Tag Archives: Brendan Ryan

Walk Like a Cow with Brendan Ryan, plus November verse 4

Brendan Ryan, Walk Like a Cow: A memoir (Walleah Press 2021)

I take Brendan Ryan’s poetry personally. His childhood and mine didn’t have a huge amount in common, but his poetry about cattle – working with them, observing them, even loving them – and about growing up Catholic resonate hugely for me. There were only five children in my family, as opposed to his 10. I spent my childhood on a sugar farm in tropical North Queensland, hard to imagine a climate further removed from his western Victoria. We had just a few cows, of which two were milked by hand in the mornings, rather than a hundred that had to be milked by machine day and night. And I left the farm behind me when I went to boarding school aged 13, whereas he kept working on the farm, much harder than I ever did, into young adulthood. But I recognise so much of what he writes about, and am grateful that he has done the work of wrangling his experiences and observations into words.

This book is a welcome backgrounder on the poetry, and it’s very interesting in its own right. It’s a collection of memoir essays: a version of one of them, ‘Ash Wednesday: A memorial’, published in Heat in 2010, first introduced me to Brendan Ryan’s writing, and I have read versions of several others in Heat and Southerly since. It’s good to see them brought together to form a narrative: his parents’ story, his childhood on the farm, Catholic school and then work away from home in late teenage years, the move to Melbourne, shared houses, pub music scene, odd jobs, and the beginnings of his lifelong relationship. Through it all there is his appreciation of cows, his learning from them how to walk the country (as opposed to Henry David Thoreau’s advice to learn to walk like a camel), and his development as a poet.

There’s a moving account of his relationship with poet John Forbes, who was a mentor. The life with cows and then living in the city with a paddock in his head, so vividly rendered in his poetry, are described here at fascinating length. It’s delightful to read that the first publication of a poet who is so rooted in place, so earthy and so accessible, was a self-published limited edition of 14 copies, bound in paperbark from the trees of St Kilda and selling for $50 each.

Here’s a taste of his writing about cows:

While a cow walks in a straight line, not moving from side to side, it also walks a deviating line. This line seems to be closely linked to two elements a cow encounters each day: the geography of a paddock and habit. Due to their physical size, cows will walk across a hill rather than down the steepest incline. Being a herd animal, a cow will mostly follow other cows along the track they walked the day before. Their cow tracks meander around bumps and ridges in the dirt, ands so the tracks suggest the intimate knowledge the cows have of each paddock. Each day the cows walk along these tracks, perhaps for security, most likely because the tracks have a more practical basis. When viewed from a distance the cow tracks describe the routine of a cow’s day. One track will lead straight to the water trough. Another track will fork off toward shelter on the boundary fence, while other tracks converge like veins around a heart at the paddock’s gate.

‘Walk Like a Cow’, page 202

Because it’s November, inspired by Brendan Ryan, here’s a little verse tribute from me to the Jersey cow that led our herd of mostly Australian Illawarra Shorthorns, with a couple of Friesians:

November verse 4: Cows I have known
For Brendan Ryan
Beauty was our herd's true leader.
Bulls might think they'd be obeyed,
but all the herd would turn to read her
every move, and move her way.
Bony ancient, grey as morning,
with no need for roughhouse horning,
queenlike, she assumed her rank
and strolled from shade to water tank.
Bullocks, calves and springing heifers, 
roan, and black and white, and red,
chewing, calling to be fed,
crumpled horned, with swinging udders,
lifting tails to drop their loads –
they all followed. Beauty led. 



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.

Journal Blitz 5

I guess I’ll never be up to date with the journals I subscribe to. This is my fifth catch-up blog post, and I’m still reading things about a year after publication. Here they are: one from a university, one from the left, one from an organisation of poets and one from an island.


Elizabeth McMahon (editor) and George Kouvaros (guest editor), Southerly Vol 78 No 2 2018: The Lives of Others (2019)

This issue of Southerly, the back cover tells us, ‘is concerned with the debts and obligations that accompany the passing of the generations’, a way of saying that it has a theme of family – personal reminiscence, family history, lines of cultural genealogy.

Here are some of my highlights.

In ‘The Other Life’, guest editor George Kouvaros explores his childhood feelings about a photo of a cousin about his own age who stayed in Greece when Kouvaros’ family moved to Australia. He builds fascinatingly around the notion, borrowed from Marsha Gressen, that migrants are often haunted by a sense of a double life: the one they are living and the one they would have had if they stayed.

