Daily Archives: 7 January 2023

Summer reads 3: Tracy Ryan’s Rose Interior

Tracy Ryan, Rose Interior: New Poems (Giramondo 2021)

There’s a lot to love in this book from Western Australian poet and novelist Tracy Ryan.

A note on the Giramondo website describes it well:

The poems in Rose Interior move between the inside and outside of everything they touch, from the domestic scene, both cosy and claustrophobic, to the social and ecological settings we must all answer for. Poems from Ireland, Switzerland and Australia consider life at home in the personal sense: through the body, childhood memories and family houses, ‘a room within a dream’. Wherever home lies, it’s always on borrowed time.

It’s the domesticity that most appeals to me – that and the occasional poems about ageing. In particular, as a recent adopter of hearing aids I love ‘Soft of Hearing’, which begin with this brilliant description of what has also been my experience:

The hard edges went
longer ago than you know
as if the crusts of syllables
were trimmed off for your ageing

ears to swallow only
what's soft.

And it only gets better from there.

There are profound poems about bereavement. There’s ‘Ghost Story’, which I take to be about age related cognitive decline:

Sometimes I catch the other me,
elves to shoemaker, who's already
filled the pot with water as I just
turned to do

And I could go on picking out lines to quote. The book is divided into three sections, the third of which is eighteen poems on aspects of the Covid pandemic. With a light enough touch, they bring profound thoughtfulness to home education, zoom backgrounds, bread-making, and other standard Covid themes. To pick one beautifully accessible poem, here’s ‘Post Storm, Still Pandemic’:

In the book, this poem follows ‘Storm in Pandemic’, whose title is a good description of its content. When you read it in that context, this poem’s title is likewise a good summary of the content: the storm is past, but there’s still a pandemic.

Post Storm, Still Pandemic
Afraid to look outside in case it shatters 
illusions we've come through this. Blinks, 
but power stayed on, the roof has held.
Out there is turmoil, noise, last bluster, yet 
worst has passed. 

It’s probably worth mentioning at the start the apparently effortless way (definitely effortless for the reader) that the poem works with a basic line of five beats, not quite iambic pentameter, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, keeping a conversational tone and drawing no attention to its technique.

The first line captures that moment when a severe storm is over, but you can’t quite believe it. The line break after ‘shatters’ creates a fine moment of ambiguity. The reader wonders: In case what shatters? then the new line reveals that the verb is transitive, and non-literal – only illusions are shattered, not windows or indeed the whole world. Then the common phrase ‘we emerge, blinking, into the light’ is evoked by the single word ‘Blinks’, and one by one the elements of normal life are found to be in working order.You almost don’t notice the book’s central motifs of inside and outside, of home being ‘on borrowed time’.

worst has passed. At night, so blurred, 
I couldn't tell wind from rain, bad 
synaesthesia, all colours tossed together 
to make dark. Night was a tunnel, only one 
way through.

I like the way this description of the disturbed night manages to include in just four lines the slightly esoteric notion of synaesthesia (something perceived by one sense being experienced as another), a little colour theory, and the image of time as a tunnel. The density of tropes is a kind of analogue for the eventfulness of the night.

way through. City still stricken, our guilt.
How can we rest and write while others dread?
They tussle with neighbours who haven't 
cleared away or tied things down: Your fence 
is in my pool. Here with gaping space 
between us, it's more like this, direct 
interface: is there a tree on the house, how 
did small ones fare in burrow or nest, what 
in the world is left? 

A change of perspective. The poem’s speaker lives in the country – Tracy Ryan’s bio tells us that she grew up in the outer suburbs of Perth and now lives in the wheatbelt. Here she counts her blessings, but not without first acknowledging a pang of something like survivor guilt. City – and suburb – dwellers are so much worse off, at the mercy of improvident neighbours in a severe storm. (I relate to this as a couple of years ago a tree that fell from my yard narrowly missed a neighbour’s rotary clothes line.) In the country, such relatively petty inter-human quarrels aren’t a thing. One’s response is more direct to the thing itself: damage to property, and – another broadening of perspective – concern for the other animals and the environment in general. (Tracy Ryan and her husband John Kinsella have a blog called Mutually Said: Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist: I love the way, here and elsewhere in the book, the poet’s principled positions – in this case caring for non-human animals – appear with no hint of moralism or proselytising.)

in the world is left? On Reunion Island, back 
with the 1918 flu, they say, after the first ravages 
a cyclone came and washed it all away, 
common disaster chasing off a worse. 

The perspective broadens again, in space to the far side of the Indian Ocean, and in time to the last great pandemic. This is the first time the Covid-19 pandemic has appeared in this poem, however obliquely. Given the drama of the storm we have forgotten it for a moment.

common disaster chasing off a worse. I hover 
here on the far side of the same ocean,  
wish for truth in it, the notion of harsh  
weather as unexpected cleansing.

And we’re back to the first person singular, in this place, facing – by wishing not to face – the difficulties and dangers of the present. The notion of harsh weather as unexpected cleansing (such a resonant phrase) isn’t always mistaken, but it may have been in Réunion in 1919, and certainly would have been in Western Australia in 2021. The poem knows this, acknowledges that it’s a false hope even while acknowledging its appeal. My mind leaps to the way some of us thought the Covid pandemic itself, harsh as it was, might provide an unexpected opportunity for states and corporations to put aside short-sighted self-interest and rise to the challenge of the climate emergency – another disaster chasing off a worse. But nah!

There are many poems in this book that I hope to read over and again.


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my copy of Rose Interior.