In the citation accompanying Kay's recent award of the prestigious Ruth Lilly Prize, Christine Wiman wrote: "Kay Ryan can take any subject and make it her own. Her poems-which combine extreme concision and formal expertise with broad subjects and deep feeling-could never be mistaken for anyone else's. Her work has the kind of singularity and sustained integrity that are very, very rare
. It's always a dicey business predicting the literary future
[but] for this reader, these poems feel as if there were built to last, and
they have the passion, precision and sheer weirdness to do so."
Salon compared the poems in Ryan's last collection to "Fabergé eggs, tiny, ingenious devices that inevitably conceal some hidden wonder." The exquisite poems in The Niagara River provide similarly hidden gems. Bafflingly effective, they seem too brief and blithe to pack so much wallop. Intense and relaxed at once, both buoyant and rueful, their singular music appeals to many people. Her poems, products of an immaculately off-kilter mind, have been featured everywhere from the Sunday funnies to New York subways to plaques at the zoo to the pages of The New Yorker.
Read an Excerpt
The Niagara River
As though the river were a floor, we position our table and chairs upon it, eat, and have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice — as calmly as though dining room paintings were being replaced —
the changing scenes along the shore. We do know, we do know this is the Niagara River, but it is hard to remember what that means.
Home to Roost
The chickens are circling and blotting out the day. The sun is bright, but the chickens are in the way. Yes,
the sky is dark with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and then they turn again. These are the chickens you let loose one at a time and small —
Now they have come home to roost — all the same kind at the same speed.
Carrying a Ladder
We are always really carrying a ladder, but it's invisible. We only know something's the matter:
something precious crashes; easy doors prove impassable.
Or, in the body,
there's too much swing or offcenter gravity.
And, in the mind,
a drunken capacity,
access to out-of-range apples. As though one had a way to climb out of the damage and apology.
Everything contains some silence. Noise gets its zest from the small shark's-toothshaped fragments of rest angled in it. An hour of city holds maybe a minute of these remnants of a time when silence reigned,
compact and dangerous as a shark. Sometimes a bit of a tail or fin can still be sensed in parks.
Crow school is basic and short as a rule —
just the rudiments of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out his unenlightened span, adding his bit of blight to the collected history of pushing out the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the swagger of his aggravating ancestors down my street.
And every time I like him when we meet.
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 Elephant in the Room
It isn't so much a complete elephant as an elephant sense — perhaps pillar legs supporting a looming mass,
beyond which it's mostly a guess.
In any case, we manage with relative ease. There are just places in the room that we bounce off when we come up against; not something we feel we have to announce.
A Ball Rolls on a Point
The whole ball of who we are presses into the green baize at a single tiny spot. An aural track of crackle betrays our passage through the fibrous jungle.
It's hot and desperate. Insects spring out of it.
The pressure is intense, and the sense that we've lost proportion.
As though bringing too much to bear too locally were our decision.
The Best of It
However carved up or pared down we get,
we keep on making the best of it as though it doesn't matter that our acre's down to a square foot. As though our garden could be one bean and we'd rejoice if it flourishes, as though one bean could nourish us.
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.
I was shipwrecked beneath a stormless sky in a sea shallow enough to stand up in.
— Fernando Pessoa
They're laughable when we get there —
the ultimate articulations of despair: trapped in a tub filling with our own tears, strapped to a breadstick mast a mouse could chew down, hopping around the house in paper shackles wrist and ankle. It's always stagey. Being lost is just one's fancy —
some cloth, some paste —
the essence of flimsy.
Therefore we double don't know why we don't take off the Crusoe rags, step off the island, bow from the waist, accept your kudos.
The Other Shoe
Oh if it were only the other shoe hanging in space before joining its mate.
If the undropped didn't congregate with the undropped.
But nothing can stop the midair collusion of the unpaired above us acquiring density and weight. We feel it accumulate.
