The Niagara River
Grove Press: 72 pp., $13 paper
KAY RYAN's poems are thin, short scrolls, barely wider than popsicle sticks. She's easy to dismiss as cute. She's not. Ryan may be a miniaturist, but she doesn't try to contain the world in a grain of sand, or eternity in an hour. Hers is a small, sensible voice of wisdom, one that knows that our huge Western ideas of self are so much blustery untruth. She believes that propriety and small motions are the only thing that can really save anyone, although even these might not work. She's like Virginia Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway, but with her expansiveness tamed (and her taste sharpened) by a decade in a Zen monastery.
Most poets writing in English are descendants of the Romantics, whose fascination with childhood gave rise to 20th century confessional poetry, a trend now so overblown that many writers mine their pasts like prospectors eager to make an emotional buck. Not Ryan, who keeps her privacy and writes with the terse precision of a good knife, as in "The Self Is Not Portable" from her sixth book of poetry, "The Niagara River":
The self is not
cannot be packed.
It comes sneaking
back to any place
from which it's
for it is nothing alone.
It is not an entity.
The ratio of self
to home: one part
Ryan understands that most of us will leave no greater markers than gravestones: "A life should leave / deep tracks / ruts where she / went out and back / to get the mail ... where she used to / stand before the sink / a worn-out place.... " It's implied that even these markers do not materialize. Her poems embrace the quiet horror that the self is not necessarily strong enough to survive.
Ryan, who teaches remedial English at the College of Marin in Northern California, is an outsider. Where some poets create a persona with which to court the public eye, Ryan keeps to herself. Of a poet's need to protect her solitude, Ryan writes in Poetry magazine, "I think poets should take the lesson of the great aromatic eucalyptus tree and poison the soil beneath us."
Possibly because of this need to be alone, Ryan is deeply concerned with propriety in the architecture of daily life. In "The Light of Interiors," for instance, she writes of how a table with flowers becomes an island of safety. In another poem, she writes of how "rhetorical beaches" give protection from the "onslaught of the sea of objectionable people."
She praises the "fake spots" in people, because they are wedges that help preserve what is truly "precious." Yet the next poem is about how an object can become too fake, too "conjured." She finds and handles the razor edges of daily life with no more protection than a careful vocabulary. Reading Ryan, it's easy to begin to view the small rules of human conduct as life preservers -- our only protection against drowning.
Ryan's is a scary world where knowledge is a thin veneer we throw over chaos, "a skin of ice / over a pond / only birds might / confidently walk upon." Westerners used to know this, at least until Wordsworth started looking at mountains and imbuing them with consciousness. (Nature as a wise and scary thing coming after you is less scary than a Nature that can't even give a damn.) The world Ryan gives us has a sense of life's futility. And although she probably has a decent philosopher in her, it's in her poetic tropes that terror lies: in "painful cabinets"; in noise that gets "its zest from the / small shark's-tooth- / shaped fragments / of rest angled / in it"; or in the thought that "tenderness and rot / share a border."
Ryan is a poet that I, as a Westerner, would be happy to show to any culture in the world. As English becomes more and more global, its poetry needs to follow. In a few places her poems snap shut a bit too tidily, as if the poem had found a nifty way out of its argument, but these are few. Would that all physicians and metaphysicians had Ryan's precision, her ability to find the terse heart where poetry and philosophy meet.
Laurel Maury is a contributor to Book Review and an editorial assistant for the New Yorker.