176pp., Bloodaxe, £9.95
This selection may be an introduction to Gig Ryan's work for British readers, but it won't make it any less tough for them. Although her poetry has appeared in British magazines, and in overseas journals more familiar to the poetry-reading public (particularly Australia's excellent Jacket), the six volumes of poetry she's published in Australia since 1981 have been absent here. I suspect that the journal format is the best place for her work: the imagistic intensity, the wayward logic, the heavily referential and frequently dark tone of poems are best experienced in short bursts, among other material; she rarely writes in the sequence form, so there is little to disrupt. That isn't to fault the publisher's efforts in putting this volume out: considering the present image and coverage of Australian poetry in Britain, it's a useful and valuable addition. It's just that the book may be experienced best when opened at a random point – or, better, snipped into its constituent pages.
Part of the difficulty in orienting oneself in Ryan's work is the lack of the generic lodestars by which we (unfortunately) often navigate through new poetry. She doesn't bear much of a resemblance to what most readers will know of Australian poetry – her overtly satirical poems can occasionally bear a distant likeness to Peter Porter at his most cryptic and grim, or a closer one to a more fragmented version of the Robert Adamson of 'Sonnets To Be Written From Prison' – nor to much of the usual contents of Bloodaxe's list. A better territory for thinking about these poems when meeting them head-on may be that of American poetry of the postmodern period: perhaps Bill Berkson, Clark Coolidge's later work, Ted Berrigan (though less happy-go-lucky than the latter). More obviously, there is Surrealism: at times she resembles Vallejo, the early Neruda and Paz robbed of their vitalism, the perturbing but hot animation of the world in their poems turned to the uncanny life of objects. The shades of experience don't so much parade through her work as hammer past, sometimes stinging the reader in their wake.
Fractures run through Ryan's voice at every level. The muted strangeness that inhabits her work at the level of the sentence – take this, from 'Eliminations': “My silly soul drives badly round the concourse, / back home, proving everybody wrong, why don't you /crawl out of that damned statue?” – extends to the relation between sentences, her work's logic. Particularly in the work after Pure and Applied (1998), one of her major tics is to swap line-breaks for sentence-ending periods (though the new lines are capitalised at the start), which can be disconcerting at first, not least because the sentences they cut off are often fragments that sit on the threshold of conventionally sensical speech. (One of her lovely tendencies is throw out whispers, leaning-in confidences, deadpan statements, complaints, only to take the sentence somewhere else in the next clause or follow it with a non-sequitur.) The strangeness of her work cuts in both directions: it suggests, as much of the best contemporary poetry does, other logics by which to engage with the object of the poem, and, simultaneously a certain corrupted fealty to the quality of 'comprehensibility'. Consequently, on second glance, bewildering images – “What helicopter must have sunk into the roof / to be used so precariously by the management” – fall into odd but understandable relations to their context; apparently cold, menacing, thoroughly ironised poems take on new facets of intimacy. A switch of register, addressee, affective inflection, type of verbal gesture (questions, bitching, reminiscence, pointing), from clause to clause (or even severed by a line-break) can throw one off until a re-reading seems to realign things, at least for the moment.
The early work, which see-saws, poem to poem, between surrealist dissonance and unsettling but genre-conventional anecdote, comes off as somewhat gauche, unsure of how to handle itself, hitting on effect for its own sake (and sometimes falling flat in the struggle). The latter sort of poem tends to work better: 'The Tenant', from her first collection The Division of Anger (1981), does very well at its parlour-game purpose. Its conversational fait divers opening – “The old bloke down the corridor was found today / in his neat and powerless room / with the empty jar of pills” – turns into an odd but welcome admission of inarticulacy, of not knowing what sort of thoughts are to be prompted by such an event –
in the afternoon. I suppose it's the suburb
or the age. I never knew what to say to him
much. His daughters never came. […]
The window looked back at the tiny room
like a Health inspector.
By contrast, the poems from Pure and Applied onwards, which make up more than half of the book, are much more consistent. The two poles are brought together, startling imagery and logic allied to a clear overall sense of a poem's effect and shape, the energies of misery, eroticism, domestic tragedy (or non-domestic – I'm thinking particularly of her mining of classical imagery) focused through more precise outbreaks of oddity. Take something like 'Autumn':
You go to bed a failure and rise a saint
The casino's trays of lights wobble in the river
Unpack the origami news in prison flats
and books advertised like cars
The linebreak takes on, as so often in postmodern poetry, the function of a film-edit, prompting the question of what meaning can emerge from the cumulative constellation or pile-up (the latter more often in Ryan's work) of its glimpsed object-images. At the sixth line, the lyric 'I' enters, and the latent melancholy of the preceding lines emerges; the narrator seems to have no especial relationship to the preceding images, nor to anything much else in the way of self-possession: “I forget who I am, and drive / or hover at a desk, a blank mosaic / while their shocks comfort or defer” (difficult to tell who the implicit 'they' is, but the objects named in the preceding lines – the world itself, picked out in close-ups – seem like good candidates). With a focus thus provided, the sadness of the poem's second half comes to the fore: “A beautiful object covers his book / Concrete rain falls down”. Although the way it describes “her devices and rueful catharsis” – again, who is the 'she'? The narrator suddenly switching into the third-person? – lends it a lightening archness.
We can see, then, how intricate the effect of her work ultimately is, even if its method, at the level of the line, can sometimes seem crude (those successions of sighs and snapshots). A few of the more formal poems – the Petrarchan sonnet 'When I consider', 'Actaeon' – calm the energies of the work down further, but it bubbles angrily under the surface, never wholly subordinated to any formal logic (rhyme never plays a big part even in those poems that use it). The section of 'New Poems' that closes the volume contains a few duds (the ekphrastic take on Jan van Eyck's The Marriage of Arnolfini is pretty throwaway; 'The Swimmer Retires', perfunctory), but also plenty of evidence that Ryan continues to do good work, not least a scathing attack on John Howard, 'Kangaroo and Emu': “'We have signed niiine memoranda' the minister umpteenths out / ramping up his slush fund's rumpled horn”. We look forward to more – though not too much at once.
Daniel Barrow is a poet and critic. His poetry has appeared in Iota and Horizon Review, and was included in The Salt Book of Younger Poets (Salt, 2011). He has written on music, literature, film and visual art for The Wire, Plan B, The Quietus, New Statesman and others; he was runner-up in the Critic of the Year category at the Guardian Student Media Awards 2011. He lives in south-east London.