Brendan Ryan’s memoir ‘John Forbes in Carlton’ paints a vivid picture of Forbes (dobbed ‘God on a bicycle’ by a Melbourne wit ) as mentor, and is a sweet account of how the creative baton was passed down the generations.. It would have gone well as a chapter in Homage to John Forbes, edited by Ken Bolton in 2002. I’m a fan of both Forbes and Ryan (blog posts, here, here, here and here), but I don’t think you’d need to be to find joy in the essay.

Maria Griffin’s ‘Benjamin’ is a poignant, elegiac meditation on death and extinction. Her immediate subjects are her younger brother, who died aged 32, and the Thylacine / Tasmanian tiger. With a light but dagger-sharp touch she allows the subject to broaden to include the climate emergency. (One small cavil: she imagines Australia during the last ice age as covered with sheets of ice, whereas – correct me if I’m wrong – the archaeological evidence suggests that, though bitterly cold, it was covered in dust.)

Meera Atkinson’s fiction ‘Necropolis Drive’ makes brilliant and powerful use of archival material – her protagonist is researching the history of women incarcerated as insane in colonial times, and correspondence from the NSW Government State Archives and Letters leap from her pages to grab the reader by the throat.

Sharryn Ryan’s memoir ‘The Miracle’ is as powerful a story of growing up with an emotionally unstable mother as you’re likely to read anywhere. Its story of wildness is told with extraordinary restraint, and all the more effective and affecting for it.

Katherine Maher’s ‘One of Your Family’ reads as a fragment from a much broader piece of research. It approaches the issue of the Stolen Generations with a narrow focus, discussing a four-minute video of one Thupi Warra man’s response to Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology. Maher tells us that this is one of 25 videos of this nature held in the State Library of Queensland. ‘I’m not sure,’ her essay concludes, ‘how to truly hear the history he tells.’ Essays like hers help the rest of us clean out our ears.

Three reviews inspired me to do some rereading, and re-savouring: Naomi Riddle on Fiona Wright’s Domestic Interior (my blog post here; I think Wright is funnier than Naomi Riddle seems to); Peter Kirkpatrick on Martin Langford’s Neat Snakes (my post here) and Brigitta Olubas on Sarah Day’s Towards Light (my post here).


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 235 (Winter 2019)

This is the eighteenth and last issue of Overland edited by Jacinda Woodhead. The woman on the cover isn’t her, but a ‘friend and fellow anti-fascist organiser’ of the guest artist Tia Kass. Still, that woman’s confident fist isn’t a bad emblem for Woodhead’s – and Overland‘s – work.

I don’t usually read editorials, let alone quote from them, but as this was Jacinda Woodhead’s farewell, I made an exception (link here). She asks, ‘So what is a left-wing literary magazine today?’, and replies in part:

Now more than ever, we need projects like Overland: we may not always agree with the positions and experiments published in its pages, but it’s critical to build spaces where collective alternatives, where collective futures can be articulated.

I subscribe to Overland to support the building of such a space. Then I read it because it generally includes news and thinking that I don’t easily get elsewhere. Here’s how the journal starts (with links to the articles online):

In ‘La mina no se cierra’, Caitlin Doyle-Markwick walks one of the variants of the Camino de Santiago in Spain (definitely not the walk with guides advertised in today’s Sydney Morning Herald that costs $25 thousand a head). The essay’s title – Spanish for ‘The mine will not close’ – is from graffiti she saw in Asturias referring to a major struggle early last decade. The graffiti, and the history that gave rise to it, is a springboard to rich and complex reflections on the current move against coal mines in Australia and the need for a just transition to renewables.

In ‘On grief’, regular columnist Tony Birch, as always, avoids grand rhetorical statements and takes us briefly into his own recent experience of bereavement.

Restorying care’, a PEN essay by Ellen van Neerven writes about the struggle of many First Nations people to ‘feel heard or tell our story’ in the health system. A brief quote:

Data is used to build, and claim, story. Recently, the term ‘data sovereignty’ has been used to describe mob’s sovereign right to their own data: all data should be subject to the laws and governance structures within the Indigenous Nation where it is collected. This data should be accessible to the community. Unfortunately we are a long way from that.

Then there are nine pages of poetry, including ‘Report on Norman – after Vigan’ by Norman Erikson Pasaribu (the title is mysterious to me, but the poem itself is terrific), ‘Walis tingting’ by Ivy Alvarez (which finds poetry in a Philippine palm-leaf broom), and ‘The hymen diaries’ by Eileen Chong (a set of four short poems that stands up on its own, but becomes much richer when seen alongside the stunning works of art it references – by Katie Griesar, Annette Messager, Paul McCarthy and Juana Francés).

