Ryan, Tracy. The Water Bearer. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2018. RRP $24.99, 96 pp, ISBN: 9781925164954
As I begin this review, my instinct is to call Tracy Ryan’s The Water Bearer, or her more recent work in general, quiet. A better word is precise, or better yet, modulated. Her work is not quiet, but it does ask us to listen, to attend, a missed syllable and something in the poem is knocked off kilter. At a visceral level, the pleasure of Ryan’s mature work is musicality. Yet the music that populates The Water Bearer is most often other-than-human, that of the ‘Winch-Bird’, ‘unseen, and named not by our utterance but by his own’ or ‘The Bells’ that
pour in here
they take possession
with body and tongue (19, 14)
and memorably in ‘Winter: Liebestod’
[…] that queer aria
of howls, falsetto, which now
in counterpoint and now
in unison makes plaint
to a woman who not so much
walks two white does as is
herself spurred on by animal pain
and mine, and stops her ears. (18)
Read together, as this review intends to do, Ryan’s nine full-length collections develop and intensify her key themes like a soprano’s bel canto (by definition very un-quiet)—mother(woman)hood, faith, grief, language (particularly translation) and place—appear in similar formulations but with different emphasis.
The titular poem of The Water Bearer performs one of these acts of re-singing. The title harkening back to ‘Water-Getting By Moonlight’ from Ryan’s seventh collection Unearthed (2013), where the female speaker tells a lost lover of gathering water for her family:
Tim calls me Water Woman
It’s part of my whole routine
There is the moon you taught me
But this our idyll, not yours, better
late than never…
The old tank has sat and sat
unclean, fit to burst
forgotten past, a cyst.
We wash from it because skin
is forgiving, but can’t drink
it in (56-59)
‘The Water Bearer’ in the current collection collages the speaker’s reflections on water with the autobiography of Thomas Merton, picking up on Ryan’s ongoing questing around faith. Merton, Ryan notes in the acknowledgements, was ‘born under the sign of Aquarius’. Indeed while the title and title poem represent the central concern and theme of the book—the multiplicity of water—the direct echo of her earlier poem highlights how Ryan’s work in ‘The Water Bearer’ is an act of returning and recycling similar to the way water moves between states
like someone pacing the lines of a page that wobble and halt,
that state their writer wants to leave no traces, only merge
with earth and sky and water (34)
In the ‘Water Bearer’ the poet-speaker reflects:
I wanted psalms but all I could muster was meter.
I’m still here, still thirsty, still wince at the first reviewer
lamenting, utterly without irony (87)
While being one of many astute reflections on the confluences between faith and poetry, the lack of irony noted (ironically) in ‘The Water Bearer’ refers to the reception of her first two books. Ryan’s first two collections Killing Delilah (1994) and Bluebeard in Drag (1996) were received largely as ‘women’s poetry’, confessional lyrics moving through childhood to wifehood and motherhood. In an interview Ryan states that she was always being told that ‘my poems are only personal. I think that’s a ready-made category that a lot of women’s poetry in particular…gets slotted into’ (Creative Morphemes 6). Ryan herself is not interested in framing her work from within any particular school. In many interviews across her career she identifies herself as one of the generation of young Australian poets of the 90s that don’t have an allegiance to any school, for whom the ability to move—or not to even see boundaries—between movements of poetry.
Returning to Ryan’s early work in the space of her later work, the nuances of her domestic spaces start to appear. The idea of lyric poem as a site of resistance to the mercantile is a complex one. Without leaning too far into the biological essentialism that can often link female with mothering, Val Plumwood expands on how the domestic space and the very bodily work of mothering has been positioned as Other and outside the wider capitalist marketplace, for, in essence, it has no mercantile value (2-6). One potential flipside of this is that the domestic space, and the work of mothering, when foregrounded as it is in Ryan’s work becomes a site of resistance, something noted in the occurrence and reoccurrence of anthologies by women poets about motherhood. This includes resistance to the forces, capitalist and imperialist, which have—and continue to—underwrite the anthropocene. We see this in the poem ‘Shake Down’ from The Water Bearer:
While you are gone is always
the best time for laundering
I can be housewife
in a borrowed place.
till I reach the machine & strain
to cram it in, my bloated
evil twin, my almost weightless
burden. And after the whole mess,
the wrestle, the tussle of getting
this dead placenta to fit back in. (71-72)
Here the opening simple couplets become by the end of the poem an extended meditation on the abject. Domestic life is literally and bloodily embodied in the surprising image of the doona as placenta. Returning again to ‘The Water Bearer’ we find a defence of the lyric in how Ryan approaches Merton, citing his well-known maxim that ‘Our real journey in life is interior’ (85). There is something to Merton’s own duality—he sought out hermitude but remained very socially connected through letters—which mirrors Ryan’s own lyric poetics, particularly her poems on the body and on motherhood.
