Vivid po­etry of un­sen­ti­men­tal blokes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­off Page

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.’’

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