Sunday, August 03, 2008


The kaleidoscopic poetry of Kay Ryan and Major Jackson.

by D. H. Tracy and Brian Phillips

The Niagara River, by Kay Ryan. Grove Press. $13.00.

by D. H. Tracy

Like the Niagara River, Ryan's poems are short, fast, and generate a lot of power. The poems are all siblings, as distinctively typed on something as Dickinson's are on hymns--what that thing is called, I don't know, but its characteristics are very short lines, erratic rhyme (often internal), tumbling enjambments, and a ledge or ledges to rest on in the middle, just long enough to realize you're dizzy. As flimsy little miracles of lineation, their internal repetitions and rhymes carve out echoing spaces you would think they were too short to enclose. Like a skater pulling in her arms, they acquire more velocity than seems possible. They wrap up in such a way as to make you feel you've been caught out in a game of Simon Says. Read, they emit satisfying pops and crunches:

The egg-sucking fox
licks his copper chops.
The shell cups
lie scattered from
the orange debauch.
--From "Theft"

The standouts in the book are "A Ball Rolls on a Point" and "Least Action," both of which highlight Ryan's regard for objects and the running record and augury they provide of human passage, "As though what is is /right already but /askew." What we are in the habit of calling experience is for her almost a side effect of (or can be dramatized by) the layout of buildings, furniture, bodies, and vehicles. The contingencies this point of view illuminates, the unexpected correspondences with the mechanics of the inner life, are often weird and a little frightening, and keep Ryan on the edges of domestic, social writing in a way that is responsible for much of her originality. You might suppose that an art that keeps out other individuals would dry out and recede emotionally, but it hasn't (at least not yet). Like a lighthouse, as she says, "It is intimate /and remote both /for the keeper /and those afloat."

On top of everything else there is the humbling fact of how much she does with how little, and if you are in the habit, as I am, of telling yourself things like, "If I only lived somewhere more interesting, or ran with a more exciting crowd, or knew Sumerian," then Ryan's poems are a reminder to put one's head down and concentrate. Life's in front of your nose.

D.H. Tracy's poetry and criticism appear widely. He lives in Illinois.

© 2007 by D. H. Tracy. All rights reserved.

Hoops, by Major Jackson.W.W. Norton. $23.95.

by Brian Phillips

There's a wonderfully surprising passage midway through Hoops, the second collection by the poet Major Jackson, where the speaker's fourth-grade teacher, struggling to remember the names of her black students ("Tarik, Shanequa, Amari, Aisha"), decides to rename them after French painters: "Tee-tee / was Braque, and Stacy James was Fragonard, / and I, Eduard Charlemont." A few days later, the boy summons the nerve to correct her: Eduard Charlemont, he tells her, was an Austrian painter. The North Philadelphia schoolboy knows more than his teacher about European art. As well he might: he has visited the Philadelphia Museum, where Charlemont's 1878 painting The Moorish Chief hangs, and been struck by the painting of the "black chief in a palace."

What I like about this passage, and about Jackson's book in general, is the confidence with which it merges its inner-city black American milieu with a high-art aesthetic tradition that connects it naturally to the tradition of the English lyric. Jackson writes as well about basketball as any poet I have read, but is just as comfortable musing on Auden's stanza form from the "Letter to Lord Byron" in his own letter to Gwendolyn Brooks. This is just as it should be, of course, but too few writers have attempted anything like it. At its best--in passages of "Urban Renewal," in "Moose," in sections of the "Letter to Brooks"--this can be revelatory. Elsewhere, there are lapses, and they aren't trivial; Jackson's descriptions of neighborhood life can slip into the sentimental ("spills from a suitcase of hurt"), the writing is frequently uneven, and some of the longer poems seem animated more by a desire to say something important than by having something important to say. But if it's hard to recommend Hoops unreservedly, I still hope Jackson will continue in this vein; I'd like to see where it takes him.

Brian Phillips is a regular reviewer for Poetry magazine.

© 2007 by Brian Phillips. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

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