Sunday, November 25, 2007

Kay Ryan's "The Niagara River"

I have always enjoyed Kay Ryan's poems in POETRY. They are well made, surprising analogies. So when I slipped into a book store at Penn Station while waiting for a New Jersey Transit train to carry me to a housewarming party, I decided to get Ryan's Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner, The Niagara River.

The title poem displays all her strengths.

As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice--as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced--
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.

A tiny poem and yet it holds the river in it through the two "as though"s, assumptions we make forgetting we make them until the poem reminds us. This poem tells us what we have always known (We do know, we do know), and that is the source of its power.

The weaker poems in this collection fail because the analogies are not surprising enough, like in "The Elephant in the Room," "Hailstorm" and "The Light of Interiors." They are still-births. Other poems suffer from too much argument unsupported by the imagery. I am thinking, in this connection, of "Felix Crow," "Shipwreck" and "The Self Is Not Portable." Ryan is partly aware of this second pitfall, this reverse side of her wit. The poem "Added Significance" addresses this issue scathingly.

In the wake of
horrible events
each act or word
is fortified with
added significance,
unabsorbable as
nutrients added
to the outside
of food: it can't
do any good.
As if significance
weren't burdensome
enough. Now
the wave-slapped
beach rocks not
just made to talk
but made to teach.

I like this poem very much but its limitation is that it only sees the danger of added significance after "horrible events," and does not see it everywhere. And not in itself: with the addition of "it can't do any good," the poem has stopped talking and started teaching.

On the back cover, J. D. McClatchy blurbed that Ryan is "as intense and elliptical as Dickinson." The comparison is instructive. Ryan is odd, even original, but she is not elliptical. There is nothing in this collection that approaches Dickinson's mysterious bees and birds. There is no God with whom and of whom one has to talk cryptically. An imaginative image-maker, Ryan does not make myths. That gives her poetry its commonsensical outlook, and, despite its awe at humans and their world, its earthly boundaries.

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