cover image The Niagara River

The Niagara River

Kay Ryan, . . Grove, $13 (72pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-4222-1

In two or three shifty sentences per short-lined poem, Ryan brazenly questions the extent to which we are in control of, and thus responsible for, our own and others' suffering. Her work, in this sixth collection, operates in an American tradition stretching from Dickinson through Stevens and Frost to Ammons and Bronk, where fidelity to the natural world works as a scrim for staging such self-exploration. Observing how we tolerate (and even invite) all kinds of limits on relationships and growth, the poet, over the course of 60-odd short lyrics, charts the false progress of cultivation: "we keep on making / the best of it as though/ ...our garden/ could be one bean/ and we'd rejoice if/ it flourishes, as/ though one bean/ could nourish us." As a group of friends float toward the inevitable falls, the Niagara River becomes a metaphor for arrogance in the face of greater forces: "we do/ know this is the/ Niagara River, but/ it is hard to remember/ what that means." Action, here, is more a way of heading off inevitable loss than claiming agency: "It's/ like some form/ of skin's developed/ in the air/ that, rather/ than have torn,/ you tear." Empathic and wryly unforgiving of the human condition, the poems are equal parts pith and punch. The effect is bracing. (Nov.)