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.