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Review of Odd Blocks - Helen Mort, Poetry London, Spring 2012.
Old Blocks: Selceted and New Poems, from US Laureate Kay Ryan, is more concerned with peculiarities and anomalies than with the evryday. Her poems discuss flamingos, mirage oases, glass slippers, desert reservoirs, lighthouse keepers and the difficulties of waterwheels with a characteristic playful acceptance. The book is a veritable menagerie of bright creatures, each described as tenderly as the last, from the buck who, brushing wet bark 'whispers a syllable / singular to deer' to the 'graceless' turtle who 'lives / below luck-level' and whose movements are slow 'like dragging / a packing case places'. Of the animals poems, 'Miners' Canaries' is the most fascinating because her subject stands for Ryan's obsession with the limits or edges of things:Previous review of 'Odd Blocks'... To the 'Odd Blocks' page...
Something is always
testing the edges
of the breathable...
A similar curiosity runs through 'So Different', where Ryan describes how trees find it a pleasure to be separated from their blossoms, 'to be stripped / of what's white and winsome' before remarking lightly:
for humans, for whom
what is un-set matters
so oddly - as though
only what is lost held possibility.
The poems in Odd Blocks demand that we see afresh. Ryan's poems are full of questions - 'It's Always Darkest Just Before Dawn' immediately challenges its own title: 'but how dark / is darkest?'. In 'Paired Things', Ryan muses 'so many paired things seem odd':
Who, who had only seen wings,
could extrapolate the
skinny sticks of things
girds use foir land,
the backward way they bend,
the silly way they stand?
When Ryan turns her searching gaze towards abstracts like 'Relief', 'Hope', 'Councel' and 'Losses', the effect is just as striking. Her poems often makes a show of contradicitions ('Most losses add something - a new socket or silence...') or denials ('in 'Star Block' she insists 'there is no such thing as star block...') and seem to follow a strange, entirely compelling logic, reminiscent of the work of Selima Hill. Take 'Silence':
Silence is not snow.
It cannot grow
deeper. A thousand years
of it are thinner
than paper. So
we must have it
when we feel trapped
Like Hill, Ryan is alive to the fragility of the body, the mind, the world. It is important to make things new or strange so that we don't take them for granted. In 'A Hundred Bolts of Satin', she cautions us:
have to lose
and the mind
all the way back.
As she says in 'Chemisty', even words are 'subject to / the chemistry of death'. To question the world is to be alive in it. Ryan often seems to revel in playful, almost childish rhymes ('Masterworks of Mins' begins ridiculously: 'Ming, Ming, / such a lovely / thing') and her short lines seem exhuberant in their brevity, dancing down the page. Poems like 'Crib' and 'Best' celebrate her obsession with language. In the latter, we're told that 'A bestiary catalogs / bests' and the poem concludes wryly:
Best is not to be confused with good -
a different creature altogether,
and treated of in the goodiary -
a text alas lost now for centuries.
The same acute eye that allows Ryan to describe dew on a blade of grass perfectly ('as neatly as peas / in their green canoe') allows her to write about mental states diufficult to articulate in a way that anchors them to things of the world. But her work is democratic enough not to privaledge one form of observation and reflection over the other. In this way, though her poems rarely describe people directly, through them she seems to come closest to Moritz's ideal of restoring person and external world to some kind of unity.
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