BookBrowse Reviews The Best of It by Kay Ryan

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Best of It

New and Selected Poems

by Kay Ryan

The Best of It by Kay Ryan X
The Best of It by Kay Ryan
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Mar 2010, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2011, 288 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

Buy This Book

About this Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


A collection of poetry from the U.S. Poet Laureate

Poets have obsessions - structures or ideas they return to ruminate on again and again. Sifting these out usually requires deep readings and re-readings, putting batches of poems in the gold pan of your mind until the motifs rise up and glimmer jewel-like on the surface. Returning to a poet you know in this way can feel wonderful; like a secret shared, or holding your lover's hand, the sensation still holds enough mystery to keep you returning, but the knowing brings you deeper. But the time and care it takes to reveal a poet's secrets might be daunting to the new poetry reader.

Enter Kay Ryan, 16th Poet Laureate of the United States. Despite her lofty government-issued title, Ryan lays her poet's cards right out on the table, in short, sly poems that wear their obsessions boldly and yield their secrets willingly. You can re-read a Kay Ryan poem several times in one minute and mine it quickly for its hidden treasures. "Say Uncle" showcases her style and trademark preoccupations in just 15 lines:

Every day
you say,
Just one
more try
.
Then another
irrecoverable
day slips by.
You will
say ankle,
you will say knuckle;
why won't
you why
won't you
say uncle?

Funny, right? "Ankle" and "knuckle" are funny-sounding words all by themselves, and the botched homophones make the poem delightfully silly. Upon first reading, that's what I notice most: it's rhythmic and funny. Read it again, and this time I get caught on the last lines. A little haunting feeling, or is it more sad, or wistful? Something darker lies inside. Read it again, lingering this time on "just one more try" and "another irrecoverable day slips by." Now I'm closer to knowing just what the speaker is urging the subject to give up, and the poem has suddenly changed, the fun is over, the echo of earlier laughter now haunting and mocking.

Ryan leads you playfully to the end the diving board with rhyming words and paired sounds, delicious nouns and rich words, sing-songy cadence and consonance; you don't realize she's tied a block of cement to your foot til you're already over the edge.

Reveling in the tricky origins of words, Ryan reveals the ways we manipulate language, and how we can fool ourselves and hide behind ambiguity or double-meanings:

CRIB

From the Greek for
woven or plaited,
which quickly translated
to basket. Whence the verb
crib, which meant "to filch"
under cover of wicker
anything--some liquor,
a cutlet.
For we want to make off
with things that are not
our own. There is a pleasure
theft brings, a vitality
to the home.
Cribbed objects or answers
keep their guilty shimmer
forever, have you noticed?
Yet religions downplay this.
Note, for instance, in our
annual rehearsals of innocence,
the substitution of manger for crib--
as if we ever deserved that baby,
or thought we did.

Many of Ryan's poems end on a note of warning or admonition, the sudden turns at the end serving as reprimands that probe assumptions and intentions, lies we tell ourselves, or mental trickery we use to ease our fears. "We" is the subject here - Ryan is squarely speaking from a level moral ground. Far from wise or superior, she's in the same game as the rest of us, trading everyday wickedness for the occasional moments of grace. Her poems are likeable and accessible (an equally lauded and derided descriptor of poetry), but that doesn't mean they're easy or entirely pleasant. Readers looking for soothing meditations on beauty or nature to set them at ease might be beguiled at first quick glance by a Kay Ryan poem, but they'll be unceremoniously knocked onto their backsides if they read through to the end. Those of us who choose to weather the kick to the curb will be richly rewarded, if slightly bruised.

Reviewed by Lucia Silva

This review was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the April 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Just What Is a Poet Laureate?

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Water Will Come
    The Water Will Come
    by Jeff Goodell
    Standing in a Manhattan neighborhood after Hurricane Sandy, Jeff Goodell, a contributing editor at ...
  • Book Jacket
    Pachinko
    by Min Jin Lee
    Pachinko has one of the best opening lines I've encountered in some time: "History has failed us, ...
  • Book Jacket
    Wolf Season
    by Helen Benedict
    Rin Drummond's nicknames include "Pit Bull" and "Dragon." She's a tough-as-nails Iraq War ...
  • Book Jacket: La Belle Sauvage
    La Belle Sauvage
    by Philip Pullman
    Voted 2017 Best Young Adult Novel by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    I wasn't quite sure what to expect ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

A story that is at once quirky, charming, heartbreaking, suspenseful and poignant.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Days When Birds Come Back
    by Deborah Reed

    A graceful testament to endurance, rebuilding, and the possibilities of coming home.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Milk Lady of Bangalore
    by Shoba Narayan

    A charming story about our deep connection to the animals who live among us.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Mothers of Sparta

Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir

A dazzling literary memoir with shades of Mary Karr, Anne Lamott and Jenny Lawson.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

A M I A Terrible T T W

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.