Ryan herself is conscious of how the seemingly asocial lyric ‘I’ is in fact connected to the world beyond it. In an interview on her fifth book Scar Revision (2008) Ryan states:
A lot (not all) of my book Scar Revision was written while I was living in the USA just before and during the onset of the second Gulf War. I was pregnant with my second child and so the consciousness of the body and its vicissitudes on which the book draws “personally” also comes out of what was going on around me politically and socially.
Very little in Scar Revision addresses that directly—but the personal elements of birth, death, damage and separation partly stem from that context. (writ review np.)
Indeed from Ryan’s second collection, Bluebeard in Drag, scars and how the body bears signs of its witness to the world are constant threads. Plumwood, among other theorists, proposes that the body is traditionally located Other to reason, and that one way we might try to resolve the hyper-separation of culture from nature is through embodiment. Ryan demands that we recognise the body as inseparable from both nature and culture, primarily through the way she sites language in the body. In the titular ‘Scar Revision’, scars are
proffered like fossils
inscrutable without context
until they disperse, the earth
indifferent to detail in tissue (9)
Ryan is always aware of the temporality of language, later in the litany of her scars includes
[t]he ones I don’t know I have,
the ones before language (13)
The very title of the poem/collection ‘Scar Revision’ highlights the reciprocal relationship between language, self and world. This questioning of exactly how the body is inhabited by language as it moves through the world, continues in The Water Bearer. In ‘Sometimes’ she writes
Sometimes they come back
the old usages
Words that were overlaid
but will out
The natural accent
Sole to the pedal
Earthworms up close
A cluster of pulses
like those you sought
at wrist at temple
for bored amusement
as if they were separate
unstoppable & had no count
All of this pig-Latin
your distant idiom (57-58)
Here language is not limited to the human but is embodied across various objects and beings. Indeed the human language referred to is humorously ‘pig-Latin’. This evokes both the childlike nature of the recollections in the poem, ties language to the other-than-human and highlights how language—beyond being logical—is a thing of play. This emerges in her translation and transnational work and most clearly in her two prior collections. Hoard (2015), located almost entirely outside of Australia, is an attempt to vocalise the Irish bog and its inhabitants, as in ‘Bog Conversation’ where
[h]e says My bog and
I am a bog man then
hastily retracts: No/actually that’s an insult here (22)
Unearthed is another act of digging up through language, a book-length elegy to her first husband. In ‘Mother Tongues’ from this collection she links language to the body through food, where:
all of you, things you have
names for that aren’t
seen here: Zwiebelturm,
so that we cook up together
a Wähe, a Brei
because die Liebe geht durch
den Magen—goes through the stomach
and they sound now, so many
years later, nearly obscene
with lost intimacy:
Süsses, Schönes, Gutes,
Schatzi, Putzi, Liebes.
Much of The Water Bearer takes place in Germany and other locations in Western Europe. It is likewise a collection that travels and plays in language. A version of Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Love Song’ appears:
Yet everything that touches me and you
takes us together in the way a bow-
stroke draws a single voice out of two strings.
What is this instrument we’re stretched upon?
Who is the player that has us in his hands?
Ryan’s translation choices emphasise poetic song not as an individual act but a communal one.
Guy Davenport writes on the Canadian classicist and poet Anne Carson, a poet skilled in moving through many languages and questioning the lyric self in the way Ryan is, that:
her poems are philosophical–in the old sense, when from Herakleitos (if his fragments are from a poem) to Lucretius, and even longer (Bernadus, Dante, Cavalcanti), poetry was a way to write philosophy. (x)
There is something to the act of translation, the shifting or words and the way Ryan returns to topics and places that brings a slantwise light to Coleridge’s idea of poetry as the best words in the best order. Ryan’s lyric questions the rhetorical function of poetry, or philosophy, to persuade. In the front matter to Ryan’s sixth book The Argument (2011), Dennis Haskell writes that ‘[h]er “argument” is argument in the older sense of the word, a discussion of the self with the larger whole of a post-God world’ (1). This is something Ryan herself gleans for us in ‘Hydrangeas’ from her fourth book Hothouse (2002), the collection that immediately proceeded The Argument:
the old one
you were explainable
we liked to gender.
Pink at my window.
