Vivid poetry of unsentimental blokes
Digging more deeply, however, is the book’s longest poem, Operation Hendrickson, almost a verse novel in miniature. It deals with the author’s high school days in Melbourne in the early 60s but is narrated from a schoolfriend’s viewpoint, thus rendering ‘‘ Wearney’’ a character in his own fiction. The narrative, comprising 20 discrete poems of varying length, rambles somewhat but is a vivid evocation of the times, as seen through students’ eyes. Several episodes are morally disconcerting but they very much hold the reader’s attention.
More diffuse perhaps, but no less mordant, is the final poem, The Vanity of Australian Wishes, modelled on Juvenal’s Satire X (via Dr Johnson).
One of its main subjects is Melbourne gangster Alphonse Gangitano, who was buried on the same day in 1998 that Wearne’s friend John Forbes, the notable Australian poet, died from a heart attack — thus making an ironic, and rather poignant, contrast.
Given its considerable idiosyncrasy, Prepare the Cabin for Landing is not perhaps a book for everyone — but for all those interested in Australian (and particularly Melburnian) society through the decades and for those who like their poetry well steeped in the vernacular, Wearne’s collection is a very real pleasure.
Brendan Ryan, a totally different poet from Wearne, grew up on a dairy farm in western Victoria and now works as a high-school teacher in Geelong.
His poetry, with its unflinching portrayal of dairy farming and associated small-town life, is surely essential reading for inner-city cafe habitues (with whom this reviewer is happy to associate himself).
In a tradition that includes Les Murray and Philip Hodgins, Ryan reminds us of the harshness of much country life, particularly in the dairy industry. Poems such as Cowshit and Blister Country suggest not so much an industry as a state of mind. Dairying, with its debts and twice-daily milking, is not easily escaped, momentarily or permanently.
Ryan, now a city dweller, retains a considerable ambivalence. ‘‘ These paddocks have made me,’’ he says in Self-portrait, ‘‘ shaped the way I look at mud around gateways’’. He feels himself ‘‘ pulled to the farm I grew up on / walking through paddocks I can’t live with’’.
Equally memorable are Ryan’s poems about Victorian small towns, with their dedication to footy and their (perhaps reluctant?) sense of community. In Man on the Gate the poet describes the jobs surrounding a footy match that ‘‘ we all expect somebody to do’’, starting with the man on the gate, ‘‘ a man who complements the scene / of cars nosed up to the boundary fence’’.
Now on his third major collection, Ryan, in Travelling through the Family, has widened his focus somewhat to include, in successive sections, sketches of his original birth family (predominantly in dairying), the joys and stresses of his present domesticity in the suburbs, a little bit of Catholic childhood memoir, a handful of poems set in Ireland and a final group of landscapes and/or meditations experienced while driving.
Though the techniques employed do not differ greatly from poem to poem (free verse with a hint of the iambic and a preference for detail over metaphor), the latter parts of this collection indicate that Ryan, for all his telling portrayals of the dairy industry, is a poet of broader vision and more diverse concerns than readers of his first two books may have suspected.
Perhaps the most moving poems here are those dealing with his mother and daughters, poems that depend on the accumulation and placement of detail rather than on any grand gesture or explicit sentiment. Poems such as Walking through the Family, Mother and Daughter and Walking a Daughter to School are typical. In the last of these Ryan notes how ‘‘ My daughter won’t stop talking’’ and how her questions are ‘‘ sizzling — / When were animals made?’’ The last four lines are a fine example of Ryan at his most delicate and observant: ‘‘ Our hands wander towards each other as we cross the road. / Already people are cursing at roundabouts. / She presents me with a daisy. We kiss / at the school gate. She never looks back.’’