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

Christina Pugh reviews

Hothouse by Tracy Ryan

Fremantle Arts Centre Press, $A17.95

Tracy Ryan’s latest collection builds a hothouse of language that is fruitfully undomesticated and asymmetrical. Ryan’s flower poems chafe at the limits of the descriptive lyric, grafting the organic world with moments of personal history, the play of sexuality, and the limits of geography (born in Australia, Ryan has recently resided in England and the United States). Her volume recalls the studied wildness of the English garden and its many concomitant paradoxes.

Ryan’s own phrase ‘bluntly luscious’ comes to mind to describe the deceptive simplicity of her often short, enjambed lines. Her language is pruned, palpably resistant. There is often a canny flatness that works itself into lyricism, as in ‘Outside the Glasshouse’:

Not all at once
but bud by snub bud they unloose
their vivacity, raised cups
we’d slake our thirst at
if we could only trust

they’d last

Ryan proffers ‘bud by snub bud’ of language, juxtaposing sharp, monosyllabic, often Germanic words with the glissade of a more Latinate word such as ‘vivacity.’ Glissade and brake: this is the movement of her poetry, an edginess that continually offers to slake the reader’s thirst. But her strategy in Hothouse is never to drain the raised cup, never to trust fully in the reader’s trust.

Despite these poems’ acknowledgment of the controlling power language can and must exert over its material (‘I must // control this gift you bring / with poem and knife / and anecdote / reduce the fruit // hypostasise / the feeling’), their particular poetic controls are ‘against the grain,’ to borrow from one of Ryan’s own titles. The poet dips in and out of form eclectically: rhymes and punctuation are used erratically, allowing the work to resist full closure. When Ryan observes that ‘world’ and ‘fouled’ form an off-rhyme, she may well be approaching something akin to an ars poetica.

These techniques are evident in ‘Hydrangeas,’ a standout among Ryan’s flower poems. Here the Rilkean blossom becomes both symbol and metonymy for a brother’s suicide:

you were the blue register
of a layer
we couldn’t uncover

the outward visible sign
of an inward

under my brother’s window
as if you knew
he’d die young and we’d strew

the pit with just such blue.

The last three lines’s unexpected and over-rich rhyme emphasizes the sickened beauty of this quintessentially Symbolist flower become funerary offering; but the ‘snub buds’ of brief words save an emotional poem from sentimentality. The hydrangeas comprise an ever-changing register, even as the poem proceeds to meditate on gender: ‘you were explainable  / par excellence  / with binary / tendencies / we liked to gender.’ Remarkably, this meditation — in which Ryan has cleverly recalibrated the poststructuralist buzz-phrase ‘binary opposition’ — does not prove too much for the poem to hold. Perhaps even more remarkably, this phrasing does not reduce an elegy to coy wordplay.

Despite her shiftiness, Ryan’s language is neither sterile nor self-indulgent. Her shifting registers of discourse actually have consequence, particularly as they work to define gender. The sexuality portrayed here is fluid, from the deft celebration of ‘good butch beauty’ in ‘In the Absence of Hair,’ to the more heterosexual poetics of ‘Regeneration.’ In unexpected moments of the book, Ryan employs the contemporary word ‘queer’ as a verb, implicitly reminding us of its etymological origins as across: ‘queering the path after thaw.’ Ryan’s queer poetics are not about labels but seem instead to exhort inclusiveness, or as she says, ‘two opposites true / at once.’ Indeed, when Ryan asserts ‘arable just a label,’ she is not only acknowledging the real work required to cultivate the earth, but also implicitly questioning other more limiting labels of human design.

Unlike Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, perhaps the most celebrated book of flower poems in the last ten years, Ryan’s Hothouse turns not on the alienation of humans from the plant world but instead on their similarities. Clearly, though, these poems’ diffidence is as far removed from the pathetic fallacy as our age will allow. As in the gorgeous ‘Metaphysical,’ indebted to Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,’ Ryan crafts her lines to be, exactly, ‘never more / than a silken hair’s breadth / out of kilter.’

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