Extreme exertion isolates a person from help,
Once a certain shoulder-to-burden ratio collapses,
there is so little others can do:
they can't lend a hand with Brazil and not stand on Peru.
He Lit A Fire with Icicles
For W. G. Sebald, 1944–2001
This was the work of St. Sebolt, one of his miracles:
he lit a fire with icicles. He struck them like a steel to flint, did St.
Sebolt. It makes sense only at a certain body heat. How cold he had to get to learn that ice would burn. How cold he had to stay.
When he could feel his feet he had to back away.
For Joseph Brodsky, 1940–1996
All that's left of him is rats' tails.
There's a fate I could envy.
— Joseph Brodsky
Let's say some day all that's left of him is rats' tails,
just scattered bits of script:
a loose e,
an s or two,
a g, an almostn.
If he had hands he'd rub them as the test begins:
to see how little will suggest the rat again.
In the wake of horrible events each act or word is fortified with added significance,
unabsorbable as nutrients added to the outside of food: it can't do any good.
As if significance weren't burdensome enough. Now the wave-slapped beach rocks not just made to talk but made to teach.
The bird walks 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.
goes the emperor down his wide mirrored promenade the sea bows to repolish.
They are beachless basins, steep-edged catches, unnatural bodies of water wedged into canyons, stranded anti-mirages unable to vanish or moisten a landscape of cactus adapted to thrift, a wasteland to creatures who chew one another or grasses for moisture. Nothing here matches their gift.
Like a storm of hornets, the little white planets layer and relayer as they whip around in their high orbits,
getting more and more dense before they crash against our crust. A maelstrom of ferocious little fists and punches,
so hard to believe once it's past.
We expect rain to animate this creek: these rocks to harbor gurgles,
these pebbles to creep downstream a little, those leaves to circle in the eddy, the stains and gloss of wet.
The bed is ready but no rain yet.
Their green flanks and swells are not flesh in any sense matching ours,
we tell ourselves.
Nor their green breast nor their green shoulder nor the languor of their rolling over.
Things besides Aladdin's and the golden cave fish's lamps grant wishes.
most lamps aren't lampshaped and happen by accident: an ordinary knob goes lambent as you twist or a cloth turns to silver mesh against a dish —
something so odd and filled with promise for a minute that you spend your only wish wishing someone else could see it.
Tenderness and Rot
Tenderness and rot share a border.
And rot is an aggressive neighbor whose iridescence keeps creeping over.
No lessons can be drawn from this however.
One is not two countries.
One is not meat corrupting.
It is important to stay sweet and loving.
Tar babies are not the children of tar people.
It is far worse.
The tar baby occurs spontaneously nor do we adhere at first. There is an especially unperverse attractiveness to the tar baby —
although currently she is a little sick.
When you start to help her is when she starts to stick.
Well, not tired
so much as freighted.
As though foreign objects had invaded.
As though tiny offices had dumped their metal furniture among the glossy lozenges and platelets —
chairs that stick together,
The egg-sucking fox licks his copper chops.
The shell cups lie scattered from the orange debauch.
It is honest straightforward theft —
unlike whatever cruel thing steals thought
the full weight left and the locked room still locked.
Not scattered legions,
not a dozen from a single region for whom accent matters, not a sevenmember coven,
not five shirttail cousins; just one free citizen —
maybe not alive now even — who will know with exquisite gloom that only we two ever found this room.
People should be open on top like a cup.
A piece of bread should be able to sop some of us up.
We should be milk-like or like wine. We should not have to be trying to get our caps off all the time.
The storybook boy attempts the simple gesture of baring his head for his emperor,
but another hat has appeared.
This happens over and over.
Who does not share his despair of simplicity,
of acting clearly and with dignity?
And what pleasure can we find in the caps, brightly feathered and infinitely various,
that pile up so high they bury us?
How anything is known is so thin —
a skin of ice over a pond only birds might confidently walk upon. A bird's worth of weight or one bird-weight of Wordsworth.
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.
Little has been made of the soft skirting action of magnets reversed,
while much has been made of attraction.
