Poetry Review - Angela Gardner
Five Islands Press, Carlton 2007 pp84
ISBN 978 0 7340 3709 1
A paddock in his head is the second of Brendan Ryan's books published by Five Islands Press and is the result of more than ten years work. Ryan was brought up on a dairy farm at Panmure in western Victoria and this largely biographical collection of poems moves from his boyhood on the farm through his decision to leave, his life in the city and subsequent visits as a tourist to a place he can't help but call home.
This collection of poems tells a history of Australia, and of Victorian dairy farming more specifically, that will be immediately familiar to many of Ryan's generation. The personal memories of the narrator provide a lens through which the transition of the dairy industry in Australia from the transplanted traditions of Irish Catholic farming practices which were dependant upon large families and hard working women, the wives and mothers who tend husbands and numbers of children that leave them without any time for beauty or ease (the book is dedicated to "the women of the house"), through to the industrialisation of the industry where 'the automatic teat cup removers' (p.64) mean that 'one farmer can knock over a herd in two hours' as the demands of 'World Trade Agreements' hit the family farm. There are generations of Australians who will find these poems resonant with their own memories: of big families and the struggles of mothers to feed, clothe and educate their offspring; of taciturn fathers and uncles whose lives are defined for so many years by the arrival of the milk truck and the hay-bailing season and the bitter chill of 4 a.m. starts to the bellows of milk-laden cows eager for relief and oats and of the mixed feelings surrounding the transition from the type of farming depicted here to fields of canola and farmers retiring to town-life.
While the subject matter of the poems is intensely personal it manages to avoid a 'confessional' tone through the retention of a farmer's eye and a reflective voice. The front cover photograph taken by the author "Looking West, Mt. Warrnambool" is over pasture and ploughed land of windbreaks into the hazy distance. This is the landscape that formed both the bluff country face that smiles out from the back cover and the poems within.
"...the circular rhythms
of echo and response
echo across paddocks" ('Catholic Daydreams' p12)
...and echo also across his poems. The Catholicism of Ryan's childhood is everywhere evident in his writing from the image of the repetition of farm life "some days are rosaries that never end" ('I know, I know' p11), to the description of fertiliser and prayers poured onto the paddocks. The arresting "say a decade for rain" ('In the Company of Farmers' p15) evokes not just the everyday practise of faith but also the precariousness of the farming life during lengthy droughts and other difficulties inherent in that existence. Cassie Lewis notes, on the back cover blurb, "this book returns again and again to childhood memories, as though struggling to see that vanishing point, the self, for the first time." Yet one of the most powerful poems of the book 'She Let's Go' (p26) is drawn from memory not of his own childhood but concerns a visit with his young daughter to a country town that resonates with his own formation as a farmer's son who never quite fits in. As they walk along the shopping street it is he, not her, "hanging on/ out of fear, out of love".
The poems ' I know, I know' and 'What It Feels Like' both portray aspects of a lonely, desperate, socially constricted life that cannot be described except by the actions provoked. Ryan's poems often describe the space around his subject... a common device in drawing. Farming, more than any other occupation, can define you; it rules where you live and your day-to-day activities. In 'Woman Leaving a Farm' he describes a farmer's wife now living in the suburbs being found by her husband "the woman he used to know/lost in the lounge room" (p14). And although Brendan Ryan has made a conscious decision to move to the city there is also a sense of loss and displacement throughout that is akin to the dislocation felt by a migrant. In 'Catching a Train to Intimacy' (p33) he says
The road home is in the eye that admits you
Behind me, the city was like a perfect idea"
There is something almost Biblical in that 'eye that admits you' as if it is a test, the eye of a needle, the acceptance of the in-dwellers. The city is an idea but the paddocks continue to exist in his head and the country remains home though he has become "a tourist/ stepping off into a familiar landscape". ('Paddock Standing' p43) There is a line in a poem about an overseas flight 'Teenage Riot after Sonic Youth' (p71) "why is the act of leaving so straightforward" that could as easily apply to his leaving the district of his birth with no intention of returning only to see later the complications of such an act however considered at the time. As an migrant to the city he is able to ask those questions about what ties us to place. Distances, after all, are not just measured in miles but the fact itself of being apart.
The economics of farm life underlie many of the poems. The old piano that "was never going to make money for the farm" ('A Beautiful Ruin' p18) that he and his siblings took axes to one bored day in the school holidays because it was "a beautiful thing to ruin" was light relief from using the head of an axe on a crippled calf. The killing of a sickly calf would have been just another job to do around the property but one that created an indelible memory in the young farm lad. There is a cold hard economic reality that dictates that some calves just won't fetch anything from the buyers. It reminded me of two things: Ted Hughes bleak poem about lambing, a disturbing mid-winter travesty of a birth, where the unfortunate lamb presents so awkwardly that the farmer has to hack it out of the mother in pieces. The other event it reminds me of is of helping during calving at my brother's dairy farm in West Wales. It was a difficult birth with a first-time mother who seemed at a loss of what to do, it ended up with a live birth assisted by ropes, me on one side my brother on the other but I remember quite well the disappointment on my brother's face after all the effort in the middle of the night to find that we had delivered a bull calf - of little use in a dairy herd. A reflection of Ryan's line "the calf buyer heaves the bulls into the darkness of his truck". These are no more than the facts and it is their lack of embellishment that allows them to retain their power.
