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Review of Odd Blocks by John Redmond - Poetry Matters, December 2011
‘I wanted to see what a fortunate life would produce.’ So Kay Ryan has remarked of a poetic career which, after a slow start, has won her many garlands, including a laureateship and a Pulitzer Prize. Her deeply attractive work disproves the claim that happiness writes white. Specialising in short poems with short lines, her writing is not so much formal as formed. Sonnets, triolets, and villanelles are eschewed in favour of nameless poetic shapes which are as intricately worked as the innards of a prizewinning clock. Of course, short lines can achieve different things: one thinks of the mesmeric psychology of Laura Riding, the sonorous ceremony of Seamus Heaney, the elemental flexibility of A. R. Ammons. Here, they deliver the velvet punch of the proverbial. Take, for example, ‘Failure’:Previous review of 'Odd Blocks'... Next review of 'Odd Blocks'... To the 'Odd Blocks' page...
is in general.
While it may be possible to argue with any particular proverb it is impossible to argue with the proverbial. Because they leave no flank exposed, nothing for a hostile reader to spike, such bursts of armour-plated wisdom are often favoured by careful, reticent writers. ‘Failure’, like many a Ryan poem, strikes us principally on two levels: firstly, with the force of something vitally true, something profound and heavy, secondly, with the force of its sonic play, as something unconquerably cheerful and light. It is this contrasting double-punch, I think, which makes them so successful. The short lines of ‘Failure’ allow the words ‘green’ and ‘emerald’ to marry in ‘general’, ‘tank’ and ‘deepening’ merge in ‘dank’, and the word ‘slime’ is (slimily) redistributed across the sounds of ‘ephemeral/efflorescence’. This is an example of what Ryan calls ‘re-combinant rhyme’, a method which she developed in the seventies and eighties at a time when straightforward rhyme seemed like old hat. This recuperation of rhyme, restoring it in a modern guise, is something shared with some of the better poets of recent years — witness Muldoon’s extravagant use of pararhyme, R. F. Langley’s deft internal chiming, and Robert Minhinnick’s souped-up versions of cynghanedd.
Fortunate Ryan’s life might have been, but the poetry has a definite toughness, a hard-bitten core, which puts one in mind of Robert Frost or Flannery O’Connor. Her early upbringing was spent, partly, in the unforgiving environs of the Mojave Desert. Her father was a Willie-Loman-style chaser of the American Dream who nurtured a set of get-rich schemes to disaster. His doomed efforts as a gold-miner perhaps account for Ryan’s preoccupations not only with minerals but more generally with what lies beneath:
... Why does something
stacked in some secret bank or cabinet,
some miser’s trove, far back, lambent,
and gloated over by its golem, make us
so solemnly convinced of the transaction
when Mandelstam says gold, even
Yin to her father’s yang, Ryan’s mother was a nervous introvert who struggled to cope when her husband died young. But she did have a playful side which Ryan, in a Paris Review interview fondly remembers:
She might take these scissors and set them over there on the floor so that when she noticed them again she would remember that she had to turn off the hose. She would have a variety of displaced objects sitting around on the rug. I loved her doing that.
It’s not too much, I think, to see this surrealistic re-ordering of the humdrum in her poetry’s unexpected juxtapositions. One could easily imagine her ‘Crustacean Island’, for example, being painted by Max Ernst:
It would be an island blessed
with only cold-blooded residents
and no human angle.
It would echo with a thousand castanets
and no flamencos.
While British writing of the 1930s was notorious for its obsession with boundaries — they were nearly always a matter of anxiety and regret — Ryan, equally obsessed with edges, regards them with an amiable calm:
Edges are the most powerful parts of the poem. The more edges you have the more power you have. They make the poem more permeable, more exposed.
Her poems suggest that the world, and all the divisions we can carve in it, is as it is. We can make and imagine it otherwise — true — but we don’t have to imagine it will turn out as we wish. In so far as the poems are anti-utopian, they might be misinterpreted as quietistic, or even reactionary (I doubt that she would have gone down particularly well either in the 1930s or the 1960s.) At the heart of Ryan’s sensibility is something abstract and geometrical. She is apt to convert any subject-matter into a spectrum of behaviours, habits, events, picking out what she considers to be the best and worst whilst navigating her way from the emotional human middle:
A bestiary catalogs
best. The mediocres
both higher and lower
are suppressed in favor
of the singularly savage
Intimately impersonal, much of the writing assumes the presence of a collective personality, a ‘we’, on whose behalf it is spoken. Even when her writing is unsettling — and it nearly always is — it depends on and points to a world of settled truth. Even as the poems swoop and soar beyond the middle range of experience, they remember to respect it — they acknowledge that ‘we’ know this and ‘we’ know that — and so they remain accessible and humane.
Her characteristic tone is even. The voice never sounds harassed or desperate. Emotion is deconstructed, here, in tranquillity. The poems never submit to the pressure of a deadline — the poetry, instead, is in the patience:
It’s her politeness
one loathes: how she
isn’t insistent, how
she won’t impose, how
nothing’s so urgent
it won’t wait. Like
a meek guest you tolerate
she goes her way—the muse
you’d have leap at your throat,
you’d spring to obey.
Her poems leave a lot out — one reason why they strike the reader as ‘universal’. Reference to specific time-events is rare — they might have been composed almost any time in the last century. Reference to specific people rarely extends beyond the odd artist of whom she approves (Monk, Satie.) Reference to specific locations is similarly limited but the tendency is to mention places which have a kind of universal iconicity: Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Galapagos — places, yes, but ones so freighted with meaning that they are almost honorary abstractions. The preference, as always, is for a body of shared knowledge. In this, at least, she is quite unlike Bishop who is more than willing to report back from unfamiliar terrain. There are many places where Ryan will not go.
Her debt to Marianne Moore is often remarked upon. Certainly, the influence of her precursor’s tart, brisk voice is clear, not least in Ryan’s poems about the animal kingdom. But, in truth, a whole range of influences can be discerned. As the lead singer of The Kaiser Chiefs once averred, bands are unoriginal usually because they have only absorbed two or three influences — only when a band absorbs hundreds of influences has it a chance to be original (I paraphrase from a remembered TV interview.) Something similar can be said of poets. Ryan manages to remind us of many poets (from a much longer list one might adduce Moore, Dickinson, Stevens, Szymborska, Ammons, Bishop, Frost, Larkin, Belloc, Lear) without seeming subordinate to any of them. To put it mildly, she is an important American poet. For readers on this side of the Atlantic, Odd Blocks is a fine introduction to her work.
© John Redmond, December 2011
The views expressed by contributors to the reviews section of Poetry Matters are not those of Tower Poetry, or of Christ Church, Oxford
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