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On the New and Selected poems of Gig Ryan

Owen Richardson

Owen Richardson on Gig Ryan’s New and Selected Poems.

One of Gig’s poems—not in this book—ends with the line ‘Turn off the men’s commentaries,’ so I can’t say I haven’t been warned, and I’ll try to be be brief.

Apart from anything else, standing here holding this book full of writing so charged and rigorous, I know whatever I might say will only seem like so much sludge. But I’ll give it a go anyway.

The first temptation is just to quote lots, because there isn’t another poet who can turn lines so surprising and resourceful and aware, so rich with implication and humour:


I never could eat spaghetti effectively

too unmarried or something


or


‘You didn’t lie, but all the same it’s foiled
I fell into the sum
And now your era, your ride, closes to the max’


or


It’s summer after the rain

I read the historical novels and the hedge funds wilt


or


Now clouds stop in your frozen cemetery

your wine-dark car turning in the drive


or


Forgery and fate were crinkled panes of sea

The dead enrich the soil with their ruin


And the kind of ‘beauty’ and ‘lyric intensity’ you get in that last line, say, is something Gig can do with complete assurance, but it isn’t just turned on like a tap: rather it is fought for, it is the product of a thoroughgoing research into language where the materials, the data, are displayed, denaturalised: skidding jolting precipitate diction, counterpoints of stateliness and trashiness kept from incoherence by tightly organised sound and rhythmic systems, synaesthesia, catachresis, collage — it’s all absolutely modern.

A line like Regret in tears beside you bleeping every 5 minutes, for instance, is a temporal montage, where Tennysonian daguerrotype words like ‘regret’ and ‘tears’ are jammed up against ‘bleeping’; ‘regret’ here being at once an emotion of time and a technology of time, that is, an annoying clock radio. One of the reasons why Gig’s poetry is so inexhaustible is because it is full of effects like this; compact, evocative, witty, densely and disjunctively layered.

There is any number of perfectly achieved lines here, but part of the fascination of Gig’s poems lies exactly in their refusal of the wholeness that is false, of comfy totality; there is no end of aural pleasure, of word music, but no easy resolutions or predictable rhythms. These poems argue with our expectations, with language and with their own form.

But nor is mimesis simply rejected out of hand. Rather, like the beauty and the lyricism, it is not taken for granted, its procedures are unsettled even as strong subject matter and political and moral commitment are retained. In a review she wrote in the early eighties, Gig raised the question how political poetry can be written: ‘Advertisements also use what they take to be the language of the people … if the language is what we already know, how can it affect us?’ and her poetry can be seen as a way not to be didactic or stage a get-together between poet and reader to share a warm inner glow. As Jean Genet’s great line has it, she holds up to the reader not a mirror, but a sword — or a gun! — from the early poems that show how the linguistic superstructures of love and desire can be demystified into base power struggles, to the poems from Pure and Applied that take apart a more sublimated language of sexual economics, of settling down and shacking up.

As the book moves on it moves into economics more generally, and into the public world. One of the things Modernism showed us was how to make a new relationship with, or find a new use for, the past or the contentious present, and for a writer who has been tut-tutted for subjectivity and emotional incorrectness — her ‘anger’ and her ‘sadness’ — there is an awful lot of the world in these poems, these epyllions or little epics that include history and history’s shards: those post-imperial cities London and Rome, the cant of the Cold War and the Howard era, political victims such as the Indonesian Communists, Robert Oppenheimer, Pushkin even, and celebrities past and present — Paganini on tour, complaining (‘Europe wrangles, ascending mediocrity/leering at my bliss’), or the swimmer retiring, or the poet self-promoting. Just as the relationship poems often deal with the defining controlling male other, these public poems also examine what becomes of personality observed by the mass, the pathos and bad faith of life in the public gaze. It is here I think that also Gig’s classical influences have their most subtle effect: hubris and renown are among the oldest stories in the book. Yet although Gig can be savage, she is never ever smug or morally superior, and as far as anger and sadness go, she may even have invented or at any rate done the best R&D on a whole new affect, elegiac sarcasm.

And there is a lot of the city here also. This is worth dwelling on because I don’t know that it has been emphasised enough, but one of the various kinds of poet Gig is, is a city poet, a flaneur often on four wheels — one of my personal favourite lines is ‘My Life As An Intersection’. There are the impersonal commercial spaces, the motels and offices and supermarkets, the Casino with its tray of lights and the bank’s aluminium pillars, the city’s brick and marble, where all human wishes are vain. Then there are the many many flats where you can hear the people next door; and the real estate agents who repeatedly pop up, those dread figures themselves the intersection of space and money and authority, twirling the keys if not to the cities of dreadful night, then to the suburbs of really ordinary afternoons.

‘Great Feelings have left me/Uplifting nature I don’t buy into,’ says the speaker in one of the later poems, and this book shows how much superb poetry can be written that puts those perennials into question, or just does without them altogether. I could keep on like this for ages, but I share Gig’s views on interminable launch speeches, or for that matter on men who don’t know when to shut up. This is thirty years of work from a major Australian poet, a great writer, and I feel very proud and privileged to have been asked to launch it. So, ladies and gentlemen, here is Gig Ryan’s New and Selected Poems.

© Owen Richardson 2011

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