Kay Ryan. The Niagara River.
IN The Niagara River, Kay Ryan delights with flashes of insight and recognition that emerge quickly and briefly from relatively mundane starting points. These poems are sometimes comprised of as little as one comparison of two things, the poems depending on the originality and freshness of the comparison. Here is a typically successful poem titled "Chop": "The bird / walls down / the beach along / the glazed edge / the last wave / reached. His / each step makes / a perfect stamp-- / smallish, but as / sharp as an / emperor's chop. / Stride, stride, / goes the emperor / down his wide / mirrored promenade / the sea bows / to repolish." This poem is exact, focused, lean, and effective; the image is memorable. Here's another example, "Chinese Foot Chart": "Every part of us / alerts another part. / Press a spot in / the tender arch and / feel the scalp / twitch. We are no / match for ourselves / but our own release. / Each touch / uncatches some / remote lock. Look, / boats of mercy / embark from / our heart at the / oddest knock." Of course, the final image in this poem is what's striking and memorable, but here we have occasion to observe some less satisfying things.
Ryan's poems often may have memorable and fresh tropes, but seldom if ever memorable lines; she has opted for the painful legacy of William Carlos Williams, the broken spine of the iambic pentameter line, the easy, chopped-up prose lineation of much contemporary free verse. While reading the poem "Chop," I could not help noticing its kinship with Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Sandpiper," with its up-close, focused eye and intimate detail, yet the kinship highlights the differences. Consider these lines from Bishop's poem: "The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet / of interrupting water comes and goes / and glazes over his dark and brittle feet."
Ryan's poems are also often pedantic, which is not a fault, especially when they teach something worthy and delightful, as they often do. Nevertheless, too many, for my taste, seem to depend on some final observation or trope to save what is otherwise a pretty mundane poem, as in the poem "Chinese Foot Chart" quoted above. This tendency to hinge a poem's success on some final aphoristic click is common in Ryan's work, and while it is often exhilarating the first time through, the poems seldom invite me back. I think of the well-met first encounter of a person whose life is entirely on the surface--pleasant enough but no need for a second encounter. If Ryan ever takes an interest in some of the other things that poems and language can do, she will be unsurpassable.
In the meantime, we still have Kay Ryan's best moments to savor, as in the poem "Stardust": "Stardust is / the hardest thing / to hold out for. / You must / make of yourself / a perfect plane-- / something still / upon which / something settles-- / something like / sugar grains on / something like / metal, but with / none of the chill. / It's hard to explain."
University of South Carolina