Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Let's start the day ...

... with `Home to Roost'. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Rather than comment, I thought I'd post my review of Kay Ryan's The Niagara River.

The Niagara River

By Kay Ryan

Grove. 72 pp. $13

Much of the pleasure that comes from reading Kay Ryan involves just looking at the poem on the page and seeing how well put-together it is, how sound and sense aren't simply joined but fused. Take "Weak Forces," for instance:

I enjoy an accumulating

faith in weak forces -

a weak faith, of course,

easily shaken, but also

easily regained - in what

starts to drift: all the

slow untrainings of the mind,

the sift left of resolve

sustained too long, the

strange internal shift

by which there's no knowing

if this is the road taken

or untaken. There are soft

affinities, possibly electrical;

lint-like congeries; moonlit

hints; asymmetrical pink

glowy spots that are not

the defeat of something,

I don't think.

The title, of course, alludes to one of the fundamental forces of nature, which underlies certain kinds of radioactivity as well as some interactions among subatomic particles.

So consider, first, the subtlety of the poem's verbal music: regained rhymes with sustained, but in between them comes untrainings, one of several words in the poem containing ing. Other words harmonize with ing - pink and think, which also rhyme with each other. Nicely spaced as well are drift and sift and shift - then comes soft. Notice lint and hints, and "spots that are not. "

Next consider how the lines fit with one another. That first line - "I enjoy an accumulating" - can be taken as a statement all by itself. The "faith in weak forces" of the second line can be taken to be an example of what it takes to "enjoy accumulating," but can also be read as a continuation of the first line, so that what we are talking about is "an accumulating faith," specifically "in weak forces. " Ignoring for a moment what is said between the dashes, what one has is "an accumulating faith in weak forces . . . in what / starts to drift. "

The complex of meaning that results from how these words and lines relate to each other is what gives the poem its heft, enabling it to demonstrate, rather than merely state, its Taoist point: That a force, however weak, is still a force - a strength - and affinities, congeries, hints, and spots, however electrical, lintlike, moonlit, or asymmetrical, do not represent the defeat of anything. Faith, though easily shaken, may be easily regained by untraining the mind, losing a resolve sustained too long, no longer worrying if one has taken the right road or any road at all.

This is Kay Ryan's sixth collection. All have been small gatherings of short poems. But though the poems are short, they are, invariably, as concentrated as diamonds. They tend to be about exactly what their titles say they are about - "Tired Blood," "Atlas," "The Elephant in the Room" - just not in the way one expects.

So the blood isn't tired, "so much as freighted. " And "there is so little / others can do" for Atlas, since "they can't / lend a hand / with Brazil / and not stand / on Peru. " As for that elephant, "it isn't so much . . . as an elephant / sense . . . mostly a guess . . . not something / we feel we have to / announce. "

Ryan helps us see afresh the world we tend to take for granted. She is exactly what John Hall Wheelock said a genuine poet always is: "an eye that watches in secret, an ear that would / Listen for what can only be overheard / A mouth to tell us something we have forgotten. "


  1. Frank~ I love kay Ryan's poem. I need more, now. It's like an elixir. An antidote for chronic loss of content in the words I read all day.

  2. I'll get you some more. Let me know what you have, so I don't duplicate. I should have had you come down last year; You could have met her. She's just as great to meet and talk to as she is to read.