Anna Ryan-Punch, Night Fishing. Parkville: Five Islands Press, 2018. ISBN 9780734054470
While the poems of Anna Ryan-Punch’s debut collection range across the familiar territories of domestic life in suburban Australia, her sharp eye and deft lyricism reveal an unexpectedly rich landscape. These are skilfully crafted poems, her language spare and concise yet viscerally resonant. While these poems keep human relationships firmly in the foreground, they act against a seasonal backdrop of urban and suburban ecosystems in constant flux between climatic extremes.
The collection is uninterrupted by section breaks; the unbroken flow of poems creates a poetic terrain in which each thematic environment blends into the next, without imposed boundaries defining the lens through which each poem should be read. Suburbia and seasonality underscore poems dealing with domestic life. Feminism intersects with family history and loss of faith. Romantic love overlaps with illness and parenthood. To stretch this ecosystem analogy to its extreme, motherhood is the closest Ryan-Punch comes to offering the collection a thematic substratum.
Ryan-Punch shows a remarkable flair for navigating broad themes through the smallest of gestures. Throughout the collection, some of the most emotionally resonant poems are narrative, many delving into childhood memories. The problematic interconnection of memory and perception are beautifully elucidated in ‘Divagations’.
Sometimes, when you move on
it’s hard to look back.
Something muscular in the neck
a crick in the past.
‘The Coldest Day’ and ‘Bone Buried’ are two particularly powerful examples of works that mine memory and family history for contemporary meaning, using childhood objects to summon visceral recollections of significant moments. A lost hairbrush in ‘Bone Buried’ recalls a child’s magnification of guilt and sudden awakening to parental inconsistency. The texture of mismatched blankets in the opening lines of ‘The Coldest Day’ viscerally recreates the moments a marriage breaks apart. And later in the poem, the recollection of her mother’s composure manages the paradox of being spare yet brimming with character and insight.
The coldest day since 1947, my father in
at the usual time and then nothing usual.
He brings me a big box of Lego.
Trembles back over the floor and in the
doorway tells my mother he has
met someone else.
She could have smoked him out
months ago with a look but she kept
those embers firmly below earth.
Her eye is coal …
A pulse in her thumb against glass
sends Jurassic ripples through her wine.
She is otherwise stillness.
This collection examines family and motherhood with an unflinching gaze and while unsentimental in tone, the poems allow for the presence of tenderness and vulnerability. Childhood scenes are cunningly observed to expose their hindsight value as lessons for the poet as a parent. Ryan-Punch concludes ‘Heredity’ with a stanza of lyrical disquiet about whether she is fated to repeat the parenting patterns laid down in her own childhood.
So when her ‘how dare you’
surged unbidden to my lips
I paused in history’s slipstream
the slight vertigo of stepping
onto an unmoving escalator.
The narrative pieces are counter-balanced throughout the collection with short, intense poems that play with lyric obscurity. Works such as ‘Stasis’, ‘Replace Those Humanely Destroyed’, ‘Smoking Near the Intake Vents’ and ‘The Drowner’ all inhabit multiple thematic regions, touching on politics, suburban ecology and family dynamics. Yet, for the most part, any obscurity in meaning works to enhance atmosphere rather than create distance or confusion.
There was something in her bitterness,
strange and smooth.
His little death had cut the roughness from her
and left her glass.
Similarly, in the pieces that explore illness or physical injury, any lack of certainty about meaning works to evoke the ambiguities of what we experience when health is disrupted. ‘Self-autopsy (after Angela Carter)’, ‘Repairs’ and ‘Elevated’ are all examples of work that encourage empathic connection and suggestion rather than laying the meaning on the page like an exposed nerve.
My breast was a delicate journey,
filigree of rib, sinew flecked aside
an intricate dance of skeleton and pulp.
Below I reached a hollow and stopped: uncertain.
Thrumming hard, ballooned in ecstasy was
nothing precise and all things barbarous.
Behind the focus on social relationships, these poems act against the physical backdrop of suburban architecture and urban infrastructure. Poems are contained within the suburban heartland of rental housing, cafes, churches, community swimming pools, hospitals, museums and concert halls. They are in motion, moving by car, taxi and tram. Despite what at first glance could be mistaken for anthropocentrism, each poem is embedded in the natural world. Throughout the collection, weather and the seasons all underscore the social and architectural landscape. ‘January’, ‘Birdless’ and ‘Trampoline’ are just a few of the many heatwave poems, demonstrating how thoroughly entangled domestic relationships and suburban social behaviours are with the extremes of Australian summer.
Gales increasing on hard rubbish night.
Brown Christmas trees
blow up the road, up the footpath
Parched clay cracks around the foundations
jagged gaps in the bathroom wall reopen.
Dead Christmas trees drift back downhill.
We can look at the sun without squinting
but hardly notice the smoke.
‘The Coldest Day’, on the other hand, expresses suburban adaptation to the opposite meteorological extreme.
Midwinter and the pilot light keeps going out.
Extra mismatched blankets creep from
hiding places under stairs and above
leopard-print polyester, floral cotton
and boiled wool, hard from the hot wash.
My mother layers them up and the
general effect is not bohemian.
In this work of close and unflinching attention to the minutiae of suburban life, Ryan-Punch explores how the weightiest of issues, like birth, death and family, are inextricably linked with the smallest physical details of our daily existence. Although it is sad news that, after more than three decades, Five Islands Press has now ceased production of any new titles, this skilfully crafted collection is a laudable endpoint to the Press’s impressive publication list.
Rachael Mead is a poet, writer and arts critic living in South Australia. Her poetry collections include The Flaw in the Pattern (UWAP 2018) and The Sixth Creek (Picaro Press 2013). Her debut novel is forthcoming in 2020 with Affirm Press.