Essay by Corey Wakeling

‘Thumbing a mobile, I turn from the choir’

Gig Ryan, ‘Cracked Avenues: Antigone’ (Ryan 2011: 178)


‘The human face of capital

like a previous unfinished longing, totally erodes.’

Gig Ryan, ‘Rent Time’ (Ryan 2014: n.p.)

Gig Ryan (1956–) in my view represents what might become of Australian poetry more so than what has come before, living uneasily in any given cultural, philosophical, or aesthetic tradition. This is work projected towards the future from within modern anxiety. Ryan has lived most of her life in Melbourne, but has also lived in Sydney. She belongs to a minority of living Australian poets published outside of Australia in book form by an active publisher1. The poetic interest of her work lies in its living simultaneously inside and outside the established ways we have of constructing history, especially literary history, along with the poetry’s vivid construction of subjectivity in late modernity using the medium of transhistorical characters from the Western political imaginary, such as Antigone. Hence this work is also unsettled in a monocultural Australian national paradigm, selective with cultural history and legacy outside of the codes of tradition, and incredulous of patriarchy. This introduction to Gig Ryan’s New and Selected Poems (2011) and broader work will bring contrary critical discourses into a syncretic theory of Ryan’s ambiguous political imaginary using a discussion of anxiety and Antigone, in particular, to introduce and explain shifts in the oeuvre’s consciousness of political subjectivity across six books and roughly thirty years of publication, from The Division of Anger (1980) to Heroic Money (2001), to poems from the present (2015), in general.

The shadow of irony

This body of work is famous for scathing irony conceived in clusters of oblique epigrams, dialogical repartee, and moral aporia. Much of present scholarship and criticism – albeit lean in the former and baffled in the latter – sees irony in particular as a forte of this poet, but also a means for aligning Ryan historically with those who have also been her friends or nearest contemporaries coming out of the 1960s’ new poetry which preceded her – John Tranter, Martin Johnston, Jennifer Maiden, John Forbes, Pam Brown, Laurie Duggan. Amongst these, it is the work of Martin Johnston’s in particular, for its experimental thinking of antiquity, which might be usefully compared with Ryan’s.

Irony has proven to be an effective mode through which to historicise a mutual and broader questioning of representation in poetry as an aesthetic vehicle of sentiment and voice, with preference instead for polysemy, multiple textual register, and play. The major historicisation of irony’s significance to 1960s Australian poetry is the work of Livio and Patricia Dobrez, in the former’s Parnassus Mad Ward: Michael Dransfield and the New Australian Poetry (1990) and the latter’s Michael Dransfield’s Lives: A Sixties Biography (1999). For both, irony is theorised as ‘the Romantic subject … [with] a banana peel in its path’, ‘[a] by-product of the would-be transcendent subject’s ordeal by containment’ (Dobrez 1999: 20) in an age of neo-Romantic reconsideration of poetry’s visionary possibility. For Livio Dobrez, even those of this putatively neo-Romanticist period who might not resemble anything like Romanticism’s poet-self, like John Tranter, the rationale still holds regarding irony’s dismantling of subjectivity. Dobrez asserts that Tranter takes the subject ‘so seriously as to seek to bomb it into powder’ (in Dobrez 1999: 21). In this sense irony is always a negation brought to bear on inheritance, fixed poetic subjectivity, intentionality, and the destination of artistic endeavour.

This view suffers the reinstatiation of the poet as visionary apparently so central to poetic history that even if a poet were to completely disregard its shadow this would be to confirm the gravity of its absence. Theorised thus, irony is not at all a useful reference point for engaging the singularity of either 1960s influenced or post-1960s social poetic movements in the sense that it reduces many registers of textual performance to the one effect of apparently undermining representational or subjective sincerity and vision, or worse, to Michael Dransfield as relevant to all post-60s poets. Indeed, to be historically rigorous regarding Gig Ryan’s classical influences, such a view of irony is faulty. Ryan’s Sapphic and Homeric inheritance outweighs Romans such as Ovid since Ryan has been a student of Ancient Greek, the dramatic irony of the tragedians Euripides and Sophocles is a direct reference point, which suggests an enquiry into mourning, catharsis and revolution more so than a ‘banana peel’ in the path of sincerity, not to mention that irony in the classics is rarely visionary, but rather social and political.

