The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2010

All Issues
APR 2010 Issue


Kay Ryan
The Best of It
(Grove Press, 2010)

There’s nary a word wasted in these mini tours-de-force by Kay Ryan, our current national Poet Laureate. Beginning with poems from 1965, this book presents a lifetime’s work and it is an unqualified success.

Known as an “adventitious” outsider, her style runs counter to both academic fussiness and avant fancy. Yet these poems are highly polished and playful. A delightful throwback quality (plus an affinity with Frost) belies its freshness. One could go back as far as Henry VIII’s Poet Laureate, John Skelton and his ultra-slender verses, called “Skeltonics,” to find a visually metric comparison.

Ruins, from Stonehenge to the Pyramids, are plumbed for their profundity. Foibles and frailties are tracked inexorably. Ordinary subjects become royal metaphors, as life lessons worthy of Aesop are taken from birds, snakes, lilacs, and fish.

Nature, language, and the nature of language converge in wryly wise confluences. Struggle and loss are overcome by wonder and resolve. Like sounding words are embedded with precision as Ryan divines “an endless pattern, a generative rhyme.”

“Spiderweb” is a reflection on perception. Its taut lines of two words each, mimic woven threads as they work “fighting sag, / winching up / give. It / isn’t ever / delicate / to live.”

Ryan’s warp and woof captures the fabric of life—her mantle is certain. She’s “chalking the boundary of the possible from the far side.”

Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weissman
On the Wall: Four Decades of Community, Murals in New York City
(University Press of Mississippi, 2009)

Murals radiate an aura of revolution with their democratic immediacy. Often political in content, they confront injustice and promote self-determination. Whether “accusatory, affirmative, or decorative,” they inspire admiration for their scale and audacity.

Some cities are famous for their number and quality of murals like L.A., Philly, and Berlin. New York, with its legendary graffiti is also a capital of the large-scale, community-based mural.

Half historic tract, half coffee table book, this important tome lists 500 community murals painted in NYC since 1968. The authors relied greatly on the testament of organizers and artists from groups such as CITYarts and Artshares. Internationally recognized proponents and practitioners of murals like TATS CRU, Eva Cockcroft, Lady Pink, and John Ahearn (along with former gang members) were interviewed.

The authors also did serious detective work and research. A bibliography of articles goes on for pages. The systematization and presentation in this sprawling oeuvre is matched by insightful prose.

Different influences are traced, from neo-indigenous art to aerosol tags. Interestingly, the stories of individual murals recount their inception and creation. Local input often meant re-thinking content as diverse concerns collided.

Spawned during decline in New York, the murals were a response to neglect. In a similar spirit of reclamation, squats and community gardens sprang up, providing new venues. The underclass won back pieces of the landscape. Viva!

Geoffrey Nutter
Christopher Sunset
(Wave Books, 2010)

Geoffrey Nutter writes about things—or so it seems. Poems about strawberries, battleships, and elevators begin on track and morph into burgeoning blossoms. The poems unfurl smoothly and astonishingly, “winding toward a pinnacle.”

The balance feels just right—not too loose and not too obtuse. A narrative, confessional voice echoes the resonantly rational landscapes of Jimmy Schuyler (until everything turns dreamy).

A keen-eyed guide, Nutter has a gift for logging details as he trips out his long sentences in clipped lines. A confidential tone and intriguing observations hook you. The flotsam cataloged in “Electricity” is all too real. But “Broken shells, tire treads, rusted aluminum pull-tabs” are a foil for Nutter’s slight of hand. Patterns emerge. Upriver, the “embers of the bridge” become an enchanted “chorus of embers.”

His surrealism can evoke Pablo Neruda or Emily Dickinson or even the lapidary labyrinths of John Ashbery. In “The New Animals,” “The angry red / moccasin dreamed beneath / the jasper viewing stands.”

Nutter pays attention to time and its passing. He marks the hours with sunset and dawn, summer and autumn with the “unnamed sunflowers nodding in the August wind.” He follows “The Big Thought” until he wrests from it a surprise—a present—a new discovery “pointing to the sea / beneath the ringing star of bells.” Nutter hovers between love and wisdom.

“It’s all coming together now.”


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2010

All Issues