One of a large family I noted his family was "lost in language" ('Catholic Daydreams' p12) never lost to language. And it is evident from another poem ('The Big Hole' p19) that it was not just within his family that language was elevated and enjoyed because his friends also were storytellers. Yet he was a child escaping to the outer edges of the farm, or "shivering into the stare from the diving board" ('The Outer Limits' p16) aware that he was looking for a rupture in the fabric or continuity of life not just for escape which is sometimes easier to find. Though for some, mostly the women, there can seem no escape. The children didn't just ruin the piano when they took to it with axes but also one of the few escapes from drudgery for his mother whose reaction closes the poem 'The Beautiful Ruin' as "her voice began to quiver and screech." Tellingly it wasn't until after the children left home that his mother was able to make a garden. There is also the poignant 'The Paddock With The Big Tree in It' about a young girl already trapped by endless work and mud.
The young Brendan was obviously a child that absorbed the world of ideas as well as the reality of farm life where even for the children "work became a prayer we never finished" ('Paddock Behind the House' p41). The life of a dairy farmer is unrelenting and involving, sometimes consuming the whole family. Ryan acknowledges the essential role of women in farm life from his grandmother bringing home her drunken husband then milking the herd with her daughters to the ironic miraculous "sandwiches [...] at Cabaret Balls". He is also able to achieve great subtlety and emotional nuance, and a recognisably masculine tenderness, as in the poem 'Penitent' about a farmer who holidays in Manila and who had a hard time keeping a girlfriend as he sits "alone/necking a bottle on his verandah" (p23). Bachelor farmers play am important, though problematic, role in the narrative these poems create.
There is an exquisite moment in 'A Walk to the Supermarket' one of the later city poems "Like Tintern Abbey/The Commission Flats embedded in a landscape" (p51) where it is easy to see how the world of ideas, in this case Wordsworth's gothic picturesque, informs his world. But his references are not narrow poetic. I loved also the reference to the paintings of Fred Williams "I'm studying 1001 views of the You Yangs" ('Curves' p55) and how, to his informed eye, a paddock of stubble and baled hay can look like installation art.
Craig Sherborne has commented on Ryan's "anti-pastoral" strain and Chris Wallace-Crabbe on his "close observation" but Ryan's accuracy of description of the pathos of his characters and the many beautiful images tenderly drawn suggest a complexity that is more than an anti-pastoral stance. There are the contradictions of belonging and wishing to escape; of not belonging and still being unable to escape. The book is filled with poems that have an unexpected beauty yet are entirely truthful to the reality of rural living. He charts an alternative and parallel history of life on the land told by those living in grinding poverty under the strain of mortgages and large Catholic families as much as by the weather. Moving to the city does not disconnect the poet from his past and this brings the power of authenticity to his work. He remains haunted by his country Panmure, a place James Bonwick in 1857 passed through "without being conscious of its existence". As in Bonwick's Narrative of an Educational Tour it is the act of writing that keeps a place in collective memory.
This wide-ranging collection references many of the commonalities of Australian farming life during the 50s, 60s and 70s: learning to drive in the home paddock where the figure-eight tracks cut into the grass lead to burn-outs in hotted-up Holden Geminis and sometimes to the white-painted crucifixes dotting the country road-sides; Sunday mass and prayers for needy; country football clubs and the teams that gather around the "barrels..."; learning to kill a value-less calf in a manner that his father would approve of; memories of family holiday to beach-side caravan parks or bored days of violent frustration that breaks out in bullying or mindless destruction; the crowded everyday family life in a house where the walls are built of ply-board and the holes in "the floor beside my bed kept me informed of bad weather".
But it isn't any of this that makes the land or life into a sacrament. Brendan Ryan was aware as a teenager of missing out in some ways but his compensation was "the light/once we'd emptied the paddocks" and it is this light from the too-big sky that has remained in his head whatever his subject.
"Cleaning the pool has become my one holy act.
It leaves the Rosary for dead.
As the vacuum clears a space
in my head, I chase the perfection of glass... " ('Curves' p55)
He learnt as a young man to lean into the horizon, the stillness and the light and these have not left him. He has brought them successfully together with the world of ideas and language into his wonderful and beautifully wrought poetry.