To follow Dobrez and Dobrez, however, the re-coordination of the terms of self-mythology is unquestionably significant to Australian poetry after the 1960s, among which Gig Ryan might be included2. Ryan is clearly not interested in one lyric voice or poetic authority, but a plurality of them within new syntactic modes. Even with a long view of irony and its disposal in the satirical verses of poets from Ovid to John Forbes, irony historicised in Australian poetry criticism sometimes reduces to a single meaning the complexities of form in work without the cues of intentionality and sentiment sought by critics, or reduces poets to a history with which they have uncertain relation. Beware this trap; such a reading suggests there is a joke on the reader, or a joke on the myth of the poet, where there may be none. Significantly, irony by Dobrez and Dobrez’s historicisation attempts to fill in a gap in intentionality assumed in poetic subjectivity, meaning in their view Tranter’s transformations of the subject constitute a kind of ‘bomb[ing]’. In my view, what marks Tranter and Ryan’s relation to the Romantic poet is rather their significant indifference to questions of visionariness and transcendence. The turn away from the folly of the culture wars regarding the status of Romanticism, as Martin Johnston did with his Greek poetic imaginary, and irony’s political mobility across the local and the global, which suggests the influence of Catullus and Martial, as much as Sappho, illustrates Ryan’s particular indifference to vision.

One needs neither Ryan’s contemporaries or near-contemporaries, nor a classical history of poetic irony, nor a myth of the visionary poet in their absence, to appreciate her irony:

You cry until they go, yank happiness

back to life’s clocked cell

vaguely listening to the sliding ocean’s soft detergent foam.

(‘Green Target’, Ryan 2011: 113)

That this poem from Pure and Applied (1998) comically views the realities of contemplating nature today and the poetic subject’s incitement to ‘yank happiness/back to life’s clocked cell’ and admire a polluted ocean goes without saying. Moreover, disbelieving the sincerity of voices in Ryan’s poetry on grounds of irony will illuminate very little of her experimental investments in character and political history. What the recapitulation of the irony argument in criticism does in the context of studying Ryan or other of her contemporaries who similarly question the aesthetics of the sincere is to suggest that they are insincere, unpoetic, disdainful of poetic ego, beauty, and sensibility, and ungrateful to poetic forebears. By contrast, what would it mean to take this subject as sincere, to theorise the subject forced to ‘yank happiness/back to life’s clocked cell’ in the post-natural ecology of the present?

Ultimately, historicisation of Ryan’s work based upon irony and the historical assumptions in Australian poetry upon which it is based would be to neglect the uniqueness of Ryan’s academic history as a reader of Ancient Greek, her involvement in the Asian contexts of Chinese and Vietnamese poetry, her avowed affinities to iconoclastic poetries of Emma Lew and Vicki Viidikas, and the aforementioned rethinking of the classics that may also be found historically in the work of canonical Australian poets, such as Francis Webb and  Peter Porter. In sum, the reader is recommended to consider irony not as a badge of association but as a register of Ryan’s wit, the surface of a complex dismantling of the obvious.

This work’s dual inside/outside relation to history and the work’s own unsettling approach to questions of nation, culture, and aesthetics have proven a challenging lack of belonging for literary critics and historians, and even to reviewers. Of the eleven reviews that I am aware of, only four of the reviews of the New and Selected do not mention difficulty for readers or some other kind of adjectival proposition that reading Ryan requires uncustomary labour. However, what is mutually acknowledged by critics of Ryan more generally is her sharp consciousness of contemporary politics, and a recognisably experimental syntax. Working in tandem, it is these elements in particular that have proven confounding for those who might expect established markers for reading poetry in either camp, namely, in political writing or late modernist poetic practice. Ryan’s work does not confess political allegiance clearly enough to belong to a tradition of the former. The work also does not utilise the procedural experimentation of American poets such as Lyn Hejinian Ryan herself is quoted as admiring (Ryan 2014: n.p.), making comparison with contemporary language experimentation complex. This lack of formal resemblance has proven to complicate easy comprehension of Ryan’s poetics.

