Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Saturday, February 10, 2007


When I read Kay Ryan’s poetry, I am sometimes reminded of my first visit to a Jasper Johns retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum nearly three decades ago. I recall my initial reactions to all that artwork with images, symbols, and signs that seemed so ordinary upon a quick glance. The paintings of targets appeared merely as concentric circles on a square canvas, the different depictions of American flags or bronzed beer cans seemed nothing more than clever alterations of reality, and the stenciled letters spelling out “red” or “yellow” in colors at variance with their wording represented only an obvious attempt at irony. However, upon closer scrutiny the banal suddenly became a more complicated set of symbols or signs, each inviting viewers to see beyond an icon’s surface meanings and to seek deeper readings in its unconventional appearance. I concluded an additional aspect of wit made the experience linger and even more enjoyable. As John Ashbery has written of Jasper Johns, “One may puzzle over his pictures, but one does not escape them.”

Similarly, Kay Ryan’s work proves puzzling upon opening her new book, The Niagara River; nevertheless, the brief and spare style, familiar from her past collections, remains with the reader and seeps into one’s thoughts about poetry in much the same way Johns’s art has become a reliable part of contemporary consciousness. Ryan’s deceptively straightforward yet complex and smart poems arise from a seemingly simple pattern of slender, usually unbroken, stanzas written in a plain and accessible vocabulary. Despite line breaks that sometimes seem haphazard or normally might create jerkiness as one reads through the poem, this poet appears always in full control, and the lines display a surprising fluency aided by subtle alliteration or other lyrical devices, often including nearly-hidden internal rhymes or near-rhymes.

Like Jasper Johns, Ryan frequently focuses upon objects or language with which we are so familiar that we may have forgotten to pay much attention any longer, forcing a fresh look. Perhaps no other poet, except Ashbery, brings back to life dull and overused terms or platitudinous sayings as often and as well as Kay Ryan. In Ryan’s poetry, clichéd and hackneyed phrases become sources of inspiration. Poems in The Niagara River arise from reexamination of chickens coming home to roost, the elephant in the room, the other shoe dropping, one’s being green behind the ears, and other elements of well-known expressions. However, Ryan manages to infuse new blood into these dead idioms so that they exist with a sense of lively eloquence, clever wit, and original imagery within the lines of her poetry.

Remarkably, Ryan accomplishes all this within a short span of language. Her poems are compact and the lines concise. In this collection Ryan offers 64 poems in the space of 72 pages, and the only reason any poem exceeds one page is due to the publisher’s penchant for stretching the white space between a poem’s title and its first line for nearly one-third of the page. Most of Ryan’s poems extend for no more than 20 lines. Perhaps the succinct nature of these pieces drives the poet to her exact yet intricate style, presenting precise poems filled with innovative and crisp images, as in the title work where a dining room is set upon the surface of a moving river: “As it moves along, / we notice—as / calmly as though / dining room paintings / were being replaced— / the changing scenes / along the shore.” Here, as elsewhere, Ryan reverses expected perceptions, inviting us to look backwards at ourselves suddenly in unsettling settings. One manner of understanding is suggested in “Reverse Drama,” which relates how sometimes actions occur “in ways we don’t expect / and more or less miss except / through reverse drama.” Indeed, Ryan proposes “we need a / backward miracle / that will strip language, / make it hold for / a minute . . .” (“Backward Miracle”).

At other times, Ryan magnifies events or objects to a point that the focus sharpens as it closes upon aspects that summon novel appreciations and enhanced significance. In “Hailstorm,” one of her wonderfully pithy poems involving scenes of nature, the poet shows readers a new view: “Like a storm / of hornets, the / little white planets / layer and relayer / as they whip around / in their high orbits.” As it happens, one might consider “Still Life, with Her Things” to be reflective of Ryan’s approach to poetry as much as it serves to comment upon the technique of Dutch artists who “paint objects as though / they were grace— / the bowl, the / goblet, the vase / from Delft—each / the reliquary / of itself.”

Also, Ryan’s use of “as though” in this poem, and a number of other times throughout the book (including twice in the 18 lines of the title poem), indicates one facet of her method, a repeatedly articulated sense of wonder as to what might be when the imagination is engaged fully. In “The Best of It” the speaker declares: “However carved up / or pared down we get, / we keep on making / the best of it as though / it doesn’t matter that / our acre’s down to / a square foot. As / though our garden / could be one bean / and we’d rejoice . . ..”

The narrow extended stanzas of Ryan’s poems seem much like the shallow surface of a frozen pond separating two worlds, the one above that can be seen reflected in the ice mirror and the one below where life continues though still hidden except in the imaginative vision. In “Thin” Ryan describes such a scene as “a skin of ice / over a pond / only birds might / confidently walk upon.” In another poem, Ryan chooses similar imagery: “Sometimes there’s / suddenly no way / to get from / one part to / another, as though / the past were / a frozen lake / breaking up” (“The Past”). However, here again she opts to reverse the reader’s perspective, as the warmth shattering the lake’s surface comes “from underneath / for some reason— / perhaps some heat / trapped on its own / for so long it’s / developed seasons.”

Nevertheless, despite a slim and sparse appearance in the construction of her work—as well as her apparent preference for establishing a distance through the use of third person or first-person plural narratives, which almost always avoid any autobiographical identification—most often the poems manage to overcome their tendency toward an intellectual wordplay, though sometimes light and humorous, that could cause a cooler emotional response from readers. In fact, as Ryan writes in “Lighthouse Keeping” (in which a “lighthouse / keeper keeps / a light out / for those left out”) her poetry usually proves to be “intimate / and remote both / for the keeper / and those afloat.”

“The Material” carries an epigraph relating to assemblage artist Joseph Cornell and explaining how he would use only one in a thousand of the items collected for his collage boxes, a practice seemingly parallel to Ryan’s paring of material from her own poems. Near the close of the piece, Ryan declares: “we / must extract parts / to do work.” It is as if this poet believes her continual trimming rids the work of needless rhetoric and unnecessary embellishments that might lead to distraction from a poem’s central concept.

However, the compelling closing image in this poem once again brings to my mind the flag paintings of Jasper Johns: “As / time passes, the / promise is tattered / like a battle flag / above a war we / hope mattered.” Whether one speaks literally of war or metaphorically alludes to work and life, as well as the individuals absorbed by both, the passage of time will bring change and wear on all; however, time’s passing—whether in history, art, or one’s own life—also serves as a test for what matters most. As with those odd Jasper Johns images I’d seen three decades ago that I still hold well in my memory, I believe Ryan’s unexpected and idiosyncratic poetry also to be work that renders indelible images readers will not let go easily, work they will determine matters to them.

Ryan, Kay. The Niagara River. Grove Press, 2005.

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