsh, but not wantonly cruel. Interestingly enough, the list starts with the most shocking: the killing of kittens and crippled calves, both of which are arguably horrible necessities. The electric prodder here is used to direct the cows, like a hi-tech whip. Bulls are dehorned to prevent damage in the herd. These actions are dictated by the logic of farming: using the animals for human purposes. We aren’t taken to the hideous, late-capitalism end of the spectrum: no animals dying of heat exhaustion on ships, no featherless cage chickens who never see daylight, not even the actual slaughter of beef cattle with a different kind of electric ‘prodder’.

As I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog, I grew up on a sugar farm in North Queensland. We had a small herd of cattle, which I had a fair bit to do with until I went off to boarding school at 13. I don’t remember us ever doing this to a heifer, or whacking a crippled calf on the head, or even dehorning a bull. But I have certainly chained a dog, I remember vividly the sound of kittens purring in a hessian bag as it was dropped into the river, and I helped in some gruesome births and deaths. So I easily find myself included in the ‘we’ at line 11, which is probably not the case for some readers. These lines aren’t a call to arms against animal cruelty so much as a reflection on the mental ‘process’ (line 10) that has us as farmers (and others) imposing our will on animals. The heart of the poem lies in the lines:

_______-______In moments such as these 
we separate ourselves from the animals, 
realise who we are to detach ourselves 

Many of us are thinking a lot these days about the disastrous results of humans, specifically humans of colonising and capitalist societies, believing we are separate from the rest of nature, seeing it as there simply to be exploited. Here in this gently comic image of an irritated heifer, Brendan Ryan asks us to notice it again with him, and asks if at some level it’s a matter of realising ‘who we are’ – what it means to be human.

In the remaining lines, we are back wth the heifer. The thing is, after centuries of breeding to fit human purposes, domesticated animals still have wills of their own. Our aim is still ‘to contain something wild, / rebellious’. Far from being a passive object of the farmers’ treatment, the heifer still twists through the fence, resists, and finally submits. The fence post, earlier compared to a cross, is now compared to an albatross, which sends me off to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, especially this:

Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung. 

It’s kind of pretty that the heifer and the Ancient Mariner both progress from wearing a cross to wearing an albatross, from a symbol of supreme sacrifice to a punishment for wrongdoing. But even though the other heifers shun her, our sympathies are definitely with the rebel – it’s hard to think of her as an actual wrongdoer. (I’m reminded of the mixture of sympathy and ruthlessness I used to feel when we put a ‘cone of shame’ on our dog to stop her from biting a sore patch on her rump.)

The last three lines are interestingly anticlimactic. Having delved a little into the deeper implications of the heifer’s treatment, the poem comes back to the observable reality. The heifer carries on, just a little more thoughtful than before. This is ordinary, the poem seems to say; if there’s something amiss here, it’s deeply ingrained in a way of doing things, and we may just have to live with moral complexity.

You might like to find a metaphorical resonance in the poem. Is it perhaps talking about the way we are all constrained by the profit-orientated society we live in. Do we accept with an irritated shrug the limits imposed our wild natures? My two bob’s worth: sometimes a heifer is just a heifer, and that’s enough for me.

2 responses to “Brendan Ryan on the Lowlands of Moyne

  1. You take me back to a time I was 13 and spending a summer on “Haning” – the farm of friends near Bendemeer (years later discovering there were Scottish ancestral connections) driving a tractor to bale up the lucerne hay for transfer to the shed/barn, saddling the dangerous white-eyed horse always looking for the chance to nip or brush off the rider (failing to do either but requiring one’s wits about one) to round up the herd in the far paddock down the public road (little travelled back in those days nearly 60 years ago) and milking the house cow – aching, curling, milk-stripping fingers – and the separating, churning of butter – and then cleaning the equipment. I remember relishing everything – digging up potatoes, a swim in the river at the foot of the slope largely did for end-of-day bathing – tilly lamps, homemade bread and jams – everything it seemed to me – and though I have never ever had troubles drifting within a minute or two off to sleep – somehow the cooler nights (a thousand metres above sea level) saw me sinking into the softness of bedding and then floating into the Land of Nod! Until suddenly dawn and up for chores before breakfast and the rising heat. And totally unexpectedly a pound for my efforts – each week! Someone must have been happy with me! (Wishing I had Brendan’s poetic flair – as much as your own, Jonathan!)

    Liked by 1 person

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