Tracy Ryan, The Water Bearer. Fremantle, WA: Fremantle Press, 2018. ISBN: 9781925164954
Susan Laura Sullivan
Great poets take the intensely personal and render it universal without losing intimacy. Their intimacy becomes a shared or understood experience through their interpretation. Tracy Ryan’s work has always been like this. Precise, exact words highlight the simplicity and complexity of existence. Humans live, eat and breathe, or try to—these are fairly simple facts of life even if execution can be complicated. Ensuring we do this, our earth does this, our families, communities, and friends do this, is also simple and not. Instinct and love for family is not always innate, but survival is hardwired into most organisms, so there must be general aspects that are.
We choose friends and lovers similar to us and others who contrast, and even in that contrast we can find home (31). Our biological family comes from us, and we shape and nurture—or not—them and others who enter our fold. Certain outcomes are expected. Actuality can be an approximation of our desires, but never an exact match, and is in complete juxtaposition sometimes, because we are part of a whole, and different within it. Our children have us within them, but we are not them, and vice versa. Ryan explores many of the above concepts throughout The Water Bearer.
The Water Bearer opens with a mother viewing her son. The son needs the mother’s eye at that moment to confirm his identity (‘Carousel’, 7). The incongruity of belonging and not belonging, of being and not being, is a constant theme throughout the collection.
Ryan’s use of enjambment and rhythm is masterful, and is evident in describing the motion of a carousel. The image of a static yet revolving merry-go-round defines the push and paradox of time; the poem’s form itself works within expectations of language and subverts them. A young boy sits on a fixed seat, the floor rotating below. He must grow older, and move beyond this space, but at this stage of life independence in defined spaces with a nurturer keeping him safe allows the possibility of further growth and maturity. The illusion of progression grants the ultimate actuality.
Because in a foreign city even at eight
he needs the familiar nearby, to hitch
the gaze like the reins of that lacquered
horse to a fixed spot, in order to let loose,
someone to witness his flight or he can’t
Correspondingly, the earth upon which the carousel stands does not need our validation. It will exist whether we observe rivers rushing over rocks or not. However, it does need our attention for survival; more so as times have brought us into a state of disassociation from the resources and connections we require to endure. We are confined and free within the earth upon which we live, yet:
Most of the earth’s surface
Is this & does not know us.
(‘Life in Water’, 1. 44).
‘This’ being water. But if we do not take responsibility for the existence of earth and water, for our use, none of us will be known (Ryan speaks about this when interviewed by Eighteen ). We are invested in the personal and that which is closest to us, but to ensure the safety of those elements we also need to be invested in the world as a greater whole, even when it does not have awareness of us.
The Water Bearer’s poems widen with Ryan’s son’s perspective as he ages. Ryan has mentioned that her son, Tim, grows up through the poems, which took seven years to write and are set in four countries (Beaton 2018). Tim needs ‘the familiar nearby’, in this case, his mother (7). The mother of the poem, living in Germany, maybe has only a memory of a broader familiarity or absence of it. Living away from the language one grew up with, the habits and people one knows—the knowledge of the change of seasons—places one in the eddies of a larger cycle. Individual experience might counteract and contradict this in terms of insight and comfort, but the water, the world we are born into, the two people we have stemmed from, are a tiny part of our overarching drive as living beings. This wider reality mostly survives without our tiny input and, as a concept, is probably indifferent to it, but needs to connect with us, and we to it for ultimate survival.
Even if we choose to ignore this connection or fight against it, both entities have an impact on one another, microscopically and macroscopically. Ryan’s poems, in the observances of vegetation, crops, harvests, trees and the cycling weather, among others, outline personal, biological, historical and social microclimates. When her son is a future twenty-seven:
He may just remember
jam tree, York gum, sandalwood,
the olive grove across the road.
(‘Doing the Maths’, 63).
When he is much younger, ‘Berries in September’ are cause for a mother’s ‘warning’ (9). Both descriptions delineate being dropped in a new place, acclimatising, and being absorbed by an environment so it is no longer new. This can have positive and negative effects for both the land and person.
Within three poems Tim has turned nine. Modern fears of political bogeymen and social media able to whip public opinion into frenzy are mirrored in the misheard announcements between children trying to make sense of adult proclamations that the end of the world is nigh. When that is neither corrected, nor explained more fully, the fear of nothing, or the fear of the end coming at ‘… odds of twenty-one trillion to one …’ can remain, and is understandable in one so young. The poet retains some of this visceral alarm, though, unlike her son, she has the benefit of age (‘Near-Earth Objects’, 10).
By the close of the book, the end of the world is imminent. The poet is a hypothetical ninety-six and her son a hoped for fifty-seven, and rainfall in Western Australia is at a projected forty-percent decline that possibly not even the predictions of the wider nurturers—the community and government in the form of ‘Water Forever’s fifty-year plan’—are able to stop (Water Corporation, n.d.; ‘Doing the Maths’, 63). The loss of water seems a more likely end to the world than the impact of a stray satellite, and this underlines the truth in the apparently groundless fear that Tim expresses, as do the many poems that touch upon the brutalities humans inflict upon kind and environment.
Caretakers, personal and public, work to cultivate and protect, but theirs is not the only input. The poems outline a sensitive child’s realistic fear—in terms of actual impact and effect—of subjects taught and explored at school. ‘Equinox’ details a series of shots through the night repeating ‘their lethal angelus’ and a friend relates that it was ‘military practice’ (11). Ryan’s son has ‘been learning war in class and is / prone to translation, to taking things on’ and she expresses relief that ‘ … the child’s dread / slept through it … ’ (‘Three Michaelmas Poems: 1. Equinox’, 11-12). But children can have these fears if they are safe. What is worse is when the fears are actuality.
