The Niagara River by Kay Ryan
Kay Ryan calls, in The Niagara River, for a “Backward Miracle” -- that is, “a sacramental/ refusal to multiply/ reclaiming the/ single loaf/ and the single/ fish thereby.” To claim that Ryan herself is such a miracle would be to engage in the kind of overstatement she eschews. But to say that her poems comprise something close to a backward miracle -- at least among those of her contemporaries -- is a statement difficult to refute. In a poetry world cluttered with bombast, pretense and irony, Ryan’s poems, much like her wished-for miracle, “strip language/ make it hold for/ a minute.”
Her poems literally hold language in one’s mind by withstanding, and often necessitating, multiple readings. The poems in this collection (much like those in Ryan’s previous books) are so durable because they’re constructed differently than many of their contemporary counterparts, requiring a slower kind of work from readers’ minds. That is, rather than using the world’s words and symbols to reveal hidden meanings, Ryan takes for granted what’s hidden and uses it to open our eyes to the perfectly tangible -- yet still somehow inexplicable -- world around us.
In “Carrying a Ladder,” for instance, Ryan explains that “We are always/ really carrying/ a ladder, but it’s/ invisible”; nonetheless, it makes “easy doors/ prove impassable” and at the same time gives us “a way to climb/ out of the damage/ and apology.” Ryan uses this ladder as a metaphor for innate human capacity, which, though invisible, can both burden and uplift us. And by taking the ladder as innate and given, she makes a small myth to explain why things work they way they do -- a myth not unlike those of ancient Greeks or Romans. For like the ancients, Ryan seems to find the world much more amazing and worthy of explanation than most contemporary Americans (including the poets) do.
Her wonderment and curiosity might explain why so many poems in The Niagara River read like explanatory myths or fables. “Shark’s Teeth,” for one, posits that “Noise gets/ its zest from the/ small shark’s-tooth-/ shaped fragments/ of rest angled/ in it.” Sometimes, even, “a bit of a tail/ or fin can still/ be sensed in parks.” By making as solid as a shark’s tooth something as abstract as the “zest” of noise, Ryan once again reverses the tangible and the intangible, inverting our assumptions about what is self-evident and what is mysterious. She is always, in fact, turning things in on themselves, as in “Reverse Drama”:
Lightning, but not bright.
Thunder, but not loud.
in the sky connects
to something on the ground
in ways we don’t expect
and more or less miss except
through reverse drama:
things were heightened
and now they’re calmer.
This poem deepens the implication that it is not a thing’s tangible properties (such as lightning’s brightness) that define it, but instead some abstract fundamental quality (such as its lightningness).
But as it happens, the inversion with the greatest import turns out to be not Ryan’s, but our own. In the title poem, she wonders that, “As though/ the river were/ a floor.../ we notice -- as/ calmly as though/ dining room paintings/ were being replaced --/ the changing scenes/ along the shore.” She expresses astonishment here at our collective apathy about the ever-changing world around us, and seems to assume, given the river’s name, that we are headed for something we don’t expect. This, coupled with the idea of our floor being a river, clearly implies that maybe even the things we think of as most solid and tangible are, in fact, the opposites of what they seem.
Ryan’s seemingly backward way of working, then, ends up showing us that we are the ones approaching things the inside-out way. We’re jumping the gun, she seems to suggest, by searching for the meaning behind everything. Maybe we should start by wondering, for once, about what’s right in front of us.
The Niagara River by Kay Ryan