But is it not this pillowy principle of repulsion that produces the doily edges of oceans or the arabesques of thought?
And do these cutout coasts and in-curved rhetorical beaches not baffle the onslaught of the sea or objectionable people and give private life what small protection it's got?
Praise then the oiled motions of avoidance, the pearly convolutions of all that slides off or takes a wide berth; praise every eddying vacancy of Earth,
all the dimpled depths of pooling space, the whole swirl set up by fending off —
extending far beyond the personal,
I'm convinced —
immense and good in a cosmological sense:
unpressing us against each other, lending the necessary never
Blue China Doorknob
I was haunted by the image of a blue china doorknob.
I never used the doorknob, or knew what it meant,
yet somehow it started the current of images.
— Robert Lowell
Rooms may be using us. We may be the agents of doorknobs'
purposes, obeying imperatives china dreams up or pacing dimensions determined by cabinets. And if we're their instruments —
the valves of their furious trumpets,
conscripted but ignorant of it —
the strange, unaccountable things we betray were never our secrets anyway.
The wreck is a fact.
The worst has happened.
The salvage trucks back in and the salvage men begin to sort and stack,
whistling as they work.
Thanks be to God — again —
for extractable elements which are not carriers of pain,
for this periodic table at which the self-taught salvagers disassemble the unthinkable to the unthought.
Almost Without Surface
Sometimes before going to sleep a person senses the give behind the last given,
like the strain of plush against a skin.
The person imagines a fig or peach,
perhaps a woman or a deep constellation:
some fathomless fruit.
But we are each that, while we live,
however much we resist: almost without surface, barely contained,
but crazy as clouds compounding each other, refusing to rain.
The Light of Interiors
The light of interiors is the admixture of who knows how many doors ajar, windows casually curtained,
unblinded or opened,
oculi set into ceilings,
wells, ports, shafts,
loose fits, leaks,
and other breaches of surface. But, in any case, the light,
once in, bounces toward the interior,
glancing off glassy enamels and polishes,
softened by the scuffed and often-handled, muffled in carpet and toweling,
buffeted down hallways,
baffled equally by the scatter and order of love and failure to an ideal and now sourceless texture which,
when mixed with silence,
makes of a simple table with flowers an island.
THINGS SHOULDN'T BE SO HARD
A life should leave deep tracks:
ruts where she went out and back to get the mail or move the hose around the yard;
where she used to stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand the china knobs rubbed down to white pastilles;
the switch she used to feel for in the dark almost erased.
Her things should keep her marks.
The passage of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space —
however small —
should be left scarred by the grand and damaging parade.
Things shouldn't be so hard.
Sometimes there's suddenly no way to get from one part to another, as though the past were a frozen lake breaking up. But not from the top; not because it's warmer up here; it's not.
But from underneath for some reason —
perhaps some heat trapped on its own for so long it's developed seasons.
Lightning, but not bright.
Thunder, but not loud.
Sometimes something in the sky connects to something in 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.
Like air in rocks, fake spots got here really far back.
Everything is part caulk.
Some apartments in apartment blocks are blanks;
some steeples are shims. Also in people: parts are wedges: and,
to the parts they keep apart, precious.
Some days one gets the in but not the out part of the rabbit/hat trick.
And the longer a creature stays,
the worse it sticks.
Dispatch means so much, one remembers again.
A thing can get too conjured for legerdemain.
Each escape involved some art,
some hokum, and at least a brief incomprehensible exchange between man and metal during which the chains were not so much broken as he and they blended. At the end of each such mix he had to extract himself. It was the hardest part to get right routinely: breaking back into the same Houdini.
Hide and Seek
It's hard not to jump out instead of waiting to be found. It's hard to be alone so long and then hear someone come around. It's like some form of skin's developed in the air that, rather than have torn,
Is it vision or the lack that brings me back to the principle of least action,
by which in one branch of rabbinical thought the world might become the Kingdom of Peace not through the tumult and destruction necessary for a New Start but by adjusting little parts a little bit — turning a cup a quarter inch or scooting up a bench.