The double play on translation—interpretation—as being both something of an instinct, or an acquirement of empathy, and something that can lay us supine (‘prone to’) highlights the power of Ryan’s diction. This reviewer does not have the background to examine her role as a translator, but Ryan has stated a personal aim of translation is keeping the original work’s ‘natural tongue’, accepting there will be loss, and trying to portray the gnarls that draw us into poems across cultures (Beaton 2018).
Like children being of their parents but not their parents, the translated poem is not the original but necessarily retains elements, even when wildly varying from the original. Children are fortunately permeable to languages while adults can struggle, but we might forget how permeable they are to everything; forget they are ‘prone to translation, to taking things on’. To understand concepts outside our experience we often need to interpret them through our own lenses. After which we might comprehend them more deeply. Compassion often needs to be taught but could be pre-existing.
Sounds and seasons, the ‘sacred and the secular’, inform Ryan’s work, from gunshots pealing like angelus bells to churches wearing swastikas (14, 11). Tim grows older. His mother too. The rotating seasons—bringing the earth into abundance and barrenness—and poem titles, indicate as much. Near-autumn, summer, snowflakes, the season for berries, different hemispheres, cycles and disruptions of cycles, infuse the collection. A nostalgic pining for one understanding is superimposed upon and undermined by another, even within the house and the duties of housework.
[you] long for the dry dust that was at least
all yours, instead of leaf-pulp and other
people’s slush, day sits on the stairs
in tatters and residues and the calendar
through which alone you know your
neighbours, will have it otherwise
(2. ‘Houseweek’, 23–24)
The poet returns to childhood, to current and past love, to define a place in the momentum of the present. The present of this series of poems, ‘Next to Godliness’ (23–25), which outlines life in Germany, also touches upon another sessional aspect of responsibility: recycling, garbage disposal and storage (3. ‘Cellar’, ‘Subcellar’, 24–25). Within these poems our displaced and stored belongings and ‘leavings’ are described as unseasonal and unfruitful as the poet enters the subterranean levels of her living quarters in order to both recycle and dispose. Everything is dark, and even wine maturing is enmeshed in the artificial. That which is needed to survive—meters delivering electricity, water or gas—define humans and resources in detached, metallic, hidden terms. These indicators of use are buried in the cellars, shameful and forgotten. Responsibility for ourselves and for the wider environment is concealed and thought about only with reluctance and guilt when it comes time to discard.
‘Subcellar’ compares the stripping of materials from human use and source to the way bodies in mass graves ultimately lose resemblance of humanity, both in form and intent. This is probably not too long a bow to draw, as the occurrence of genocide—something which should not happen, but does on its own incomprehensible schedule—is woven into many of the works.
But there is worse
and I have found it
a second, deeper level
of gated caves,
dungeons or catacombs
where I must leave
our leavings till collection day
things that are too far gone
for even a look-out basement
to tolerate, emptied hulls
and wrappings, caps and casings
all traces of person washed off
Through learning about these cycles—harmful and generative—we continue. There is survival in terms of function (don’t eat the poison berries) (9), to the best way to survive or not the revolutions of ‘human cruelty’ (14, 17). We and the world, our creations and other creations we are responsible for—both in manifestation and as caretakers—can often be ignored, dark and destructive. However, once one becomes responsible for others, maybe one becomes more widely responsibly for all, and things remain less hidden. The distinction and link between ‘scheme water’ and ‘self-supply’, between meters and natural resources, elements that contribute directly to life and death, is better understood (60–66).
Yet there is a point where that duty diverges. Parents cannot be eternally responsible for offspring. An individual cannot be eternally responsible for the wise use of water. Yet, each needs to be for the latter two features to persist. Ryan’s father dropped his children into deep water to force instinctive swimming, and trained her to drive defensively because it was never taught. He
to coach us, lifeguard
at water’s edge
from the vantage point
of a knowledge
we couldn’t yet have
That which comes from us can lay waste to many things and can also be the leavings that enrich the earth around us. Leavings, Lieblinge, we need to be aware of the existence of all we bury and cherish to both protect the world from them and them from the world. Nonetheless, we must also release those in our care and hope to imbue them and ourselves with a sense of interdependence and autonomy for ultimate survival, so that our ‘ … left hand knows / what [the] right hand is doing.’ (91)
Beaton, S. (Presenter). (2018, March 21). ‘RTRFM podcast: The Mag: World Poetry Day’. Retrieved November 29, 2018 from http://rtrfm.com.au/story/world-poetry-day/
Eighteen, K. (Interviewer). (2018, July 31). ‘Fremantle Press podcast: Award-winning poet Tracy Ryan tells us why water is a popular metaphor’. [Audio podcast]. Retrieved December 6, 2018 from https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/c/news/8261-fremantle-press-podcast-episode-3-tracy-ryan
Water Corporation. (n.d.). ‘Planning for the future’. Water Corporation. Retrieved December 6, 2018 from https://www.watercorporation.com.au/about-us/planning-for-the-future
Susan Laura Sullivan is a co-editor of and contributor to Women of a Certain Age, an anthology of reflections from women the other side of forty. She writes fiction, poetry and essays. Her work most recently appeared in Westerly Magazine and Tokyo Poetry Journal Volume 5: Japan and the Beats. In 2012 she was shortlisted for the T.A.G. Hungerford Award. She lives in Japan.