One-Minute Book Reviews

December 23, 2006

Kay Ryan’s ‘The Niagara River’: Poems That Rhyme, Like Life, in Unexpected Places

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:33 pm

An award-winning poet writes about what time steals from us

The Niagara River. By Kay Ryan. Grove Press: Grove Press Poetry Series, 72 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Kay Ryan’s poetry captures better than any I know a quality of life that is obvious but rarely mentioned: It rhymes in unexpected places. Most of our lives resemble neither sonnets with fixed rhymes nor free verse with no rhymes. We hear music when we don’t expect it. So it is with Ryan’s sixth book, The Niagara River. Ryan rhymes the first word of one line with the last word of the next in “Absences and Breaks.” She begins with a rhyming couplet, “The egg-sucking fox/licks his copper chops,” but doesn’t stick to the pattern in “Theft.” This unpredictability might have been chaotic in the hands of a less talented poet. But Ryan has so much control over other aspects of her work, particularly tone, that the result is fresh instead of jarring.

In classical literature the river is dual symbol of life (because it sustains fertility) and death (because it suggests the irreversible flow of time). The 64 brief and intelligent poems in The Niagara River continue this tradition. The poems are autumnal but full of life and color. This is so partly because Ryan’s theme isn’t time in the abstract but what remains after it has passed. She has a sharp awareness of the inevitable injustices of age, reflected in the titles of poems such as “Thieves,” “Theft” and “Late Justice.” Time, the great racketeer, is always stealing from us. Ryan writes in “Thieves” s about the effects of age on the brain, including memory loss:

There are thieves
in the mind, their
dens in places
we’d prefer not to know.
When a word is lifted from
its spot, we show
no surprise,
replacing
supplies
with
provender.

Ryan does not sentimentalize the effects of aging – she knows that those thieves are hatching a “fantastic plot” – but her poems are not morbid. In “Salvage” she writes in about the aftermath of a wreck, perhaps a crash of the body caused by illness. The worst, she says, “has happened.” But there is a consolation:

Thanks be
to God – again –
for extractable elements
which are noi
carriers of pain …

Those lines notwithstanding, Ryan’s poems are not overtly religious. But at times their mood resembles that of the great Protestant hymn by Isaac Watts, “O, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” first published in the 18th century. Watts says:

Time like an ever-rolling steam,
bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream,
dies at the opening day.

In Ryan’s poetry, the dead do not become “stars or ghosts” when time “bears all its sons away.” Instead, she tells us in “Charms,” they reappear in our genes or elsewhere. This may be small comfort. But, she writes, “…E ven a piece/does us some good.”

Best line: One appears in a poem inspired by the artist Joseph Cornell: “ … As/time passes, the/promise is tattered/like a battle flag/above a war we/hope mattered.”

Worst line: None, but some of the quotes on the cover do Ryan few favors. David Yezzi says: “Ryan’s poems leave the reader elevated or changed or moved but at a loss to say exactly how this effect has been wrought.” The first part of that line is meaningless because all good poetry leaves you “elevated or changed or moved.” Otherwise, why read it? And a critic who says he can’t say how an effect “has been wrought” often means: I’m not willing to put the time or effort into figuring it out.

Recommended if … you like poetry that has both traditional and experimental elements.

Published: Octoer 2005

FYI: Poems in this collection have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and elsewhere. You can learn about Ryan and read her poem “Nothing Ventured” at the site for the Academy of American Poets, www.poets.org.

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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