Adelaide Writers’ Week 2018 – Notes on Tracy Ryan’s The Water Bearer
I’m writing this on March 4, which means Adelaide’s ‘Mad March’ is well and truly under way. I can take and/or leave many of its attractions, which include the ‘Adelaide 500’ car racing event, with its air-force flyovers and traffic diversions; the various delights of the Adelaide Festival; the ubiquitous Fringe Festival; WOMADelaide; the Adelaide Cup, a public holiday, at least; and – this year – a particularly inscrutable state election campaign. To borrow a note or two from Keats, early autumn in Adelaide is drows’d with exhaust fumes, and the wailful choiring of supercar engines.
While I can take and/or leave much of that, I take time off work (when I can) to spend a few days at Adelaide Writers’ Week, which started on March 3 (‘yesterday’, at the time of writing). There’s lots to look forward to in the days ahead – including some gifts of serendipity, no doubt – though I’m particularly looking forward to sessions featuring Australian poets Pam Brown and Sarah Holland-Batt, and Adelaide Hills writers Rebekah Clarkson and Eva Hornung, and the traditional Writers’ Week poetry reading. I attended yesterday’s session for the announcement of the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. It was great to see the successes of well-known Adelaide poet Jude Aquilina (the Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship), and Pam Brown – who was awarded the John Bray Poetry Award for Missing Up (Vagabond Press, 2015). It was also great to see Eva Hornung win the Fiction Award for The Last Garden (Text Publishing, 2017), as well as the ‘overall’ Premier’s Award – evidently, she’s the first South Australian to win the Premier’s Award in its 32 year history (The Advertiser article). Though I’ve never met Eva, she’s my next-door-neighbour when I’m ‘home’ in Bugle Ranges, which is less often than I’d like at the moment.
* * *
Of the hundreds of poems I read in February (Lowell, Boyle, Kinsella, Salamun…), the one that’s stayed with me most strongly is an apparently unassuming poem entitled ‘School Walk in German Winter’, from Tracy Ryan’s new book of poems, The Water Bearer (Fremantle Press, 2018). I won’t say so much (I hope) that I spoil the poem or its workings (or the workings it seems to offer the reader) for anyone who’s keen to read it for themselves. What’s noteworthy about the poem is the chance Ryan’s taken in publishing a finely worked poem when a superficial reader – and maybe many other readers besides – will miss its apparent secondary reading – one that notionally contains both the walk to and from school – after all they’re the same journey, but in reverse.
As a reader, there’s a particular pleasure in discovering some element or effect that’s been subtly worked into a poem. By not disclosing the effect in an explanatory note, the poet preserves the poem’s potential energy. Ryan’s poem had me thinking – more broadly – about the gamble writers take on their readers’ attentiveness. Does the writer disclose some element or effect they want a reader to discover in their work – for the reader’s edification, or as evidence of their own cleverness? – at the risk of being heavy-handed and untrusting? Or do they leave it undisclosed, keeping the poem’s full range of delight open to the reader? Some of the pleasure of discovering an undisclosed element or effect, then, is knowing you’ve rewarded the poet for their trust.
In addition to this one poem, it’s an excellent book – though I’ll leave it to others to say more in the reviews that will, no doubt, follow. It’s Ryan’s first book of poems since 2013’s Unearthed (Fremantle Press) and 2014’s Hoard (Whitmore Press). Unearthed is also an excellent book, and one which resonated with me at the time I read it – particularly the ‘Karlsruhe’ poems. Unearthed can be read profitably alongside Sharon Old’s Stag’s Leap (Jonathan Cape, 2012), winner of the 2012 TS Eliot Prize and 2013 Pulitzer Prize, which shares something of its circumstance and themes.