Last of the Halcyon Days by Julie Ryan
Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa Publishers (2018)
RRP: $19.95. Pb, 71 pp
Reviewed by Carolyn McCurdie
Though not her first published book, Last of the Halcyon Days is Auckland poet Julie Ryan’s first book of poetry. An earlier draft of the collection won the 2014 International Writers’ Workshop Kathleen Grattan prize for a sequence of poems. It’s easy to see why. The poems are full of vigour, alive with places, people, colour and humour.
In the acknowledgements at the beginning, Ryan describes this book as reflecting the life she shared with her husband, long-time Mt Albert mayor, the late Frank Ryan, her ‘only husband and first reader’, as she calls him in the dedication. And although he is a presence here, as is her wider family, the poet’s gaze ranges far beyond the confines of home, and beyond polite social circles. The voice is bold, sometimes acerbic, and delights in play, irony, the surreal.
The collection is structured into three parts. The name of the first part, ‘Haul Another Anchor’, comes from a line in the first poem, ‘The Ballad of Doubtless Bay’. In this rollicking, jokey montage of Far North history:
…. De Surville’s scurvy crew …
.. Inside the heads they rocked and prayed,
too weak to haul another anchor. (p 10)
No such deficiency afflicts Julie Ryan. She hauls anchor and is off to the South Island, Melbourne, Napoli, Qingdao and on-shore, tunnelling under Avondale. And for all the movement, for all the recognition of mortality, there is a strong sense in this work of being grounded. The rocks that snag Ryan’s anchor hold fast and these rocks are place, people, especially family. From ‘The pay-off’:
A bank of cloud is coming in
over the Whatuwhiwhi saddle …
… and on the horizon;
three black fishermen
on a white sea….
luxuriate in progeny,
all good. (p 25)
Happiness. But never self-satisfaction. This is a poet too sternly honest to accept the comfortable or the conventional. In the collection’s second section, titled ‘Homesickness’, she explores various sorts of not-belonging, displacements and estrangements. In the first poem, “Homesickness”, Ryan describes the deliberate and painful rejection of home that is part of a son’s growing to independent adulthood. And yet, the connection is so much part of life that it is taken for granted:
Before daybreak this morning
he called from a London bar.
He only wanted the name of a port
“You know the one, it starts with ‘T’.
I want it to settle some fights …” (p 30)
I love the shifts and layers in this. Home as a shackle to be thrown off, home to be reached out to across latitudes, wanting the name of a port, wanting to settle … some fights.
Other poems continue the exploration of ideas of home, multi-faceted, contradictory. Ryan steps inside other lives, gives voice to the displaced as they construct a place for themselves using what means are available. In ‘Homeless’ (p 32) the young street dweller resents the admonition not to share a donated pie with her two dogs. Because of the dogs, she is safe. Because of them she holds on to her fierce dignity.
The Iraqi hairdresser in ‘Just a trim’, talks of her home country, war, and how she knew little of New Zealand:
A very peaceful country, they say.
A country with no neighbours. Mostly that.
… Now, I have been here so long, I do not know my own country. (p 34)
In the third section, ‘Secret Women’s Business’, there are hints of Ryan’s ongoing community involvement, despite her advancing years. In ‘On visiting old ladies’, she comments:
I’m limited now to those over ninety,
or better, over a hundred … (p 59)
And she continues to celebrate the overlooked. With a shrewd and unsentimental compassion, these poems brush aside conventional categorisations of people. Secret selves lurk beneath exteriors. From ‘Sick visiting’:
… she skids her glass
away like a cowboy, raises an eyebrow to me … (p 55)
I have one gripe, to do with the ‘Notes on the poems’ section at the back. I desperately wanted more of these, in particular for ‘Dr Tom in the Red Shed’ (p 36). Who is Dr Tom and why is he so violently, viciously misogynistic? It’s a strong poem, disturbing. I needed some context. And I don’t doubt that the troubled doctor deserves his place here.
In Last of the Halcyon Days, Julie Ryan impresses as a poet who embraces humanity, damaged, ugly, lovable. The voice is intelligent, subversive. Hers is a voice I’d trust.
Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of fiction and poetry. She has had published: The Unquiet, a children’s novel, (Longacre Press, 2006); Albatross, a short story collection (e-publisher Rosa Mira Books, 2014), and Bones in the Octagon, a poetry collection (Makāro Press: 2015). Carolyn is active in Dunedin’s live poetry scene.