The Niagara River Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Kay Ryan’s The Niagara River is comprised of about sixty shortusually one page, two or three sentences longpoems that concern the schism between people and nature. The title poem provides an apt introduction to the work. The poem begins with a simile that ultimately proves to be untrue: “As though/ the river were/ a floor.” Operating on that assumption, the speaker and her colleagues, presumably seated in a boat, act if they were in charge, rearranging furniture and “calmly” gazing at the passing scenery as if “dining room paintings/ were being replaced.” The emphasis is on the actions of the people, not on the flow, the force, the current, or even on the falls in the river. They are so removed from the physical reality of what a river is that the speaker has to state, “We do/ know this is the/ Niagara River.” Knowing, however, is not enough because “it is hard to remember/ what that means.” Time has created a breach between the speaker and nature, much like the gap between the instinctive response to nature in childhood and the more mature understanding that, in William Wordsworth’s words, “little we have in nature that is ours.” Ryan is a nature poet, though she does not overwhelm her readers with concrete details about nature; rather, she uses nature as a means of self-exploration.

In “Green Hills,” a similar poem, the speaker denies the link between the hills and humankind at the same time that she personifies the hills with their “flanks,” “breast,” and “shoulder,” which are, “we tell ourselves,” not our “flesh.” Yet despite the speaker’s denials, the hills share with people a common life, one that is vernal and reproductive: The green fields are the fields of spring and regeneration. The breasts, flanks, and shoulders have a “languor” when they roll over which is akin to the movements of the human sexual act.

Some of the “high places” in nature are inaccessible to people, despite their somewhat arrogant assumptions about conquering nature, bending it to their will, in this case naming them, defining them in human terms. In “No Names” the speaker states that these places do not “invite us,” that our attempted relationship with them “refuses to take.” She states that “Some/ high lakes are not for us,” that they resist attempts to name and, by extension, own them. Yet the speaker persists, “giddy with thinking/where thinking can’t stick.” There are limits to thought, just as there are limits to people’s expectations. In “Expectations” “we expect rain/ to animate this/ creek,” to shape it and order it in line with notions about how creeks should move and look, notions gained from pictures or past experiences; but “The bed is ready/ but no rain yet.” The rain will come when it comes, and the picture of that “animated” creek may or may not square with one’s “expectations.”

Part of people’s problems stem from a willingness to overdramatize their limitations and weaknesses and to be bound by them. In “Shipwreck,” the speaker elaborates on a quotation from Fernando Pessoa: “I was shipwrecked beneath a stormless sky in a sea shallow enough to stand up in.” For the speaker, being shipwrecked or “lost” is a self-inflicted state, an illusion, a kind of stage performance, “just one’s fancy.” The “articulation” of despair is comic because the shipwrecked state is so exaggerated: The water in the “tub” is filed with “our own tears”; the mast is of breadstick, capable of being destroyed by a muse; and “shackles” are made of flimsy paper. The speaker suggests that people wallow in this “shipwrecked” state rather than take action to “step/ off the island.” According to the speaker, one does not know why one fails to act. Using a clothes metaphor, the speaker suggests that one decks oneselves in tragic trappings that can easily be cast off, just as actors can step out of their roles and accept the applause of an appreciative audience.

That clothes are not so easily shed is the theme of “Caps.” In this poem the speaker states that people ought to be “open on top” so that they can be...

(The entire section is 1699 words.)

The Niagara River Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The New York Times Book Review 155 (December 25, 2005): 20.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 36 (September 12, 2005): 43.