Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Toughness & tenderness: on ‘Crisis Actor’ by Declan Ryan

John Fuller

How can we be prepared for all the difficult life-choices we may have to make? It’s a commonplace that there can be no rehearsal for life, since life has already begun. At the core of ‘Halcyon Days’, a beautiful love poem, and one of the longer and most philosophical in Declan Ryan’s very striking first collection, Crisis Actor (Faber, 2023) is the helpless cry: “You talk of fate, of oracles: / this is the future, here.” This “now” of the poem is evoked in attractive and sometimes quite private detail that lures the reader into its intimate world of longing and timidity. The emotion is finely dramatized, but is continuously bolstered by the sense that in the question about whether a relationship can be true or not, whether it has lasting value, there are always two alternative views. The poem is prefaced by a quotation from James Salter about the danger of missing the perfect moment for love that takes one back into the old arguments in Goethe and Clough about “affinity” and “juxtaposition”, and argument of various kinds underpins the tone of the poem. But the superb ending has a delirious lift-off in its portrayal of an existential moment of decisiveness:

I’m packed for the grave
as yesterday’s catch. Kingfisher,
heart’s bird, I dive into your death
like catching headfirst fish. I swallow
all your scales and feel alive.

If this feels a bit like Lowell it is because this is largely where Ryan comes from. Lowell habits are everywhere. For example, in ‘The Range’, a perhaps over-ambitious poem about his aunt, Ryan stakes out his Irish heritage (born 1983 in County Mayo when his immigrant parents returned there for a few years). He does this rather as Lowell included himself in both his family’s and his country’s history, by including a somewhat gnomic section on the Charles Stewart Parnell scandal complete with a pun from Joyce and appearing to relate it somehow to the “betrayal” of his aunt by the doctor who had failed to diagnose her cancer.

The Lowell of Life Studies is perhaps mediated through the advocacy of Ian Hamilton, in whom Ryan has a scholarly interest and for whom he has included an ‘in memoriam’ poem here, in fact the very title poem, ‘Crisis Actor’. There is something puzzling about this clearly important tribute to Hamilton, perhaps not exclusively the “you” of the poem, which appears also to include descriptions of Ryan himself reading Hamilton’s notebooks and is interwoven with italicised quotations from interviews with Colin Falck and Alan Jenkins (respectively an old collaborator of Hamilton’s, and Hamilton’s editor).

At its heart, however, is a presentation of a supposed conflict in the male sensibility between toughness and tenderness, a conflict that also emerges in the poems about boxers included in the collection (and there are indeed many of these, perhaps too many, one-third of the book in fact). Hamilton is presented as being tough and laconic (“very Bogart”) but cautiously tender, really writing about love.  The poem is considering what it is to be “a man” as well as a poet. The celebrated boxers (Louis, Carnera, Coralles, Castillo, Ali, Liston, Marciano, Tyson, Berbick, Douglas, Foreman, Ward, Gatti) are certainly tough, and inclined to self-mythologise with outlandish male arrogance: “I talk to God every day. I know the real God” (Ali); “Legally I’m a spirit” (Tyson). But Ryan’s poems are also interested in the strange bonds between the antagonists, parallel to the bonds between lovers, which can feel fated when elevated into myth: “Our names will be linked forever” (Castillo); “Something’s gone out of my life” (Louis); “Arturo will be part of me forever” (Ward). There is even a boxing poem (the engaging “Rope-a-Dope”) in which an uncertainly committed lover turns up after unaccountable silence asking to be shown an old boxing match on DVD. They lie down snugly and intimately to watch Ali v. Foreman, the speaker describing his heart behind his ribs as a “pouting lifer”, that is to say imprisoned and fruitlessly sulking? Or is it merely beating quickly? It’s unclear how the violence will be taken (or what relationship there might seem to be between physical punishment and potential physical pleasure). The ending is one of Ryan’s typically skilful subtleties:

I see a Hallelujah look as you turn to face me:
‘He won,’ you say into my cheek.
‘He did,’ I say.