But I won’t go on listing the whole contents. Here are some of the rest:

  • The gunboat nation in a lifeboat world’, by Scott Robinson, subtitled ‘On the militarisation of climate change’, wins my prize for the most telling metaphor in a title
  • Alison Croggon ruminates ‘On art‘ in times of crisis like ours
  • Giacomo Lichtner celebrates Primo Levi’s hundredth birth year by singling out ten fragments of If This Is A Man, in ‘One hundred years of Primo Levi
  • There are five short stories, of which the one that stands out most for me is Jem Tyley-Miller’s ‘The island’, which imagines a surreal solution to the refugee crisis involving those vast collections of garbage in the ocean
  • The most natural thing’ by Natalie Kon-yu is a peer-reviewed personal essay that introduced me to the parthood model of pregnancy, as opposed to the container model
  • Enza Gandolfo’s ‘Making & shaping’. which would have fitted nicely into the Southerly‘s theme, is a moving meditation on her mother’s crocheting artistry and  her own changing understanding of it
  • and regular columnist Giovanni Tiso strikes an intimate note in ‘On not moving to Australia‘, linking his decision to stay in New Zealand because he has two children who live with autism with Australia harsh rules for New Zealanders who come here, and it’s even harsher treatment of some refugees.

Yvette Holt and Magan Magan (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Volume 7 (2019)

This is Australian Poetry Inc’s seventh annual anthology of members’ poetry. In the words of one of its editors, it hosts ‘a focus on poets heralding from the Northern Territory, from the Top End, Western Desert, Utopia, Barkly, and of course Central Australia’. Those poets aren’t corralled into a special section, but take their place alongside others, including some whose books have won prestigious prizes. There are plenty of First Nations voices, including some writing from in prison and some who are household names. A fair number of the poems come from the Spoken Word milieu. It’s a beautifully democratic, diverse collection.

Having said that, I’m reluctant to single any individuals out. I’ll just quote some lines from a handful of poems that deal with fire, drought and flood, perhaps surprisingly many given that this anthology was published well before the current bushfire season,.

Kaye Aldenhoven’s ‘Cleaning the Country – April in Kakadu’ is about fire as a benign tool for land management:

Cool Dry season wind shifts the wind chimes
sending clear bell sounds out over fire-cleared land.
On the tongue the metallic smell of yesterday's smoke.
In the burnt area
an invisible wind spirit
raises puffs of dust as she sweeps ashes of grass.

Kelly Lee Hickey, ‘Notes from a Heatwave’, captures the lassitude of hot dry weather in five short stanzas:

All the nests are abandoned.
The pea chick dies
in my hands.

Peter Mitchell, ‘Forgotten Sparks’, recalls a 1968 bushfire:

We were surrounded by tongues, the speech of flames: shouts,
clamour and argument. Their babble charged our homes.

Fiona Dorrell’s heartbreaking image from a drought, ‘Forty Horses at Santa  Teresa’:

One horse lies down
crosses and tucks its legs
up close to its body.
Others stretch heads back in dirt
almost smelling of algae
and sieve hot air through
yellow spade teeth.

Not quite on topic is Michele Seminara’s ‘Family Tree’, which laments the loss of a tree that has been part of her life since childhood:

They amputate the limbs
to make it easier to fell; 
I know that feeling.

Vern Field (managing editor), Island 157 (2019)

I don’t have a subscription to Island, whose web site describes it as ‘celebrating ideas, writing and culture from our base in Hobart, Tasmania’ since 1979. I bought this issue because it features a poem by Jennifer Maiden (who isn’t from Tasmania).

Compared with the other journals in this post, Island is a lavish affair, with full page colour illustrations and advertisements for theatre events.

It’s a good read, with a preponderance of items that are excerpts from longer works (from Favel Parrett’s There was Still Love, which I intend to read; from a graphic novel, Islands and Ships by Joshua Santospirito, author of The Long Weekend in Alice Springs (my blog post here); from a lecture by Sharon Rider, which introduced me to some basics of Kant’s philosophy), and author’s notes on works in progress (Laura Elizabeth Woollett doing research on Norfolk Island; two separate accounts of artist and writer visits to Iceland; Rohan Wilson musing on the ethics of setting a climate-change (‘cli-fi’) novel in the Maldives).

Burnt Out’ by Liz Evans is a tale of not losing her home to bushfire in the 2018–2019 summer. Though the experience she describes is harrowing, it feels oddly tranquil when read in the aftermath of the recent mammoth fires, as it places the fire events in the context of the writer’s London background and is illustrated by gorgeously dramatic photographs.

