Vs. Kerry Ryan. Anvil Press. Vancouver, British Columbia. 2010. (Finalist for the Acorn-Plantos Award)
Kerry Ryan's Vs. is a book of narrative poems about her experiences in the cloistered world of boxing.
I have been a boxing fan since I was a very young man. I've always loved the intensity.
If you watch much boxing at all you'll begin to notice the most remarkable thing. Almost without exception, when a match is over, the two boxers hold each other like lovers.
Watch the twinned ridges
of gristle twitching
with every strained breath
Never look at gloves
or she'll get you like a pickpocket;
the left distracting with magic and jabs
while the right sneaks in, ransacks
Read next punch
in the shadow of clavicle
Don't let her eyes hook yours,
drown your resolve
in reedy undertow
Lock onto her heaving collar,
throw six inches north or south
look at her nose, chin,
only with the steady leather attention
of your unflinching fists
These poems do the leg work that all boxers must. They are up before dawn and shadow-boxing the sunrise. Ryan romanticizes nothing about the feel of leather on the nose as the fist behind it tries to dispose of your need or the bruised ribs that fight off sleep, dust your dreams.
Joyce Carol Oates wrote a great book in 1987 called On Boxing that received much acclaim and deserved attention. Kerry Ryan's Vs. belongs on the same shelf, the same pantheon.
There aren't that many great boxing books by women and this is certainly the first poetry collection I've encountered that dares slip on the gloves.
Muhammed Ali is famous for his poetry and wit - but his poetry, as much as I admire the great man, is the child's nursery rhyme. Ryan gives us so much more.
Hours after, her glove still pries
your ribs apart,
clenches lung, twists
You whimper in the bed,
wake with every breath,
shudder at the lapse
that left you prone
to the boulder of her right
Days later, clinic waiting room
each breath a thimbleful of air,
you press palms against ribcage,
try to contain the fury of a sneeze
ask when you can go
back in the ring
Ever had a cracked rib? It hurts like every sin you've ever committed.
The "beautiful science" is not always beautiful but Kerry Ryan makes it real. These poems look like an examination of a woman's journey into the gym and into the ring - but a jab is a jab, and a right-cross will flatten you, gender doesn't come into it, and Kerry Ryan is no dilettante.
We never fight
both youngest children
still wanting to please, appease
who learned early small never wins
that injury, injustice
fuel poems and pictures
our different victories
We never compete
except in Scrabble
or sleeping in Sunday mornings
the gap never
wider than five points
such satisfaction in symmetry
So when I demonstrate
a one-two on your shoulder--
soft as a sparrow landing
one foot then the other--
you startle at confrontation,
seep toward the door
I know I've upended our balance
don't want to bully,
but my fists have been taught
to feed on the fear
in your flailing palms
Ali's poems were wind-whisp entertainments, the vapour of the cult of celebrity. Ryan's are the ongoing interior dialogue of a fighter, what it means to hit and be hit.
These poems go the distance with vigor.
Joe Frazier would be proud of her grit.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Ryan’s poems have appeared in literary journals across the country. Her first collection, The Sleeping Life, was published by The Muses’ Company in 2008 and nominated for the Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry in 2009. In March 2009, she competed in, and won, a white collar boxing match. She lives in Winnipeg.
"Muhammed Ali, keep your guard up. You're being measured by a better boxing poet. Kerry Ryan has the clarity of vision that comes with a boxer's discipline and daring, the grace of a true poet's music of body and mind made one."
"The poems in Kerry Ryan's Vs. come at you like quick jabs of light -- the writing is taut, worked over, sinewy, spare, and lean -- but never mean. A delightful collection. What else can be said? These poems pack a punch."