Review by Joey Connelly
by Michael Ryan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
215 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10003
2012, 77 pp., $20.00
Some poetry collections make me wonder why people read poetry in the first place, especially now when our technology supplies us with constant and immediate access to every conceivable medium of expression. Tech companies fall all over themselves to give us pocket-sized gadgets that will let us YouTube comedians between e-novel chapters. What distinguishes poetry now? Can it compete with other media, and if so, how?
After reading Michael Ryan’s This Morning, I’m not sure what to think about the status or future of poetry. Ryan is obviously an establishment poet. His resume boasts such impressive bullet points as directing the University of California, Irvine’s MFA program; writing five books of poems; winning the Kinglsey Tufts Poetry Award, among other notable and enviable accomplishments. Clearly, This Morning is a collection by a poet of stature. The acknowledgements page in This Morning reads like a young poet’s wildest fantasy. Even before the first poem is read, a reader already knows that he/she will deal with what a poet is in our postmodern world.
But what exactly is that? Ryan seems to offer many possibilities. His poems range from formal experiments, following taut rhymes and meters, to free verse variations of old standup comedy routines. In “Airplane Food,” Ryan fills two pages with the same premise of ‘90s comics, but somehow, in some places, Ryan slips in textured details. Through the poem, Ryan likens eating airline food to chewing on a passport, which he compares to a bundt cake. The poem eventually opens to a portrait of “the boy who loved nothing more/ than working in the kitchen alongside his parents.” Later in the poem, he writes, “Bundt cake could only mean his father’s sudden dementia/ and the years of grief and poverty suffered by his family.” These small moments of a family saga show beautiful subtlety and texture that is missing from the rest of the poem, which contains lines as, “Good good good good good all good.” Why this repetition? Is it to repeat a word until the letters are as ridiculous as the meaning of the word? Is it to show similarities between the words “good” and “food”? And are those small moments in larger clichés what we want poetry to be? Instead of competing with other forms of media, should we just embed our lyric moments inside a can’t-beat-‘em-so-join-‘em thing?
Ryan toes this line between pathos and cliché often in This Morning, usually peppering small, lyric flourishes on poems that strive, more than anything, for wit. “I Had a Tapeworm” (a poem first published in The New Yorker, the high castle of wit) begins by a speaker imagining that he had a tapeworm, a parasite that makes an appearance “in a crowded fetid basement swimming pool,” and after that beginning, the story leaps to discuss a woman
cheating on the lover you were cheating
on your husband with, who was at that moment
waiting for you in another motel room
from which you had slipped to meet me secretly:
a secret inside a secret, buried, encased,
as if if we dug deep enough into it
we’d find what we were trying
to get or stop.
With these concluding lines, we see the connection between the tapeworm and the thrice-removed adultery; how the secret of the adultery, like the tapeworm that he describes in lines 13 and 14, “had threaded through/ both my intestines and was trying to get out.” The connection of the secrets and the tapeworm is a brilliant one, unexpected and effective, and the poem, like “Airplane Food,” shows Ryan’s way of hiding what he wants to say in flashy, attention-grabbing premises.
That is not a complaint. I greatly admired this collection, though at times I felt this style to be offensive. In “Fucked Up,” Ryan writes the first in a short series of rhyming poems, as if to announce that after the stand-up routines and the parasites, he was going to approach poetry from a traditional point of view. The first two stanzas read:
I needed to be wanted
So I made myself into
Someone you would look at
If he looked at you.
You were cute (or not) and smart (or not).
A lovely soul (or not)—
What mattered most to me about you
Was if I made you hot.
These lines and the majority of the following rhyming poems feel beyond hollow, almost to the point of soulless. It seems like Ryan is seeking to humor us readers, supplying what was once accepted standard for poetry, but it reads like a chore.
But as Ryan does so well, he hides inside this conceit something unnervingly relatable, an image so simple that it becomes true. In “Odd Moment,” the speaker describes picking up the phone to dial his mother who has been dead for six months. He describes touching her dead knuckle as she lay in the “silk-lined box.” He says, “there was nothing else to do // because she needed nothing from me.” That statement about that moment, a universal truth articulated in a way that was never necessary, since that moment needs no explication, feels satisfying in a fundamental way.
Moments like this save This Morning for me. Ryan is clearly a poet of accepted importance, but this collection on the whole feels like he is purposefully keeping the reader at a large emotional distance. I feel as if I am missing the point in most of these poems. “A Round” is a good example of how most of the collection strikes me:
Where am I going? The grave.
Who am I being? The slave.
What am I leaving? The fun.
Who will be grieving? No one.
How can I touch you? No way.
Will I ever reach you? Someday.
Why do I need you? Ho ho.
Where will I meet you? You know.
I am left feeling and thinking absolutely nothing. I feel like the structure trumped content, and a bizarre nursery rhyme was more important than any exploration. Poems like this, for me, were the majority of the book.
More than anything, what impressed me most about Michael Ryan’s This Morning was how it led me to question what we expect from poetry in a Twitter age, in a world where technology blurs and obscures our humanity in ways that no one notices because no one stops to think about it. Should poetry reflect our fragmented nature? Should poetry show us what we are missing by forgetting to feel? Is that Ryan’s point? Are the lyric moments, the flashes of imagery and great emotion we find occasionally in This Morning, enough? Is finding those amid the rubble of ever other medium and every other contemporary trapping what we should be doing? I’m not sure. This Morning didn’t help me determine, but if Ryan knows, he isn’t telling.
Joey Connelly teaches English at Kentucky Wesleyan College. He earned his MFA from Ashland University in 2010, and he serves on the editorial board for Floorboard Review. His poetry has appeared in Louisville Review, among other publications, and he has poems forthcoming in Medulla Review and Splinter Generation.