Margaret Bradstock reviews “New and Selected Poems” by Gig Ryan
by Gig Ryan
Reviewed by MARGARET BRADSTOCK
New and Selected texts are increasingly popular with well-established poets and are, in fact, a good way for readers to gain an insight into their manifestos and technical development. This is particularly so in the case of Gig Ryan, who, as a poet, is judiciously enigmatic and always one step ahead of her readership. In this collection, Ryan has put together her choice of landmark poems from her previous five books and added a section of new poems written since then.
In her first collection, The Division of Anger (1980), appear most of the hallmarks of Ryan’s technique and avant-garde approach to her subject matter − the metaphysical similes, the fractured syntax (resisting any kind of predictability) and the almost complete absence of lyricism. Clichés and worn-out tropes are mockingly undercut. Nowhere is this more evident than in the iconic “If I Had A Gun,” which concludes the selection from this book.
Ryan’s similes in her early poems rely on shock value and violence, sometimes unerring in their aptness (“His sincerity clacking like chainmail”; “His eyes/ romantic as aluminium strewn against a sea-wall”), sometimes bizarre (“the water lies down like a saint”; “worries like a tablet”), but never willing to be ignored. At times this full-on technique may irritate, threaten to overwhelm the reader with its close-packed mixed similes, but bombardment may well be the intention, or at least the outcome, as in the poem “Getting It”:
He kisses, his pale guilt blowing
like a flower. You’re luxurious, unsure.
Your eyes opening like telescopes
on a clean brain.
You’re so silly in the kitchen, like a new appliance.
More complex, and equally effective, are similes that merge into metaphor (“I will go down into the black water/ and peel its wetness back into the shore/ where it will shiver like a dress”). In later collections, Ryan uses similes more sparingly, often developing them into extended metaphors that control the poem as a whole.
The Division of Anger and the next two collections, Manners of an Astronaut (1984) and The Last Interior (1986), share a subject matter of inner-city politics, of sex, drugs and jazz, and an ‘angry’ take on conformity, further disrupting the comfort-zone of the reader. Dramatic monologues intensify the ironic stance of the poet/persona. In “The Buddha Speaks,” a serious message underlies the flippant exterior:
I have eliminated the possibility of pain.
The slopes are crawling with pain.
Any movement, after all, is futile,
so I have cut down on aid generally
and talked myself out of violent feelings
In “Half Hill / Half…”, one of the best poems in this section (Manners of an Astronaut):
The bars of the street go to the new next place
where your yearly emotion won’t come
and don’t hail me like letters. You don’t need to.
I mean, you’ve lined the walls and sucked drugs.
The world holds you in place like hairspray.
I walk home stoned, eating my favourite apple,
hearing birds fall out of trees,
super-conscious of walking.
How can you explain boredom in 10 minutes?
The short selection from The Last Interior features a number of dramatic monologues utilising phatic ‘nothings’, clichés and conventional rhetoric, sometimes curtailed to emphasise the predictability of colloquial conversation. Likewise, the endings of poems are incomplete, not needing completion (“I mean, that’s not correct etiquette is it. If I/ could just find out the correct behaviour, the pattern,/ and learn it and learn it”; “My religion’s too strong in me, though he turned at the end,/ a gesture. He was that sort, you know,/ £5, you got roses./ the handsomest man I ever”).
Excavation (1990) shows a more measured and integral use of simile, a widening of perspective and a political component. Examples in this New and Selected text include “On first looking into Fairfax’s Herald” and “1965.” In the whimsical “Six Goodbyes”:
Surf music seeps from the separated father’s flat
A madman in the lane shouts nothing
The walls shudder with the traffic
The Government doesn’t know you from a bar
I plug my ears with wax to hear the sirens
Every second weekend his kids invent a yard
between stumps of furniture, a tin shed and a gate
The fridge is tanked with frost
In poems like “Napoleon,” “Penelope” and “Achilleus,” historical and legendary figures begin to make their appearance, albeit in modern guise, exploding the conventions/pretensions of love and its conformities. In later collections, there’s a shift in the functioning of such figures. “Electra to Clytemnestra” and “Ismene to Antigone” (from Heroic Money), while relying on a similar approach, together provide a balanced argument on the subject. The new poems “Ismene” and “Antigone,” the imagistic references increasingly double-edged (“your wine-dark car turning in the drive”), contrast attitudes of the two sisters to the ‘truths’ embedded in their mythologies.
