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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Lisa Gorton reviews

Heroic Money by Gig Ryan, Brandl & Schlesinger, $A21.95.

This piece is 762 words or about two printed pages long.

Gig Ryan is a Melbourne poet — a satirist of the suburban city — and in Heroic Money her poems take up the stuff of suburban city life: traffic; the supermarket; television; news; advertisements. But Ryan forces all this stuff into fragmented sequences of allusion and abstraction — so the city in her poems seems less like a place, and more like a realm of consciousness.

Ryan sings in a band called ‘Driving Past.’ In this collection, ‘driving past’ is something that happens in almost every poem. It is an image so recurrent it comes to seem like a modern condition: ‘Preserved in my tin I drive through rain’; ‘I scroll through my life / behind the Valiant Safari and Mitsubishi Executive.’ This condition of driving past could also serve as an emblem of Ryan’s poetic style. Her fragmented sequences of memory and strangely-apprehended fact resemble the sequences of a mind, ‘driving past’ — attending to the world’s random passage and reflecting, at the same time, upon itself:

showing me the crashed lights they drove into
cold isolate Bohemians. . .
Tell the Central Committee we feel bad
lancing the streets
past the brideshops’ dulled marbled gleam
It was weather like this when we buried him. . .

And, as this example from Heroic Money indicates, Ryan’s poetry of ‘driving past’ is distinctive in its combination of inwardness and impersonality. With its wry and fantastical observations, it sets real things in an imagined realm, but still these are observations, dislocated and fragmented; these poems rarely speak from ‘inside’ any experience.  

In this respect, at least, a phrase Ryan uses in ‘Success’ can define the terrain of this collection: ‘I search through night cratered / with tumbling dreams and traffic.’ Ryan’s poetry is not the poetry of arrival (indeed, it is sometimes hard to understand why the poems conclude when they do); it is a poetry of the search, the eternally passing eternally present tense, and it travels through a mindscape at once cluttered and desolate. As a result, the satire in this collection has a peculiarly inward cast; its subject is the culture’s commodified dreams. In ‘Global Rewards Redemption Centre,’ for instance, Ryan imagines a modern heaven where consumer dreams come true: ‘I am being loved and certain / A toast to the surgeon’s art who cut me / from her skin. . .’ The phrase ‘I am being loved and certain’ has the lucidity of an advertisement — a lucidity matched by Ryan’s accounts of love in ‘Ismene to Antigone’: ‘Do you also look for the one love / Good deeds, selfless and arcane / and soulful breakfast,’ where that account of the dream of love comes ludicrously up against ‘breakfast.’

Ryan’s satire derives from such juxtapositions, in compressed sardonic phrases — ‘the committed tea towel,’ ‘truth’s water-pistol’ — and passages that break in and out of the vernacular: ‘You should’ve been admiring the brilliant world / the pouring dictionaries but instead / I pass the men’s parliament.’ This art of juxtaposition is also a theme: in a series of poems, Ryan sets Greek myths in the vernacular. In ‘Eurydice’s Suburb,’ for instance, suburban life is a modern version of the underworld:

The wings of home enfold you and lock
Under the city’s poisoned coronet or halo
You gaze at the supermarket’s petrified food
And respond like a zombie to the past’s ghosts. . .

But the myth’s gesture toward another world makes Eurydice’s suburb seem more enclosed, as Ryan breaks off that sustained sequence with a wit abrupt and sardonic: ‘After, we go to the Parthenon Thai restaurant in Northcote.’

There is a relentlessness to these poems; it is a long collection and compressed. ‘The letter-box is Euclid that before was mass,’ for instance, is a short line with a long meaning. Ryan rarely allows an obvious or extraneous word. The line, ‘Sermon on the,’ for instance, cuts off there. There are very few clumsy lines or poems throughout, but the denseness and self-consistency of the style works against poems that don’t surprise.

Ryan once declared that ‘truth is the only eloquence.’ With their fragmented sequences and broken rhythms, her poems refuse the beguilements of ‘eloquence.’ But Ryan is a master of abrupt beauties: phrases and stanzas that free themselves from the sustained and exhausting intensity of her truth-telling: ‘I took them racing in the lime fast air,’ ‘At the funeral she was great but she wasn’t.’ These sudden, hard-won pleasures are the best reason to read this collection.

Jacket 19 — October 2002  Contents page
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