Fight with me now
we’ll get nowhere
two opposites true
at once. (47)
The titular poem in The Argument illustrates these direct statements in an almost-elegy that vacillates between poetry and prose:
someone had seen your car, a stranger,
hundreds of miles from us—this is how it comes, out of the unrelenting
The ocean: we knew then
suddenly, such a day was always hovering, like something just out
of the eye’s corner, ambush or pounce, a narrative
available, ready for any of us, cliché we must counter
with invention, with option after option hit on
from the thousands open for continuation, racking collective
brain for argument
I dug out a brush and scrubbed a week’s worth of kitchen, of bathroom,
anything left undone as if uncared-for or ignored, to bluff to show
that cold cross-examiner there was someone, yes, someone in control here, no
ground to be fained, no substance to these allegations of loss, our logic
fending him off with success this time but still too close
to the real thing for my liking. (39)
Another poem, or poet, might’ve proceeded along the lines of action, or taking the idea of an ‘argument’ might’ve looked more at the relationship between the speaker and the missing, instead we encounter a demonstration of how language mediates the relationship between speaker/s and world, particularly questioning of how persuasive language can be when confronted with forces beyond it.
There’s a similar formlessness, or form-slippage across many of Ryan’s poems, most often those dealing with emotions or memories that resist containment. In The Water Bearer it’s both childhood and the largeness of the idea of global climate change. ‘View From Below’ begins with shorter lines:
Though I grew up in the underlip of many dams
hills brimming with them, shimmering bodies
By the time we move into the present tense, the poem has already unspooled close to the edge of the page, before we span out to the wider ecosystem:
yet here, in a once-wet country now too in drought, this wearing down
with doubt, so I can’t abide to be anywhere I know is lower, downstream
aware of the vast loss for every valley flooded, not only human movement
but chaos for other animals on every scale, for plants, sunken rot that will not go
the way of all flesh for want of oxygen, but put out yet more carbon, so that we
can never win (40)
Instead of ending on the potential for personal loss, Ryan in this late poem extends outwards to the uncontainable, uncontrollable, potential for inter-species, even object, loss.
Ryan’s collections map the past two decades, a time when the idea of global warming, climate change and the anthropocene has moved from a whisper of a theory to an increasingly echoing lived reality. In his book Climate Change and the Great Derangement Amitav Ghosh speaks of the impossibility of the modern novel to accept or represent these changes (26-27). He leaves more room for poetry, and in Ryan’s poetry we can see the shift. Particularly important is the elegy, or lament. Across her career Ryan’s work moves from personal lament, to a wider elegy for the natural world. This is mapped by the turn we have seen in Ryan’s work, from a gaze primarily inward to an eye that roams. Reading across Ryan’s corpus, we perceive that her elegies do not end. Grief is not linear but cyclical, rather than being retrospective Ryan re-encounters grief in the present. In ‘Next’ from Unearthed she writes ‘Who will I be when I no longer feel this?’ The answer is that there is no way to be in the world without the presence of grief:
I’ve had too many griefs not to know
the way they go, the way they settled down
as the earth settles on an old and unmarked grave,
only there if you know what to look for,
barely a dent in the world’s thick skin (60)
Hers are elegies of the present tense. This situated-ness, a resoluteness to present the thing without the logical linear structure of explication is powerful when applied to her wider laments for the world, such as ‘View From Below’. In his very influential 2009 essay ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’ Dipesh Chakrabarty proposes that climate change ‘throws into deep confusion our usual historical practices for visualizing times, past and future, times inaccessible to us personally—the exercise of historical understanding’ particularly the disjunct in how human history and a wider natural history are commonly perceived as operating parallel to one another without interaction (2). Ryan’s poetry subtly insists on anchoring us to a present, but it’s a present that through her scarification and complex layering is geological and inhabited by the past.
More than any other framework that might help tie together these thoughts on Ryan’s work is one of vision, with the poet-critic J.P. Quinton referring to Ryan as a perspectivist poet (np.). Ryan’s perspectivism is rooted in an understanding of mutuality and its limits, the forensic nature of her lyric ‘I/eye’ is not one that seeks objectivity and authority but one that acknowledges limitations and one that seeks out other visions, other perspectives. In her third collection The Willing Eye (1999) we find the poem ‘The Test’, in the familiar thin columnar structure of her early work:
Lamp-wise, he shows me
in my eye
sudden, like knowing
at once my own limits.