There are short stories, of which Anne Casey’s comedy of teenage errors set in a cake shop, ‘What I’d Do If I Was in Charge’, stands out.

Jennifer Maiden’s ‘Pollock, Whiteley and the Critic: Seven Layers‘ isn’t the only poem, but it’s the one that spoke most strongly to me. (Perhaps I should have listed it as one of the excerpts above, as it’s included in Maiden’s The Espionage Act recently published by Quemar Press.) It’s one of her imaginary dialogues: the two painters of the title and an art critic stand in front of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, and their conversation ranges over an early self portrait by Brett Whiteley (I looked it up, it’s real, there’s an article on it here), the CIA’s program to back abstract expressionism as a counter to social realism, the effect this had on Pollock’s art and life … As is generally the case with Jennifer Maiden’s dialogues, it works as a strangely surreal encounter among recognisable characters, with a strong undertow of not-quite-pindownable meaning.

Thanks for reading this far. It’s not the last of my journal catch-up posts …

Australian Poetry Journal 4:2

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 4, Issue 2 (2014)

I hope I don’t sound too surprised when I say that this issue of Australian Poetry Ltd’s twice-yearly journal is excellent. Any surprise isn’t at the excellence, but at other factors. Most of the poems are remarkably accessible, for instance. And it was a pleasure to meet in its pages quite a few people whose work I know reasonably well. Andy Kissane takes on school bullying in ‘Southerly’: ‘

I know from talking to Joshua that Fridays
at lunchtime are the worst. He won’t tell me what happens, he simply stares at his shoes.

joanne burns confronts a spider in ‘watch tower a reconnaissance’:

of cool voltaren no living creature has been
harmed in the writing of this poem except
perhaps the poet

Brendan Ryan ventures far from his native Victorian dairy farm in ‘Cows in India’;  B W Shearer, whom I know from my time in children’s literature, pays homage to a rainbow lorikeet in ‘A crowned queen’. I warmed to poems by Ron Pretty, Andrew Lansdown, Carol Jenkins, Liz Dolan, Rachael Mead, and they weren’t the only ones.

Besides the poetry there are a number of interesting articles. Dan Disney and Kit Kelen call on poets to resist destructive politics, specifically regarding asylum seekers, to rouse themselves and readers ‘from a collectively accepted nightmare’, and they give robust examples, from John Mateer and Vicki Viidikas to Bertolt Brecht, of poets who have done so. Oscar Schwartz induces us to think about computer generated poetry in ‘A Turing Test for Poetry’, timely perhaps because of the movie The Imitation Game, and – to me – almost totally unconvincing. Simon Patton gives an insightful account of a translator–poet relationship in ‘Translating Yu Jian: Encounter and transmission’. Vivian Gerrand interviews Claire Gaskin, who has interesting things to say about many things, in particular her writing process, and her belief that to be a decent writer you need to read three books a week (which makes me well on the way). Sarah Day profiles the all but forgotten Tasmanian poet Helen Power.

The journal is a perk of membership of Australian Poetry Ltd, and individual issues can be bought via the web site.

Brendan Ryan’s Travelling through the Family

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:

______________________________Here,
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.

Brendan Ryan’s Paddock in His Head

Brendan Ryan, A Paddock in His Head (Five Islands Press 2007)

1pihhThe 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.

Why Brendan Ryan Is Not a Farmer

Brendan Ryan, Why I Am Not a Farmer (Five Islands New Poets Series 2000)

This is a slim volume of poetry, published 10 years ago, so what are the chances of it still being in the shops? As it turns out, the chances are a hundred percent at Gleebooks, thanks partly to the poet’s name being towards the back of the alphabet so that the book is shelved just off the carpet where only the diligent searcher will see it,  and partly to the cover, which includes a clever photomontage of dairy cattle in a paddock with Melbourne’s skyline towering in the background but somehow manages to look like a pamphlet issued by the State Department of Agriculture. Of course I’m glad I was able to get a copy, but sad that sales have evidently been so slow. Perhaps other readers of Brendan Ryan’s article on the Ash Wednesday fires in the current Heat will be stirred, like me, to seek the poems out. There were at least five more copies there in the middle of last week.

Rural life tends to be romanticised in Australian poetry – or deeply imbued with identity politics. You don’t have to go back to the 1890s. Here’s David Campbell from ‘Cocky’s Calendar’

The hawk, the hill, the loping hare,
The blue tree and the blue air,
O all the coloured world I see
And walk upon, are made by me.