It imagines an incremental resurrection,
a radiant body puzzled out through tinkering with the fit of what's available.
As though what is is right already but askew. It is tempting for any person who would like to love what she can do.
A pitcher molds the air in it, dividing from the air beyond the air it holds. And should the pitcher vanish, something would take a minute to escape, a gradually diminishing integrity,
a thinning pitcherful of pitcher shape.
Who knows better than the builder not to trust a structure, where it's off kilter,
how too few rafters bear too much roof?
And still it may stand, proof against craft,
strong as though ghost ribs had been added after one left.
There is a big figure, your age,
crawling, then standing, now beginning to bend as he crosses the stage. Or she. A blurred and generalized projection of you and me. For a long time it seems as remote from the self as the ape chart where they rise up and walk into man.
And then it seems the realer part.
Nothing Getting Past
If life is a thin film sandwiched between twin immensities of nothing,
you get the best taste of this out west in the open country where a keen could mean the double scrape of nothing almost touching nothing or the wind coming through dry grass. In either case it's pretty close to nothing getting past.
The ratio between the material Cornell collected and the material that ended up in his boxes was probably a thousand to one.
— Deborah Solomon, Utopia Parkway
Whatever is done leaves a hole in the possible, a snip in the gauze, a marble and thimble missing from the immaterial.
The laws are cruel on this point. The undone can't be patched or stretched.
The wounds last.
The bundles of nothing that are our gift at birth, the lavish trains we trail into our span like vans of seamless promise, like fresh sheets in baskets,
are our stock. We must extract parts to do work. As time passes, the promise is tattered like a battle flag above a war we hope mattered.
The Self Is Not Portable
The self is not portable. It cannot be packed.
It comes sneaking back to any place from which it's been extracted,
for it is nothing alone.
It is not an entity.
The ratio of self to home: one part in seventy.
On The Difficulty of Drawing Oneself Up
One does not stack.
It would be like a mouse on the back of a mouse on a mouse's back.
Courses of mice,
layers of shivers and whiskers,
a wobbling tower mouse-wide,
with nothing more than a mouse inside.
It isn't ever all green thought in green shade,
is it? When even a duck pivots beak-down in pursuit of the succulent options that tuck and cling among the dangling roots of an emerald dream,
parts stay so independent they seem foreign. With the duck, for example,
the improbable curl-peaked eider island that bobbles above him.
No more water for 80 miles or gas or beer. If you need some get it here.
It's just a gap between stations,
a serviceless hiatus — only your last chance in that sense —
really no more than a glimpse.
There are high places that don't invite us,
sharp shapes, glacierscraped faces, whole ranges whose given names slip off. Any such relation as we try to make refuses to take. Some high lakes are not for us,
some slick escarpments.
I'm giddy with thinking where thinking can't stick.
Excerpted from "The Niagara River"
Copyright © 2005 Kay Ryan.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Niagara River,
Home To Roost,
Carrying A Ladder,
The Elephant in the Room,
A Ball Rolls on a Point,
The Best Of It,
Chinese Foot Chart,
The Other Shoe,
He Lit a Fire with Icicles,
Tenderness and Rot,
Blue China Doorknob,
Almost Without Surface,
The Light of Interiors,
Things Shouldn't Be So Hard,
Hide and Seek,
Nothing Getting Past,
The Self Is Not Portable,
On the Difficulty of Drawing Oneself Up,
Still Life, with Her Things,
The Well or the Cup,
Absences and Breaks,
Green Behind the Ears,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Compact poems, satisfying in their brevity and weird music/rhymes, as if no one's rhymed quite that way, quite like that before. Real wit and fresh turns on trite and familiar sayings/sentiments. She manages to evoke quite a bit with few strokes--at times they feel like sayings or aphorisms, perhaps a little too neat and tidy, though. A comparison to Cornell boxes is apt.