Plevna: A biography in verse
Geoff Page / UWA Publishing
As he did in his superb collection 1953 (reviewed here), in Plevna Geoff Page has set himself the task of recovering unknown, lost or otherwise unglamorous elements of Australian history – and has written some of the country’s most beautiful poetry while doing so.
At first glance, Melbourne surgeon Charles ‘Plevna’ Ryan, whose life reached from the back half of the nineteenth century into the first quarter of the twentieth, is everything that would mark him as a contemporary pariah. He is white, patrician, and elitist; a man for whom the military – and what’s more the military abroad, the white man fighting in brown lands – serves as a foundational value system. Present day narratives might insist Ryan was just the sort of martial and blindly privileged man who sent the world to hell. Yet far from being closeted by his background and upbringing (the contemporary concept of ‘privilege’ is woolly enough to serve no purpose) he was in fact a thoroughly cosmopolitan gentleman, multi-lingual, brave, hard-working and entirely dedicated to helping those around him. As a surgeon on late nineteenth and early-twentieth century battlefields, for years he experienced first hand a degree of carnage, horror and human misery most of us – perhaps even all of us – would now find difficult to contemplate, much less actually bear witness in person. Somehow, with that inner resolve that characterises the ‘putting up with things’ of the time, he lived through those years of horror to create a loving and successful family, a thriving medical practice, and to be an accidental witness to some of the key moments of early Australian history.
One of the many remarkable things to be gleaned from this free verse biography is that someone with such an unusual and multi-faceted life could have been largely lost to Australian history. Of course our nation is heavy with the bones of men and women – all too often women – whose contributions went unremarked, their astonishing lives fallen into neglect and oblivion: we thank Geoff Page for recovering, at least, this one.
Geoff Page’s Plevna is notable for the rich complexity and range of experiences encompassed by Ryan’s life, and the nuances encapsulated by his various allegiances; remarkable also for the technical feat carried off by Page in writing Ryan’s biography in free verse, one hundred or so pages of clear, simple and beautiful poetic language, interspersed with extracts from Ryan’s diaries and a selection of old black-and-white photos illustrating Ryan at different points in his work travels around Turkey – what was then the fast-contracting Ottoman Empire – and a series of snapshots of him decades later at Gallipoli.
A student of considerable talent, Ryan’s medical studies begin in Melbourne:
Setting bones in those days is
a sort of carpentry;
and sutures done with gut…
but soon moves on to a broader and more challenging world: Edinburgh, then Bonn and Vienna. Like a true child of Empire he went abroad to receive his final spit and polish. While there, the sense of opportunity and adventure that has seized so many young Australians in Europe grabs him:
the ad for twenty British surgeons
to serve the Ottomans,
currently a little stirred
by problematic Serbs.
Two hundred pounds a year, it says,
paid each month in gold.
Just twenty-three, Ryan signs up to the anti-Russian war effort – for centuries the Russians and the Byzantines had been engaged in turf wars – and soon finds himself deep in Ottoman lands. The landscapes are beautiful, if full of death. A revelation of lovely clear winter mornings opens up to display the effects of war:
The dead lie spread in melting snow,
soldiers and civilians both.
There’s not the strength to bury them
and yet the sky is clear and blue
with just a trace of cloud.
Late nineteenth century wars were terrible for many reasons, not least that mechanized forms of death had begun to be employed against soldiers before modern medicine had caught up with its sophisticated means of easing pain and suffering. The stench and agony of dying men and animals drifts up from these verses. War is terrible even – or perhaps especially – for those who want no part of it: Page recounts, using Ryan’s notebooks, how some frightened young Turkish soldiers shot off their own trigger fingers in order to avoid having to fire guns and kill. Called to investigate these wounds, Ryan, impartial and with a cold Victorian rigidity, puts science before compassion: yes, he must reveal to the Ottoman commander, the wounds were consistent with being self-inflicted. The clever intrigue was thus judged to have ‘sabotaged’ the war effort and in a final irony, the young men were themselves put before a firing squad and shot.
Image courtesy Australian War Memorial
Back in Australia in the 1880s, the nickname ‘Plevna’ – inspired by the site of some of his most famous efforts – sticks. Newly established up the top end of Collins St, his expertise is called upon as he tends to the wounds of none other than Ned Kelly, thus inscribing his name as a minor player at the edges of another crucial moment of Australian coming-into-being. He is the ultimate, detached professional:
You think an amputation
‘will not be necessary’.