Theorising a transhistorical investment in the interiority of the political subject provides an alternative way to approach these critical problems of literary history and irony. These problems suggest a poet for whom history and anachronism gives access to the real-time politics of the modern subject in ironic times, who, ‘[t]humbing a mobile’ open-endedly ‘turns from the choir’ (Ryan 2011: 178), and gazes on ‘[t]he human face of capital’ as it erodes (Ryan 2014: n.p.). Here, the reality of the ruin as it transforms into the very stage of contemporary politics becomes the conceptual concern of Ryan’s work. Ozymandias meets the Arab Spring.

Transhistorical politics/poetics

Ryan’s lack of belonging to one history or poetic mode is part of a transhistorical political sensibility which strives to imagine the interior life of political subjectivity across time and context. This is the key motivation for the constant redramatisation of figures from classical literature. Due to the ever-presence of involution, critique, and irresolution in Ryan’s work, I would hesitate from saying that this political sensibility pursues in the poem what Alain Badiou in Conditions (2008) proposes, that the poem ‘produces truths’. However, the poem in Ryan’s work does have affinities with the Badiouian notion of the poem as an ‘imperative in language’ which ‘presupposes and distributes [truths] according to their specific regime of separation from sense’ (Badiou 47). In fact, critic Georgie Arnott has written that Ryan ‘seems impatient with facts or notions of truth’ (Arnott 37). But this ‘separation’ of truth from sense in Ryan’s work does manifest an anxious poetic subject who incurs law and legislation as one for whom the gap between truth and sense is real.

The tension of history and its multiple political valencies is a tension which undergirds the various and lively debate between self, character, environment, and ideology that recurs throughout the Ryan oeuvre and is summarily displayed in Ryan’s New and Selected Poems. For a poet, these are in the first instance linguistic contexts. Poetic history in particular helps us to trace the correspondence of history with practices of writing. Poetic historicisation of Ryan’s work would show that it is relevant to the history of women’s writing as a catalyst of late modernist poetic practices, to the postmodernism of an experimental and contested lyric voice in Language writing, but also, paradoxically, to canonical Australian poetry’s rewritings of myth3. These histories have contrary political histories underpinning them: for example, the legacy of politically-informed radical Australian women’s writing, from Mary Gilmore and Dorothy Hewett, to Ryan’s contemporary, Pam Brown, associates poorly with post-war Australian formalist poetries of Vincent Buckley or Peter Porter and their preference for universal, rather than political, subjects. Yet Ryan’s work manages to be relevant to the different conversations going on in Australian writing.

Much of Ryan’s transhistorical play takes place on a contemporary stage with classical actors. There is the mixing of urban Melbourne with Homer (e.g. from Pure and Applied, ‘Achilleus to Odysseus’, 108), of Valiants and Mitsubishis amid critiques of an absent Orpheus by Eurydice (from Heroic Money, ‘Eurydice’s Suburb’ 133), of Erechtheion of Athens commingled with Australia’s Moreton Bay trees, being obvious examples (from ‘New Poems’, ‘Ascension’ 190). Antigone in particular will illuminate the significance of the anachronous redramatisation on contemporary stages these characters from antiquity: a poetics of the long-time of the political subject. Of this subject, in particular, Ryan strives to represent the interior life of those for whom belonging to the iniquities and legislations of the present is unbearable and becoming impossible.

The oeuvre from the perspective of the ‘New Poems’

The psychodramas of the political subject have changed over time, but throughout the work there remains an investment in the disparity between public and private spheres. Ryan’s recent work, collected as ‘New Poems’ in the New and Selected, condenses the various modes she has worked with in the past – dramatic monologue, free verse, Sapphic lyric, the sonnet, collage, and the epigram in a long history of satire, from Catullus to John Forbes. Like the private dramas of The Division of Anger and Manners of an Astronaut (1984) and the suburban operas of cruelty of The Last Interior (1986) and Excavation (1990) involving characters who say ‘I’ and ‘you’, the new poems too remain concerned with the feelings of arrest in contemporary time in which the reader is also implicated. Consider ‘Southern Aurora’, a poem from the ‘New Poems’ section, which given the title one would expect to observe visual marvels. Instead, the poem studies the arresting imagery of incongruity of contemporary life with a subject’s interior one:

You have to unclip the world to think it

from cloyed screen or scream words haste

their loot and return to her/his sleep-out

sucking troth’s lozenge

[. . .]