point of descent & tread
the way only abandoned
feet know. Later today,
back to the old sharp-honed
made to measure,
errors of nothing but judgment. (73)
The situation of the eye-test reappears as a love lyric in in ‘The Double Appointment’ from The Water Bearer, this time with the precise lyricism and sonic play of her later work:
Taking our turn each to enter
this dark cabinet as if it were
confessional, only the failings are
ocular, commonplace and we hope
venial not mortal;
The poem ends:
you will have to drive me, go wherever
I need to go, just as I’d do for you if you were
this helpless, extending each other’s senses
flesh-of-my-flesh prosthetic, bone-of-my-bone
symbiosis, until my new set is ready to collect
and I’ll be once more communicant, outwardly
focussed, appearing to manage all by myself. (83-84)
The dilation of the lines at the end of ‘The Double Appointment’ matches the outward extension of the speaker’s perspective, not just their pupils but their reliance on their other, their mutual interdependence.
Returning to Ryan’s first two collections Killing Delilah and Bluebeard in Drag we find them dominated by a sparse minimalism, thin columns of text with very little punctuation. Killing Delilah is a collection that looks inward, the compression of the language mirroring a tightness of focus on the self, the body, so in ‘Ever After’—one of many poems interrogating fairy tales we still find the eye briefly turned outwards:
The bedroom door hangs
on one hinge
the mirror is
Again & again
I come back
looking for clues. (72)
There are further moments even in this first book where we start to see the wandering/wondering of the eye and of language that will dominate her later work. ‘Basel Zoo’ for instance, ends with a troubling of the connection between language, place and identity:
Luege, Mami, luege! a child cries.
Later, in snow outside the zoo
My mouth falls open:
The hemispheres meet.
‘Carousel’, the opening poem to The Water Bearer, displays a similar sentiment, one also filtered through the eyes of a child:
Because in a foreign city even at eight
he needs the familiar nearby, to hitch
the gaze like the reigns of the lacquered
horse to a fixed spot (7)
It also ends with an answering inclusion of foreign language with ‘La Belle Epoque La Belle Epoque La Belle Epoque’ circling, bringing together both the literal language of the carousel with the ghost of the meaning of la belle époque – the beautiful era in western, particularly French, civilisation. The difference between this poem and the ones populating Killing Delilah and Bluebeard in Drag, is that ‘Carousel’ combines the elements of ‘Ever After’ and ‘Basel Zoo’ into a singular poem. Here the confluences between childhood, mothering and the wider mercantile forces are enunciated and questioning.
In the same way we read the aging body by the scars it has accumulated, Ryan’s work gets increasingly complex, book by book. Poem by poem lie like layers of skin, we trace down the scars, the words, into the past but remain next to a future we cannot look away from and one Ryan refuses to reduce to any singular linear logic or language. The Water Bearer is a book that rewards re-reading, not only of itself but of the other eight fine collections that precede and feed into it. For these are poems that raise questions without easy answers or resolutions, but ones that if studied might let us sit quietly with joy, as Ryan writes in ‘Disordered (Response to Rilke)’:
Over and over the same thing
just a matter of innocent repeating
and all will be uniform
too, the metrical turn—I want to happen
across words like a finishing, fallible
streak, one more minor disintegration
among the millions and who cares if we are
out of order so long as we can love each other
violin, nor longing for dark and silent spaces
but giving a bright fiddler’s hickey to
whoever holds us and is playing us if he’s there.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35.2 (2009): 197-222. Print.
Davenport, Guy. Introduction to Glass, Irony, and God by Anne Carson. New York: Knopf, 1995. vii-x.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016. Print.
Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.
Quinton, JP. “Tracy Ryan’s ‘the Argument’, a Review.” Novel: Blog of the writer J.P. Quinton (2012). Web.
Ryan, Tracy. The Argument. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2011. Print.
—. Bluebeard in Drag. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996. Print.
—. Hoard. Geelong: Whitmore Press, 2015. Print.
—. Hothouse. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2002. Print.
—. Killing Delilah. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1994. Print.
—. “Robbie Coburn Interviews Tracy Ryan.” Writ Review.2 (2014). Web.
—. Scar Revision. Fremantle Fremantle Press, 2008. Print.
—. Unearthed. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2013. Print.
—. The Water Bearer. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2018. Print.
—. The Willing Eye. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999. Print.
Ryan, Tracy, and Kinsella, John. “Creative New Morphemes.” Ed. Minter, Peter. Cordite Poetry Review: cordite, 1997. 6. Print.
Caitlin Maling is the author of two collections of poetry, Border Crossing (2017) and Conversations I’ve Never Had (2015), both out through Fremantle Press. She is currently pursuing a PhD in comparative ecopoetics at the University of Sydney.