States of Poetry Series Two - Victoria | 'The Things They Carry' by Brendan Ryan

‘The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.’
Tim O’Brien

The beeping of horns, the relentless waves of scooters –
a whine that spirals to a high-pitched roar
scooting down alleys and footpaths
flowing like oil around taxis, through roundabouts
across bridges. Nobody has time for burnouts.

The sound of the streets is the growl of purpose
the 6 am momentum of fathers and sons
running errands through the veins of a city,
threading gaps between pedestrians
gliding over a history of patched roads.

The things a scooter carries – families,
teenagers texting, sacks of grain, a wardrobe,
two goats in a basket, a dead cow,
whatever’s necessary.
The things I carry – Tim Winton’s ideas of place,

my ignorance, my father’s need to be walking
out front, my Australian assumptions.
In a country with a history of invasions
there is no road rage, just polite chaos at roundabouts.
Rivers of scooters revving and scrambling round

our taxi until the momentum pauses
as if the roundabout was clearing its throat.
I’m cast adrift with a sticky shirt surrounded
by face masks, puffer jackets, and impassive faces
because white skin is pure, desirable as an iPhone

yet the fall-out from the American War lingers
with genetic disorders. A man with deformed limbs
drags himself across a busy road. Fathers
who fought with the Viet Cong pass their stories
onto sons who lead tours to jungle temples

while veterans wake up screaming at dawn
drink rice wine, beat their wives until
their granddaughters break the cycle
talking of abortions and teenagers
suiciding with unborn babies.

The elderly who survive sell lottery tickets from a gutter
while the faces of those who disappeared
we pay our admission price to at the War Remnants Museum.
The land is mined with stories, like the massacre
near Bến Tre nobody talks about

except those who are willed to keep returning
like choppers for the body bags. Each holiday
means facing up to spooky, the jungle smells
of things burning. Each morning a rooster crows.
A radio station broadcasts by loud speaker to the streets

what the government is doing.
Who is listening? Like heavy surf,
traffic pulsates below my window. I look down
to women sorting through hessian sacks
at a rubbish-sorting depot.

Other women fold their histories
into rice paper rolls, sit at markets
with a meat cleaver and a tray of raw chicken.
The men sit on low plastic stools watching
or laze in hammocks, scrolling.

The things a driver carries smoking on a river barge
as he steers a path between histories,
between the intimacy a woman creates washing
her hair in a Mekong tributary
and the weights a country asks its people to bear.

A baby’s face squashed against her mother’s chest.
The father driving without a helmet.
Their four year old son holding on.
His eyes stray to mine as the lights change.
I step out before the motorbikes.

Brendan Ryan

Brendan Ryan

Brendan Ryan

Brendan Ryan grew up on a dairy farm at Panmure in Victoria. His poetry, reviews, and essays have been published in literary journals and newspapers. He has had poems published in The Best Australian Poems series (Black Inc). His second collection of poetry, A Paddock in his Head, was shortlisted for the 2008 ACT Poetry Prize. His most recent collection of poetry, Travelling Through the Family (Hunter Publishers), was published in 2012 and was shortlisted for the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Awards. He lives in Geelong, where he teaches English at a secondary college.

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