Time moves further away from you

Memory stifled the jonquils

and you’re in a tube of dreams, swimming


This ‘tube of dreams’ is mesmerising, but also distant, disturbing, and as eternal as a lozenge; that is, not eternal at all. Ryan’s interrogation of anxiety lies in its lucidity as a sensibility, as much as a symptom of negative forces. Out of the ‘cloyed screen’ and the stifling effects of memory, the environment and subjective arrest of these conditions emerge in a poetry of immediacy and feeling. As entitled by Ryan’s earlier book from 1986, The Last Interior, ‘Southern Aurora’ tellingly establishes a destination for the poet’s psychic interrogations: a last interior. Let us think of the last interior in its double valency: it is at once a final unmapped destination of selfhood, and a final space yet unmapped in the state of things.

A longstanding concern of Ryan’s work has been the pursuit of this last interior within a public realm, what has become by the twenty-first century an ever-more manipulated public space. Here, the world of the public is felt more and more conspicuously as an unbearable space of technological distraction and political surrealism – ‘Our clown Prime Minister jostles on the steps […] holds his broken minister in a camera grip’ (‘Disinformation’ 72). It is a state in which action is suspended: ‘A tureen of alternative lives spills from the waiter’s grasp/I chew a fife and play/and sovereigns weep’ (‘Aeneas’ 199). Public Australian life here is clownish, ‘sovereigns weep’ and ministers are ‘broken’. A last interior by contrast would be a space yet unwritten in law and politics as we know it, posthumous to its commedia dell’arte.

Ryan has developed here a poetics of transhistorical enquiry towards the last interior life of the political subject studied through an experimentation with archetypal figures of political radicalism from antiquity and by restaging them in the contemporary. In Ryan’s most recent poems these critiques regard the ruins of the twenty-first century, such as ‘the human face of capital’ in ‘Rent Time’, resembling that of Shelley’s Ozymandias. The critical observer of such affairs has not so much been politicised by the twenty-first century as crystallised in its fundamental subjective critique of political affairs. ‘Southern Aurora’ is a good example of how Ryan’s work in the second decade of the twenty-first century has crystallised disparate practices into one polyvalent economy of language. Here are echoes of Ryan’s Manners of an Astronaut and its cruelty of wit – ‘for my sore eyes, you,/massive claustrophobia, manners of an astronaut’ (‘Lines Written During a Period of Insanity’ 35), the vocal iconoclasm of The Last Interior – She tries to change his sex/so she can love it’ (52), and the extended critical satires of public vacuousness and distraction in Pure and Applied and Heroic Money, developed as a poetic formation of a subject allergic to contemporary political affairs of the public.

Anxiety, or, the survival of thought in the cultural desert

Anxiety is the most obvious attribution one might give to the nebula of feeling mapped and provided a language by Gig Ryan. Not an anxious poetry in the ordinary sense but anxiety as a condition, its affective constitution can be studied as a synthesis of the phenomenological articulation of anxiety (Angst) as one’s concern for one’s ‘potentiality-for-being-in-the-world’ (Heidegger 235), with anxiety in the lyric mode, its sensitivity to delay, vacillation, and mourning. The oft-anthologised ‘If I Had A Gun’ from The Division of Anger makes a list poem of feminist angst directed towards a milieu of the casual deployment of violent patriarchy. But there is a more foundational, even open-ended phenomenology of Angst which by contrast drives later books Pure and Applied and Heroic Money, whose long time suggests a rethinking of the history of eulogy and mourning in the lyric. Ryan’s first touchstone in developing a long-time angst is likely ancient Greek poet Sappho, whose erotic lexicon of feeling often contextualises love through political and historical relation, and mobilises the critical power of irony.