Hare’s been leading the police
and Ned’s the murderer.
To you they’re just a pair of patients,
Ryan has many of the hallmarks of the paterfamilias, albeit without the extravagant beard. Once settled into his surgery on Collins, he sets about finding the right partner, and marrying ‘appropriately’:
The woman you are wanting will
be found through old connections.
attractive and well-educated
but not so well as you.
The Alice Summer he marries, though, is a formidable woman, nobody’s fool, and counts among her diversions an addiction to the new pastime of motoring:
They boast, on their return, how they
clocked almost 30 m.p.h.
along the road from Dandenong.
‘They go much faster,’ Alice offers,
‘in the evening air.’
There follow two decades of settled life, of apparent domestic bliss: a successful surgeon, man of cigar-and-brandy Melbourne clubs, working with the Victorian militia, assessing the health of men for duty. A quintessential son of Empire, the sixty-one year-old Ryan is up for duty at Gallipoli, his affections (if not altogether his loyalties) torn between his Australian and British comrades, and those Turks with whom he had shared the life of the battlefield three decades earlier. One can imagine him, in more febrile mediatic times, being roasted as a ‘traitor’ for his past associations. (In today’s environment, he’d be ‘shamed’ from left and right.) In fact, he had found out earlier, in 1895 when starting out on writing his memoirs, how difficult it was to speak with enthusiasm of the Turk; alliances were shifting, and a nation’s collective memory rarely admits of nuance:
the murders in Armenia
disfigure all the Melbourne papers.
Even so, your new book notes
the Turkish soldier’s ‘dauntless courage’
‘in earlier and brighter days’.
(History wars? This poetic work should be an essential text for all sides in that faux conflict that ever rumbles on.)
In fact, as war swells and Gallipoli approaches:
You’re not so chuffed to face the Turks…
You wear their medals still.
There’s no doubt though that doctors,
and ones of your experience,
will be in sharp demand
when longboats hit the beach.
Then hell commences: short on medical supplies, wounded men die in filth, casualties are unprecedented; the tetanus risk is acute; hospital staff work beyond fatigue for weeks on end. ‘One morning,’ Ryan notes, ‘I did five amputations before breakfast.’
Image courtesy Australian War Memorial
On May 24, a month after Gallipoli, a brief truce is declared in order for soldiers from each side to move out into no-man’s land and bury the pestilential dead. Ryan supervises, as the men fraternise with each other speaking basic French.
The earth looks hard but friable;
the graves, we must suppose,
are not as deep as those
in Melbourne’s General Cemetery
where you, with your ‘three score
and ten’ – plus three – will end at last.
Ryan dies, in fact, on a ship while returning from a European holiday in 1926. Just off Adelaide he suffers a heart attack, even informing his fellow passengers, as he winces in pain, that there was nothing they could do, and that he would soon be dead. He was.
The language used throughout by Page is clean and upright; it is cut pure, stern and elegant without being too adorned. Rather like Ryan himself, it is efficient and driven by a desire for clarity. It walks uncluttered across the page; the reading experience is fully illuminating.
Somehow, despite the legendary life and the State funeral, Charles Ryan slipped off the national radar and into oblivion. We live in an age where the past is constantly raked over for the shocking or illuminating secrets held by genealogy – our TV screens are full of persons uncovering their pasts, as we seek to add layers of gravity to the fragile account of nationhood. Now, Geoff Page has heard ‘Plevna’ Ryan talking back from within those shadows of forgetfulness, the ‘various lacunae’. It is an extraordinary feat, to piece together a life lived in that age when not every minute of every day was documented, commented, recorded, obsessed over, made public. From the quiet hallways of the past Charles Ryan has quietly emerged – still shadowy, but that is part of the mystique. He materialises from ancient dust, old documents, dried blood, the long-silenced groans of the dying; from archaic Melbourne clubs; from the forgotten fields of a lost Empire.
It is here, up against the void, that we ask our poets to perform their ancient and sacred task. Who better than Geoff Page? Yet one imagines even he might not want to know all ‘Plevna’ Ryan’s secrets. It is sometimes the very lacunae themselves that tell us all we need to know, ‘forcing one to speculate while falsifying nothing’.
Plevna is available from UWAP here.