Tracy Ryan’s most recent poetry collection The Argument continues her overarching theme of perspectivism, or ways of seeing. The previous in the scope of perspectivism being Scar Revision and The Willing Eye. Just after the release of Scar Revision I dabbled with the idea of writing a review, but hesitated on the grounds that the work was a ‘thing in itself’. Now, however, a pattern has emerged with The Argument that sheds new light and openings to Ryan’s previous efforts.
The Argument is an eschatology. Thus in that vein we shall begin at the end; the final poem of the collection, reconciliation in ‘One Flesh’:
nothing provokes disgust, neither
a shirt sniffed at to determine
whether it will pass one more day
because the wash didn’t get done
nor my toothbrush fallen back on
if yours is somehow thrown away
What we find are parallels between the domestic and metaphysical. But this parallel is simply a metaphor for lives lived in intimate relation. Ryan, through the lens of perspectivism, is, in my opinion, little interested in objectivity, or truth. Her poetry is interested in picking away at ways of knowing how we coexist in intersubjectivity. Words such as evidence, assurance, mutual illusion, vision and imagine construct the lexicon. However they also counterpoint earlier uncertainties between the subjects, found in words such as startling, stripped, darkness, reverberate and friction. Each descriptive passage is given a concrete example, highlighting the parallel between metaphysical and domestic. Taken to the extreme, perspectivism and intersubjectivity means, with a hint of cynicism, all we have at the end of the day are the relationships we create:
these little things momentous for
their continual evidence
and sacramental insurance
against the enormous wager,
hubris of mutual illusion
and yet we have won, because to
have won for a moment is to
have the whole, by repetition
What is the enormous wager? A chink in the married couples promise? The inconsistency of being married twice, or more? The bet against odds that one in three marriage will end in divorce? Or perhaps the wager is more subdued. A fatalistic realism that it is unreasonable to think people will spend their entire lives together, despite the romantic oath. In this context, Ryan could conclude the poem strongly, supporting the theme outlined in the collection, but she goes further. The coda suggests the debate lies in a communal eschatology; the martial promise, the wager never to leave one another does not include death. Here we find the opposite of the notion that we live the way we die: alone.
On a technical level, what appear to be weaknesses on first review emerge as deliberate manoeuvres on closer inspection. In the second stanza, the weak line break of ‘to’ are repeated both in the same stanza and twice again in stanza seven. What might be considered clumsiness by the poet is soon revealed as careful orchestration as we consider what the repetition of ‘to’ represents. Why the obvious repetition? If the act of writing is a self-perpetuating eulogy, then Ryan’s ‘to’ embodies the kind of collectivism rarely witnessed in western literature. The title of poem ‘One Flesh’ denotes an ecology. Somewhere in this context we find Ryan’s world view, a kind of private-openness. We are all pointing ‘to’ death, but it’s how we deal with it that matters. Couched in the context of death, The Argument contains the sort of depth not apparent in her earlier work. Ryan has discovered an unforced artful weltanschauung capable of contesting the solipsism presented to us by much modern poetry.
Throughout the collection there are at least fourteen quotes or references to other poets or artists. From Jacques Brel, to the proverbs, to Bronte, to Khayyam. Ryan is unafraid to reveal her influences.
In the title poem ‘The Argument’ the lines lengthen, the grammar becomes more critical. We hear of a friend taken by his favourite hobby, surfing. The ocean becomes both an object and an event. Ryan is suggesting, falling short of personification, we die how we live:
[…] 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, moment last seen or spoken, to contradict
the report, building our case for cosmic error.
Again, as found in ‘One Flesh’ the notion of what is out of our control is hinted at through a cosmic definition defined and described, argued and debated between one another. Ryan’s poetry is representative of ‘The Argument’, she seeks to show the process, not deliver conclusion. This process is depicted in the title poem where we find the protagonist initially sitting at their desk working before the news of the friends disappearance, and then at the end of poem cleaning the house for a week in an act of defiance. The ‘writing’ is the self-perpetuating eulogy, the cleaning is the process of living required to digest loss and trauma.
For me ‘The Argument’ works in a three-fold process: a eulogistic exploration of Ryan’s collective eschatology, a dynamic identification of the cosmology we seek to understand, and the ways we may attempt to gain clues and build evidence about the cosmic cycle and cosmic error through the banal and the monumental:
I say he because the you of any elegy
is faceless, interchangeable, but this is beyond what person,
tense or mood can manage anyway, it is a long conversation
only the smashed syntax of a poem might sustain,
or appear to; for the dead, especially the young,
the sudden, the too-soon, every line written
is recrimination, cruel ambiguity, the phrase
I survive you.