If angst is political but also sensuous, concerned for being in the world, expanding it in terms of anxiety would mark it as an undecided affective event. Anxiety is to say that conditions of my being in the world remain undecided, or unbearable as they are. ‘[Y]ou massive/claustrophobia’, she writes in ‘Lines During a Period of Insanity’ – meaning anxiety for Ryan is a space of critical analysis, positioning the ‘claustrophobia’ of the self within the ‘massive’ uncertainty of the present. This is neither a representation of the author nor a characterisation of the voices of the poems of her oeuvre. In Ryan’s work, anxiety is a condition that can be marked in affective terms with political implications.

Anxiety has a varied history in the work, is a major source of its humour and the launching pad of its critique. Anxiety begins in association with the unbearable romantic relations beset by foreclosures of life by drugs in the early work, inspiring a surprisingly comedic and  acerbic voice, which becomes by the 1990s an expansion of the terms of lyric angst not in human relations as such but of a broader ‘necropolitical’ modernity wherein lives are not so much manipulated for their biopower as for their termination. The ‘necropolitical’ is a word Achille Mbembe uses to describe a modernity in which state manipulation of the way we die marks the modern state (see Mbembe 2003), and it resonates with Ryan’s images of modernity: ‘Medals press on your casket/Over winter, I swam through each brief dawn/polish the useless talent/in the carved water’ from ‘The swimmer retires’, is one example of numerous (Ryan 2011: 182). The language that emerges from the affective site of anxiety is not only powerfully critical, observing each ‘talent’ as ‘useless’, but full of sensory detail. Observe further lines of ‘The swimmer retires’:

All honours wash away

He falls through the mist of reporters veered from a dream

a jewelled car that magnets round a coast


Here, a critique of state ceremony recalling at once Ancient Greece and contemporary Australia is the setting for a broader investigation of the transmigration of a falling, semi-real swimmer-observer who is said to be ‘thankfully going’. This figure manages to escape the hard geometry of a state-organised space – note ‘ribbon’, ‘[t]he pool unsheathed from me [t]he lanes unlock’, ‘tallied seconds’, ‘each rubbed line’, ‘[h]e turns from the blue aisles’ – and is said to be ‘[a] king a servant thankfully going’ (182). Less a retreat, anxiety appears to be a mode of propulsion towards a space beyond visibility on state-organised terms which here resembles the watery spirit worlds of death in classical literature. Anxiety here becomes a mode for the survival of thought in the cultural desert of the present in a state posthumous to the necropolitical.

Anxiety as a feeling is not inherently valuable or critical in this work, however. Ryan instead appears to be interested in the modes of escape, opposition, and insight it provides, along with the sensitivity of its registration of a given state of affairs. ‘Not ecstasy, but anxiety’ (117), a sonnet which first appeared Pure and Applied, cleverly observes how even anxiety turned to the very subject of anxiety still in a state of inaction might promise to heighten the role of critique:

Anxiety thrives on a high income

its complex childhood skiting its results

and now immune to hurt, instead insults

the legislation it has risen from.

Anxiety has here turned to the subject of anxiety itself. The lines ‘[a]nxiety … insults/the legislation it has risen from’ demonstrate a process locatable across her work, what is a subjective open-endedness of critique. In this poem, anxiety is at first critiqued as an inactive, infantile, bourgeois thriving. But this ‘anxiety’ then develops a subject ‘immune to hurt’, who ‘insults/the legislation it has risen from’. The moral aporia here is crucial. Here, the subject is one who insults self and legislation at once, and undermines the very system which gives rise to selves like this, the one who is anxious, one who is able to criticise their own subjective foundations. A paradoxical mobility is at once inevitable but necessary for responses to turn unbearable political immobility into emancipation. Ryan has developed a poetic crystallisation of political subjectivity that is not theatre, nor even a single character, yet it has its closest affinities with characterologies of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Sophocles’ Antigone. These characters act within the very terms of anxiety, action which aligns neither with the good nor the evil, but rallying both interpretations to their limit.


