Gig Ryan has been a considerable force in Australian poetry since the early 1980s. In its taxonomy, however, it is hard to know where to place her. Clearly she shares something of the dry wit and verbal ingenuity of her good friend, the late John Forbes. Her knowledge of, and ironic attitude towards, popular culture could situate her quite close to John Tranter. These allegiances, however, take no account of her feminism (especially in early works such as ‘If I Had A Gun’).
Some other female poets of her own generation, such as Judith Beveridge, Jennifer Harrison and MTC Cronin, have arguably been more influential on the remarkable generation of Australian young women poets (such as Sarah Holland-Batt and Petra White, to name just two) who are currently emerging. Some might argue, however, that the emphasis of this generation on metaphorical density at the risk of literal meaning may owe something to Gig Ryan as a precursor.
For a poet whose technique has been so consistently ‘experimental’, Gig Ryan has had a remarkably favourable press. In The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1994) William H. Wilde talks of her poetry as ‘difficult, intense and pain-filled’ and argues that she is also ‘a lyricist with an outstanding linguistic ability to create aesthetically exciting moments from what is emotionally painful’. In Poetry International Michael Brennan points to the ‘truncation, tautness and drama’ of Ryan’s poetry and celebrates how her ‘humour, insight and music test and engage the reader’.
Bearing all this in mind, we can now conveniently, using her recently-released New & Selected Poems, begin at the beginning and trace (or re-trace) the continuities and developments in Ryan’s poetry from her first collection, The Division of Anger (1981) through to the recent poems which conclude the present book.
From the late 1970s to the mid-1980, Ryan’s main concern was with sexual politics and, to a lesser extent, the unintended side effects of the so-called ‘sexual revolution’. Her most famous (some would say ‘infamous’) poem of that period is the one that finishes this selection from her first book, namely, ‘If I Had A Gun’. A few randomly chosen lines are enough to establish the tone: ‘I’d shoot the man who can’t look me in the eye / who stares at my boobs when we’re talking / who rips me off in the milk-bar and smiles his wet purple smile’. Some of the complaints are even more explicit and include the man who ‘wrenches me into position / like a meccano set’ and another who ‘shoves it up like a nail’.
While the understandable, even violent, feminism of these lines brought Ryan considerable celebrity at the time (and later) ‘If I Had A Gun’ is not especially typical of her work as a whole, even in those early days. Less aggressive perhaps, but no less sexually political, are lines like those which close her early poem, ‘Not Like A Wife’: ‘The sink’s blocked in Darlinghurst. / I never could eat spaghetti effectively, / too unmarried or something.’ Ryan, it seems, did not always have to ‘carry a gun’.
It’s in Ryan’s second book, Manners of an Astronaut, that the relative directness of her first collection starts to evolve into something more opaque and we see the interest shift somewhat from politics to poetry itself. Many of these later poems are not vehicles for outrage (or disappointment) but abstract, almost sculptural, constructions. They may have moral implications but they are abstractions nonetheless. Take, for instance, the opening lines of the title poem, ‘Manners of an Astronaut’: ‘Come out from the shower, singing and glorious. / Red light vanishing in the mauve trees. / Gladly enough, your head was only swimming, not president. / The lake with wrath is heavy / and decisions also have made it stop like a screen. / The lake through the white door isn’t normal.’
A number of things about this stanza foreshadow the rest of Ryan’s career so far: the sense of a line as a unit of meaning; the slightly strange verbal jokiness of ‘your head was only swimming, not president’; the occasional, deliberate archaism of syntax or vocabulary (‘the lake with wrath was heavy’) and visual descriptions that frustrate the reader’s imagination even as they stimulate it (in what way precisely isn’t the ‘lake through the white door’ ‘normal’?).
At this stage the social satire and sexual politics (‘It’s party time in Darlinghurst. But he’s sick of hairstyles…’) are still there but so too is a growing density of texture and an intentional disruption of traditional syntax. The next section, from Ryan’s chapbook, The Last Interior, (1986) is something of a transition between her two main periods. Most of its poems are monologues, several very insightful, especially those spoken by women of different ages.’ 22 years’ is perhaps the most moving, spoken by a girl who can’t quite find a line between self-destructive promiscuity and wanting ‘to flee out the window’. ‘25 years Always’ is more difficult to interpret but is almost certainly as a young woman’s lament after a series of abortions. It’s complete in five lines: ‘The children I cradled in my curled body, / their shiny limbs dropping into sleep. / Dream, repair. I protect you with watching. / These arms support a head / I carry them to bed, one by one.’
