One-Minute Book Reviews

July 17, 2008

Kay Ryan Named Poet Laureate, Succeeding Charles Simic — Here’s a Review of Her ‘The Niagara River’

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Kay Ryan has been named the next poet laureate of the United States, succeeding Charles Simic. This is a repost of a review of her The Niagara River, which appeared on this site on Dec. 23, 2006.

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: October 2005

Furthermore: For more on Ryan, see her biography and her poem “Nothing Ventured” on the site for the Academy of American Poets www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/352. She lives in California. To read the New York Times article on her appointment as poet laureate, click here www.nytimes.com/2008/07/17/books/17poet.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.

FYI: Poems in this collection have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and elsewhere.

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 25, 2008

The Underworld on a String: Poet Louise Glück’s ‘Averno’

A former poet laureate meditates on a crater lake near Naples that the ancient Romans believed to be the gateway to hell

Averno. By Louise Glück. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Louise Glück writes about figures from Greek mythology as though they might show up tomorrow in a laundry room at Yale, where she teaches. Orpheus and Eurydice, Aeneas and Dido, Achilles and Patroclus – she knows them better than many of us know our relatives, well enough to claim the right to explain them to others.

In her latest collection of poems, Glück recasts story of Persephone, the personification of spring. In most retellings of the myth, Persephone is a man’s victim: She is abducted by the king of the underworld and partially ransomed by her mother, Demeter, who arranges for her to spend two-thirds of the year on earth and one-third in hell. Glück envisions the tale instead “as an argument between the mother and the lover / the daughter is just meat.” In this Freudian version, Persephone is her mother’s victim as much as a man’s.

This interpretation suggests the fatalistic vision of Averno, a collection of linked poems that glide back and forth between myth and modern life. Averno is a crater lake west of Naples that the ancient Romans saw as the gateway to the underworld and that Glück uses as a unifying metaphor for a book about the dialogue between life and death that intensifies in the last trimester of life. In her title poem and others, she returns to a theme introduced in her earlier work, an idea that’s a sophisticated variation on the sign the Grim Reaper often carries in cartoons: “Prepare to meet thy doom.” She delivers an italicized warning in “October”: “You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.”

Glück too good a poet to allow this idea to devolve into a parody of a televangelist’s message, and her book has a grim integrity lacking in the work of poets who serve up Splenda in quatrains. Even so, the fatalism at times borders on oppressive. It’s a relief when a spark of hope ignites at the end of “October”: “Surely it is a privilege to approach the end / still believing in something.”

Best/worst line: This is the rare book in which the best and worst lines are the same. In “The Night Migrations” Glück wonders how the soul will find comfort after death. She concludes that “maybe just not being is simply enough / hard as that is to imagine.” The idea “not being” might be “enough” is perhaps the memorable in the book. But the adverbs weaken it, especially that “simply,” which seems to serve no purpose except that of scansion.

Published: 2006 (hardcover), 2007 (paperback) www.fsgbooks.com

Furthermore: Glück won a Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris. She was the 2003–2004 U.S. poet laureate. You can hear her read “October” at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16723.

Consider reading also: The short poem “Demeter at Yellowstone” in Deena Linnet’s Woman Crossing a Field: Poems/American Poets Continuum Series (BOA Editions, $14.95, paperback) www.boaeditions.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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