The political valency of anxiety is the potentiality of emancipation and its felt limit. If emancipation is to be a way of thinking and so avoid some kind of foreclosure – to be revolution rather than apocalypse – its political subject must anxiously retain a last psychic and spatial interiority. This is true of Sophocles’ Antigone, whose interiority offers the only space for moral thought in Thebes outside of the contrary forces of state law and divine justice. Two poems in Ryan’s work which explicitly adapt this from Greek classical drama are ‘Ismene to Antigone’ (165) from Heroic Money and ‘Cracked Avenues’, which is built of two sub-sections, ‘Ismene’ and ‘Antigone’, a new poem in the collection (177). Antigone, among Ryan’s many women characters from the classics, like Eurydice, Iphigenia, and even Echo, is the clearest incarnation where redramatisation of a classical character is also an investigation of the political possibility of interiority. Consider the final lines of ‘Ismene to Antigone’, which cannot be pinned to one voice or place, and has no evident relationship to Sophocles’ play, bar the poem’s title:

The mountain shone with neon

above the stacked electric wires toning your street

but I grind into the work

that words might peel his heart

Remember how they fell who went before


The relation to Antigone here is by incarnation, not characterisation. The prevalence of  catachresis along with the deferral of mourning indicated by the final line signals an  incarnation of the language of Antigone. Antigone is a character responsible for a whole edifice of psychoanalytical and political analysis of subjectivity on the subject of kinship and freedom. Of the critical readings of Antigone, from Hegel to Lacan to Butler, Butler’s is the most relevant to Ryan’s rethinking of the character. Butler writes:

If kinship is the precondition of the human, then Antigone is the occasion for a new field of the human, achieved through political catachresis, the one that happens when […] gender is displaced, and kinship founders on its own founding laws

(Butler 82)

Catachresis, a term from poetics for the misuse (or infelicitous) use of metaphor, is important to understand how emancipation from state legislation is possible from within its terms, since catachresis is to use a given language in ways that contradict its normal operations. If we are talking about opposing state law with justice, law being the representation of justice, then one is restricted to either draw from the world what is supposed to precede law, a transcendental proposition, otherwise opposition is to be conceived in terms of redeploying the terms of law catachrestically. It is this second option that Butler is thinking through, and which Ryan is also. For example, ‘[t]hat words might peel his heart’ is a phrase mobilising the impossible correspondence of ‘peeling’ by ‘words’, working as an intensive but legible plea for the heart of a tyrant to unfold by the words of this indefinable subject.

The final line of ‘Ismene to Antigone’ is a cliff-hanger, and marks a space in which eulogy does not mourn, but transforms and implicates the subject open-endedly by an imperative to mourn: ‘Remember how they fell who went before’. The space opened by Sophocles’ Antigone’s disruptive subjectivity is a space where one does not choose a new life but chooses ‘between two deaths’, the space in which psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan famously situates Antigone’s radicalism, between real and symbolic death. Ryan’s ‘Antigone’ is not set in Thebes, but in a menagerie of catachreses. Consider the other example, ‘Cracked Avenues: Antigone’, which mounts with examples of catachresis (177–78): ‘cachet/of just and true’, ‘I hold your fake hand to my brow/to feel love turn on’, ‘blogs fugue’, ‘tide of boasts’, ‘past’s porphyried gas’, or the very cryptic, ‘you, unmourned/who prepared bitterly’, which is catachrestic since the unmourned dead cannot prepare to be mourned. This is the language of the last interior of Antigone, a language legible not in terms established by the gods who expect sacrifice for justice, nor the law, which is bound to execute the patriarchal state’s decree. Ryan here elaborates this sovereign catachresis of a ‘new field’ of the political subject (Butler 82).



Gig Ryan’s poetry provides a twenty-first century lens to the psychic and affective terrain of interiority in politically saturated times, interiority written in terms global and Australian, classical and contemporary. The contradictions of the present are clearly marked by a transhistorical approach, especially in works since Heroic Money: the public has never been better informed, and yet the public has never been more immobile. Anxiety and Antigone – Ryan has developed a poetics for a speculative space of interiority which might allow for new forms of critique and thought. More particularly, this interiority is studied as symptom and critique at once, vis-à-vis political events in law, legislation, and ethics in the Australian context and beyond. So, as Australian literary studies has acknowledged the ways in which contemporary political discussions of identity and critique are relevant to John Forbes, Lionel Fogarty and PiO, for example, and it might also attend to Gig Ryan, whose satire, transhistorical depth, experimentation, and wit on the subject of modern anxiety and subjectivity have a particular relevancy to twenty-first century politics’ dramaturgy of the ruin.