And no doubt he won (by leaning back on the ropes and letting Foreman weary himself with punches) in the way that the speaker hopes to “win” his lover over – by not strenuously combatting the growing distance between them, but by relative inaction, a passive waiting upon developments.

Boxing is significantly important to Ryan, perhaps as a symbol of fighting against the odds for a marginalised working class. He watched televised bouts from a very early age, at his father’s knee (see his Long Read in the Guardian, Tuesday 4 May, 2021). The collection contains a fine poem about his relationship with his father, with fetching detail about his dinners and with the growing ironic distance between them expressed in boxing metaphor (“my mock-lightness / and half-committal punchlines”).

To return to Hamilton, though: is he a good exemplar of the ‘crisis actor’? He is an admired poet, so one would have to say yes. A crisis actor is someone who acts the role of a victim in the simulation of a disaster. To the extent that simulations help emergency services to be better prepared for such disasters, Ryan’s titular metaphor returns us to the quandary of whether it is possible to prepare ourselves for the crucial moments of life-changing choices. Poetry is attuned to the hypothetical, and poets can be past masters of imaginative moral analysis. The crisis actor, after all, does it to help others, not himself. Ryan’s book focuses on ways in which poetry rehearses life-situations outside life itself, when different futures can indeed be envisaged. Poetry, too, is a kind of play, forever without direct involvement with reality. And Hamilton is perhaps the crucial post-Lowell British poet for Ryan.

Elsewhere in the book, alternative or future lives are examined with rueful or wistful wonder. A group of friends in a pub accidentally spy on a couple across the way dancing and kissing (“and when she turned off the light we carried on / staring at their black room . . . and there were rooms like that for all of us.” – that is to say, where life is really going on). Another pub (the “Mayfly”) is a stopping-off point after a week-end of love, in a place where it can hardly be believed that people actually live (“watch this cherry tree convulse into winter, what, / seventy times maybe” – in contrast to the mayfly which is born, mates and dies in one day). The poem ‘Bachelors’ is about the routines of lives essentially unlived. There is a poem in the voice of the poet Alun Lewis caught in the limbo of war (“Let there be an again”) and many definitions of a mode of life not yet defined or observed from the margins: “a life is going on somewhere which I’ll encroach upon / in time” (‘Seated Nude Girl with Pigtails (1910)’); “I was the future, for a week, a while ago” (‘Sidney Road’).

Ryan is an observant writer, with an eye for accumulating specific details and a way of playing them off against each other in striking verbal contrasts. There is not much interest in metre and on occasion the lines can pile up in arbitrary divisions, as in ‘Keats Parade’, like ‘Sidney Road’ a good example of his busy and witty scrutiny of urban environments. There is a plainer humour here, too, as in ‘The Rat’. And there is more than one poem about friends who were pop musicians, with the sense of precarious or failed careers haunting the book’s obsession with uncertain futures.

It is nine years since Ryan published his debut pamphlet (Faber New Poets 12, 2014), and interesting to see what he has preserved from it. Half of its poems are abandoned, including interesting ones about Lowell’s final heart attack in a New York cab in the company of Lucian Freud’s portrait of Lowell’s second wife, Caroline Blackwood; and about John Coltrane, in touch with his God like some of the deranged boxers. The poems which I most missed, however, were ‘Transmission’ and ‘Postcard from Australia’, two of the three inventive love poems that triumphantly concluded the pamphlet. The third is, however, preserved, and maintains its final place in both collections. This is ‘Trinity Hospital’, a serene poem of love and commitment that provides some answer to his occasionally troubled metaphysical questions. In his Guardian piece about boxers, Ryan says that his wildest fantasy was ‘that it might be possible for someone to be uniquely equipped to succeed’. On the evidence of his first book it is clear that this dream is by no means fantastical.