In Excavation (1990) we see Australian and international (as opposed to sexual) politics entering Ryan’s work. The process starts almost abruptly with a free verse sonnet, ‘On first looking into Fairfax’s Herald’ and the poem, ‘1965’, the latter being a subtle but effective account of the bloody events in Indonesia in that year. ‘Disinformation’ has a shot at what we take to be American ‘sailors (who) strut through town / adored by skint women who, for a job, will cheer their garish flag’ and a swipe at the PM of the day (Bob Hawke presumably) ‘unable to not be loved by Indonesia, France, Chile, China’. At other times the satire (or straight denunciation) is more socially oriented. In the next section, ‘Pure and Applied’, a Londoner is quoted as saying: ‘I put away about 50 a week double-shifts married to the pub / She shivered I listen to their diminishing brain cells / and the sloppy histrionic music like a church’. The simile at the end of this is typically ambiguous. Is the narrator listening ‘like a church’ or is the music ‘like a church’?
The church reference is no accident, however. Numerous poems throughout the book display traces of what seems to have been a Catholic education – and a continuing interest in, if not preoccupation with, some of the issues it must have raised. In ‘Venerdi Santo’, for instance, she notes that: ‘Keen on profit, shops stay open through the hours of agony’. Titles such as ‘The Global Rewards Redemption Centre’ and ‘La Penserosa’ are also indicative, the latter talking of a ‘truncated simile / swathed in religion’s cold abstract love’. Sometimes single lines can leave an indelible spiritual impression: ‘The dead enrich the soil with their ruin. (‘Rostra’). At other times there are witty adaptations: ‘Your true self has left / the square halo of a living saint’. (‘Oh Anachronism’).
In the second half of this New and Selected Ryan also begins to travel beyond the confines of inner-city Sydney and Melbourne. In ‘Travellers from the New World’, she attempts almost a mini-version of her friend John Forbes’ classic, ‘Europe: A Guide for Ken Searle’. (‘England was antipodean must / Switzerland was grouse We stayed with friends’). Vietnam gets a mention, even if only a satirical one, via the mouth of a returning Aussie tourist. ‘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. Am I missing? / I guess you’re going soon…’ (‘Eating Vietnamese’).
Another feature of the book’s second half is Ryan’s increasing use of traditional forms, especially sonnets (and, in one case, a sestina). Here the poet often uses a steady iambic pentameter and regular rhyme scheme which make the poems seem more timeless than contemporary (as much of the rest of Ryan’s work so clearly is). The last two lines of ‘When I consider’ show something of this effect: ‘and chafing through the cars I fall to think / how sorrows lift and pleasures cauterise’, the last line a paradox even Shakespeare or Donne might have been proud of.
An equally traditional development towards the end of the book is the increasingly frequent use of Greek myth, a strategy which has not been much in vogue since the nineteenth century but which Ryan employs either to evoke the detail and emotions of the original circumstance or to show its modern applications (sometimes both in the same poem). Not unlike the late Peter Porter, Gig Ryan also ranges freely across some interesting historical figures: Paganini, Mary Wollstonecraft, Pushkin, Cosima Wagner, Savonarola and Tchaikovsky, to name a few. These mainly short poems are often clearly articulated monologues. Several of them, for example ‘Paganini’ and ‘Pushkin’, are among Ryan’s most direct and forceful work.
Gig Ryan’s New & Selected will not, however, be an ‘easy read’ for everyone. It wasn’t for this reviewer. Some will feel the complexity of Ryan’s verse to be essential to its effect; others may argue that, at the very least, it blunts the impact of her more political poems. In this review I have discussed mainly poems which most readers will find accessible. A not unfair example of the many which are less so can be found in the opening stanza of the book’s closing poem, ‘Southern Aurora’: ‘You have to unclip the world to think it / from cloyed screen or scream words haste / their loot and return to her/his sleep-out / sucking troth’s lozenge / as the film waves magnolia / on brushed sky childhood seams / and a tinny cafe’s wine plaits the house languages and Euro-pop…’
‘Difficulty’ has been a feature of much good poetry for a long time. John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins are just two cases in point. Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens are a couple more. Whether or not a poem like ‘Southern Aurora’ is ‘difficult’ in the same way, and for the same reasons, may ultimately be a matter of an individual reader’s taste and temperament.