A useful point of comparison for a poetics of political thought is Jennifer Maiden, whose last four books have mobilised a speculative fiction on otherwise similar subjects of law, international affairs, and ethics. In Maiden’s case, it has meant devising a dramaturgy of encounter between unrelated characters of past and present politics and the thoughts that are given rise to by their speculative encounters, Julian Assange and Julia Gillard, for example, having starring roles. By contrast, Ryan’s work studies the point of view of the observing political subject and the incursion of or subjection to shifts in the international politics of an unbearable contemporary world, the dynamics of thought and critique as felt and transformative sites pre-existing quick answers to problems of long time. Maiden’s work is excursive, Ryan’s incursive, Maiden’s subject the characters of modernity, Ryan’s the anonymous last interior of the political subject contextualised through a view of long time, in my view. Both are central voices in Australian poetry on a symptomatology of the political subject in late capitalism, expanding in very different directions how we might think the political subject.


(1) Gig Ryan’s New and Selected, first published by Giramondo, is also published in the United Kingdom by Bloodaxe under the title Selected Poems. See Ryan 2012. All citations were taken from the Giramondo edition unless otherwide stated. See Ryan 2011.

(2) See Duncan Hose’s ‘Instruction for an Ideal Australian: John Forbes’s Metaphysical Etiquette’ for a rethinking of self-mythology in the work of John Forbes (Hose 2010). Hose also doubts that irony itself can come to terms with the form of Forbes’s experiments with the subject; specifically, it cannot explain ‘the torsional syntactic moves of [Forbes’s] poems, in the bemusing process of the symbolically motivated intellect at work on itself ’ (Hose 10).

(3) For non-genealogical or non-traditional histories of these trajectories which Ryan might be situated in, I recommend in particular Philip Mead’s Networked Language (2008). Ann Vickery’s Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women’s Poetry (2007) provides a framework for understanding the often-neglected contributionsof women to Australia’s cultural modernity and so those who preceded Ryan. A theory of  modernism in this context in particular is comprehensively provided by Matt Hall’s recent ‘Defining nations: modernist literature in Australia and the Pacific Islands’. See Hall 2015.

Works cited

Arnott, G. ‘Attacks that sting: The angry poetry of Judith Wright and Gig Ryan.’ Overland 177 (Summer 2004): 34–38. Print.

Badiou, Alain. Conditions, trans. S. Corcoran. London and New York: Continuum. Print.

Bertens, Johannes Willem. The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Butler, Judith. Antigone’s Claim. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Print. Dobrez, Livio. Parnassus Mad Ward: Michael Dransfield and the New Australian Poetry. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1990. Print.

Dobrez, Patricia. Michael Dransfield’s Lives: A Sixties Biography. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1999. Print.

Hall, M. ‘Defining nations: modernist literature in Australia and the Pacific Islands.’ In The Modernist World, ed. S. Ross and A.C. Lindgren. Milton Park and New York: Routledge, 2015. 265–272.  Print.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time, 7th edition, trans. J. Macquarie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1973. Print.

Hose, D. ‘Instruction for an Ideal Australian: John Forbes’s Metaphysical Etiquette.’ Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, Special Issue: Common Readers and Cultural Critics (2010): 1-12. Online.

Mead, Philip. Networked Language: Culture & History in Australian Poetry. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008. Print.

Ryan, Gig. New and Selected Poems. Artarmon: Giramondo, 2011. Print.

——. Selected Poems. Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2012. Print.

——. ‘Gig  Ryan is Poet of the Month.’ Australian Book Review 367 (December 2014). n.p.


——. ‘Rent Time.’ Australian Book Review 367 (December 2014). n.p. Online. Vickery, Ann. Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women’s Poetry. Cambridge: Salt. Print.


First published: Wakeling, Corey. ‘Anxiety and Antigone: an introduction to Gig Ryan’s New and Selected Poems (2011).’ Westerly Vol. 60:2. 2015. Print.

© Copyright Corey Wakeling 2015