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The Niagara River by Kay Ryan (Grove Press)

Newly appointed U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan is the author of
six collections of poetry, including Say
Uncle
, Elephant Rocks and Flamingo Watching, which was a finalist
for the Lamont Book Award and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.

Ryan’s most recent book, The
Niagara River
, published in 2005 and winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize,
is a collection of short, intense poems that are packed with music. Like Ryan’s
other five books, the poems in The
Niagara River
leave the reader reeling with either a question or a profound
insight — and sometimes both.

In the title poem, "The Niagara River," Ryan
explores the familiar concept of life as a river or body of water, and somehow
it re-emerges as fresh and astute:

We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.

Likewise, in the poem "The Elephant in the Room,"
Ryan breaks down the cliché, imagining the elephant as a "sense"
rather than an actual presence, and suddenly the tired expression seems even
more accurate:

There are just
places in the room
that we bounce off
when we come up
against; not something
we feel we have to
announce.

Many of Ryan’s lines resonate outside the context of the
poem. In "Caps," she writes, "People should be/open on top like
a cup." In "Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard," she begins with the
lines "A life should leave/deep tracks," and then eventually works
her way back to "Things shouldn’t/be so hard."

In the appointment of Ryan as the country’s16th
Poet Laureate,
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington stated: "Kay Ryan is a
distinctive and original voice within the rich variety of contemporary American
poetry. She writes easily understandable short poems on improbable subjects.
Within her compact compositions there are many surprises in rhyme and rhythm
and in sly wit pointing to subtle wisdom."

Ryan, who is known for living a quiet life with her partner
of 30 years, Carol Adair, has said that she considers "all good poetry as
providing more oxygen into the atmosphere; it just makes it easier to breathe."

Even the poem "The Well or the Cup," about the
complications of love, captures Ryan’s brevity and almost lighthearted play on
sound despite the serious subject matter:

How can
you tell
at the start
what you
can give away
and what
you must hold
to your heart.
What is
the well
and what is
a cup. Some
people get
drunk up.

How could you not want to continue reading?

 

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