The Niagara River by Kay Ryan

Review by Diane Sahms-Guarnieri

Kay Ryan’s The Niagara River (her sixth collection) is like driving a compact car.  Its short poems are a quick read with lots of quirky language that can fit into any small- sized parking space in the reader’s mind.  Despite the quick read, these poems possess an explicit seriousness and cleverness, as well as a keen and creative awareness about life.    The first poem in Ryan’s book is her title poem, The Niagara River.  In this poem, the speaker is having a meal atop the Niagara River; as the current moves the people dining along, the paintings are changing scenes/along the shore.  This 18 lined poem, with no more than seven syllables per line, concludes: We/we do know, we do/know this is the/ Niagara , but /it is hard to remember/ what that means.  Undersized in format this poem has immense strength like the Niagara River itself – a calm, petite poem until its end punch.  An abrupt ending, harsh and ambiguous, like the surprise of a powerful waterfall at the end of a calm and delightful meal, and it comes at us without a question mark (?). An overpowering question about meaning: the river’s meaning, life’s meaning …without answer! Compared to Emily Dickinson, who utilized shortened lines and condense verse, Kay Ryan’s shortened lines have a flow to them, enjambment.  Emily’s lines were sharp, quick with lots of punctuation marks.  Conversely, Kay’s lines flow, ironically like a river.    She possesses a command of line breaks and syllables that is quite amazing, even tricky.  In fact, readers of  her poetry may not notice during their initial read that a majority (if not all of her lines) in a given poem have an average of five or less syllables per line, as if while writing her poems, she uses one hand to write with and the another  hand to tap out syllables.  (Note: There are the occasional 6 or 7 syllabic lines within several of her poems.)    Further, all of the poems in this book are formatted the same (with the exception of two), that is, all poems are tightly aligned at the left margin and appear like a long Roman column.  The two poems in the entire collection that are different have stanzas.  The short syllabic lines and her unchanging format have not hindered the appreciation of her poems, by any standards set by the vogue poetry world of today.  This is because her style, wit, cleverness, and strong mixed metaphors are prevalent in this body of work that has won her The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. The Niagara River can be found at this link: The Niagara River: Poems (Grov…

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