The collection Pure and Applied, which won the 1999 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry, is strongly represented here, believed to be Ryan’s best book to date. Again we come to grips with dramatic monologues, ironised by representational handling of the subjects’ own rhythms of speech and confessional stance. In “London Saver,” for example:
probably Istanbul or Spain the guys’re divine
There used to be an eleven but they’ve all pitched off
into Outer Mongolia or something She throws the fags
It was lashing everywhere when I clicked the tickets
deciding on a country
And in “Eating Vietnamese,” “This restaurant’s divine They’re refugees/ Asians are beautiful don’t you think, quite hairless/ She wore apricot chiffon There were kids everywhere/ So demanding” (p.106). “Interest Rates” is even more savage in its revelation of personae through self-delusion and banal diatribe:
‘I used to be like you, full of icy self-regard
but life monotonously catches up and culls you
and all the others’ Things begin to glow
like your own house, car, and love’s equivalent
You get sick of being alone and raddled, and he’s a real pet
…isn’t he? So I buckled under, got a richly job
and I’m, you know, fulfilled. Before that it was just a covey of unrealistic aims
Everybody told me.
He dusted me off
who had once been lost
Now it’s solid, tangible
The baby’s like cement to me
Otherwise the million things I wanted every cider brick
I’d be just drifting or immersed’
By contrast, “Two Leaders” returns to the authorial voice, exposing these easily-recognised political figures with considerable contempt. The pièce de résistance, however, is the title poem “Pure and Applied,” denouncing the news media in different styles and voices.
Heroic Money, shortlisted for the 2002 NSW Premier’s Prize for Poetry, seems stylistically a bridging text between what has gone before and what is to come. Poems evince the characters of the ancient Athenian world but also continue to take in contemporary cultural constructs. “Eurydice’s Suburb” (pre-empting, perhaps, Adamson’s lambent “Eurydice in Sydney,” though located differently) is an assured portrait:
The wings of home enfold you and lock
under the city’s poisoned coronet or halo
You gaze at the supermarket’s petrified food
and respond like a zombie to the past’s ghosts
and semblance of meaning
“Profile” gives us an exposé of the poetry world in dramatic monologue form, some of the details of which may suggest an aspect of self-mockery or, at least, a well-trodden path :
‘I started out with a frayed and urgent lyric
I suppose it was a comparative poverty
then learning appealed to me, though the past scared
then the Orpheus poems
a sort of self-commentary
You’ll see in my second book how I’ve
tackled national themes
When we come to the new poems, there’s considerable continuity, both of theme and style. Some of the poems appear to move in the direction of new lyricism (“The Last Spring”, “Ismene”, “Antigone”), until the reader is confronted with the way they function to explode stereotypes, “illustrating a cliché.” There is more inter-textual wordplay (from poets, proverbs, legends, nursery rhymes), and many opportune similes and metaphors. With surreal and unsettling imagery, the poem “Iphigenia” both evokes and dismisses a nostalgic preoccupation with the past. It is worth quoting in full:
Ships slinged in low elastic waters knock
who chug you to the altar
where old blood crumbles.
Orange fire tassels air.
You look out from the coast
back when twisting horses rise…
and clay figurines scout on your shelves
or back, lost geraniums shimmered August
and then expunge, then ‘fluey tenants later, then tied between two screens
your binary presence more real than soft dawn
when ritual tatters
and reversible names converse over the galloping maps.
Her teary pillar shrives a velour sea.
Your hair tacked with daphne and myrtle. Birds creak, a charmer −
nett bridegroom, mock stag −
to keeling ships, to dimple wind
coins close your eyes
At the end of the collection, there is a brief page of notes, referencing a handful of allusions. At the risk of advocating the scenario of the poem “Profile” (“Later I was avant-garde/ You can read the accompanying text’s/ explication of process”), I feel that a few more references might help the reader. Not too many, because in the end Ryan’s impact relies more on an apprehension of superb poetry than on textual exegesis.
MARGARET BRADSTOCK has five published collections of poetry, including The Pomelo Tree (awarded the Wesley Michel Wright Prize), Coast (2005) and How Like the Past (2009). Her sixth collection, Barnacle Rock, is forthcoming from Puncher & Wattmann in 2013. Margaret recently edited Antipodes, the first anthology of Aboriginal and white poetic responses to “settlement” (Phoenix, 2011).