Even Les Murray, from the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, mostly keeps farm work at arm’s length, as in ‘The Family Farmers’ Victory’:

Cane work was too heavy for children
so these had their childhoods
as not all did, on family farms

Brendan Ryan’s poetry in this book is spattered with the shit and blood of work on a dairy farm. ‘Losing to the Cow’, for instance, is a graphic account of a bull calf’s difficult birth. ‘The Benefits of a Rotary Dairy’ takes the reader into the process of milking a herd of cattle. (Brendan Ryan spent his childhood on a dairy farm in western Victoria. On my father’s cane farm in north Queensland, we only ever milked two cows, and I didn’t do any actual milking, but the poem rings all sorts of bells for me just the same.)

 Back then, most cows
had names. You knew their history by the type of knot
you tied their outside ankle back with.
A double knot for the heifers and mongrel choppers
who kicked in a three-foot arc, and kept you wary,
a single knot for old Jerseys like Mary, who dragged her teats
in the mud and stood in the bail meditating
before the nail holes of light in the door.

Alan Wearne gets it right on the back cover: ‘these clear, sombre pieces make the reader exclaim “So that’s what it’s like!”‘

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, as there would be if he took on Les Murray’s ‘not all did’. 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. In ‘May Day Reunion’ he meets another refugee from the district (‘it’s our eyes that give us away’):

As the reason for leaving
becomes the need for another beer,
the idea of going back
becomes a type of union against
being seen on the street as someone's son
who can't get a job.

Still, we lean forward

Really , I don’t know if anyone else has written as well as this about what is after all a very common experience, the migration from small rural community to city life.

Heat 22: The Persistent Rabbit

Ivor Indyk (Ed), Heat 22: The persistent rabbit (Giramondo May 2010)

This issue of Heat has much that is wonderful. The title, following tradition, is a phrase chosen apparently at random from the contents, in this case from πO’s exuberant nonsense poem ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’:

The average person blinksoooo22 rabbits a minute.
Burke & Wills went into the desertoooowith a dozen rabbits
Obsession isooooa persistent rabbit.
The causes of a rabbitooooaren't clear.

Perhaps Ivor Indyk, the editor, is quietly suggesting that the seemingly  miraculous persistence of Heat owes not a little to obsession.

I understand Heat to be about diversity, about presenting a version of literary Australia that is open to the whole planet. It often includes, for instance, travel writing, translated pieces, news from abroad, and fiction, essays or images that grow from places where cultures intersect. In this issue there are examples of each of these – respectively, Barbara Brooks’s self-styled fictional memoir ‘Lost in the House’ (which powerfully combines tales of travel, dementia, memory and intergenerational relationships); Stuart Cooke’s ‘Two Mapuche Poets’ (the Mapuche people are indigenous to parts of Chile and Argentina); Priya Basil’s ‘My Home is Our Castle’ (about a communal housing project that won a major architecture prize in Berlin last year); Michelle Moo’s colonial historical fiction, ‘New Gold Mountain’ (white women and Chinese men on the Australian goldfields); Barry Hill’s ‘Ezra Pound: The tragic orientalist’; and the centre section of art by Guan Wei, ‘Longevity for Beginners’. (The last three provide a nice example of the kind of counterpoint that Edward Said recommended.)

Apart from Barbara Brooks’s memoir three pieces stood out for me.

Brendan Ryan (whose book of poetry, Why I Am Not a Farmer, I am now actively seeking) has a gripping personal essay on the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires in western Victoria, which is enough by itself to justify the price of the journal. Sadly, not even part of it is up on the Heat website.

Lee Kofman’s essay, ‘Revisiting the Geography of My Body’, just as gripping and as intensely personal, includes incidental elements of a migration story, but is mainly about scars, particularly scars on a woman’s body, and their almost complete absence from literature and visual arts: wounds, scars as something to be healed, scars on men (she doesn’t have to mention Coriolanus), but scars as such, particularly on a woman’s body, reside ‘outside the linguistic and public realm’. By sheer chance, I happened to walk past this piece of graffiti in Newtown just as I finished reading the essay. I hope Ms Kofman would enjoy it:

I said I wouldn’t whinge any more about proofing errors in this Heat, but there is one good old-fashioned belly laugh in this essay. The pursuit of bodily perfection, it tells us, ‘can be traced back to Pluto’s ideal of human beauty as the “natural”, unmarked body’. Roman myth, presumably, rather than Disney.

Of the poetry, Kate Middleton’s poems on a Hansel and Gretel theme stand out for me. They are billed as excerpts from Where Dingoes Tread. I look forward to seeing the whole thing:

Remember when hunger
was simple?
ooooooooooooThere was nothing
and we ate nothing. Then plenty returned
and I turned
to austerity.