Kay Ryan

The Niagara River
by Kay Ryan

As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice—as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced—
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.

Editorial: It means the falls lie ahead or perhaps behind. In either case the quaintness of the ‘floor’ belies the tilts and slants and falls that wait for us in life, whether they be good or bad. As Ryan astutely points out this is hard for us to remember, which I can certainly appreciate given how regularly I misread the tea leaves in this or that situation, or given how people I know or love do the same.

The feeling created in this great poem touches on a linguistic question I have wrestled with ever since I studied Italian and Spanish. It goes like this…

It seems to me that the formation of the conditional mood in Romance languages (like Italian and Spanish) mimics a deeply seeded perceptional skill held by their speakers that we Germanic language speakers mostly lack. Romance speakers have it for the simple reason that they are conjugating by rote complex conditional forms as toddlers; Germanic speakers master this grammar later on when they (we) learn to use modal verbs (would, could, might) in tandem with straight verbs. My question has always been whether Romance speakers have a leg up on us Germanic speakers because their brains are wired to negotiate the contingent moments in life the same way their tongues are wired to negotiate the conditional mood. During my own work especially in Spanish-speaking countries during the last 16 years I have stumbled regularly into tongue-tied situations that were beyond the predictable culturally awkward ones I anticipate with increasing acumen. Even at home I find that many situations demand that I look beyond the certainty of the moment (floating down the Niagara River) or the absoluteness of my feelings (serenity while gazing at the changing landscape). Luckily the demand works two ways—when the path tilts up as well as when it slopes down it helps to check the landscape for changes in elevation. Frost makes this point in his poem ‘Neither Out Far Nor In Deep’ about people who cannot look outside their myopia as does Lincoln when he evokes the Eastern monarch. The alternative to appreciating the contingencies of life that lay past the absolutes is disillusionment, alienation, loneliness, and (of course!) death of the sort made famous by Señors Loman & Gatsby and Kings Lear & Oedipus.

This discussion pops up in my mind when things are particular rough or especially joyful. There is no final word, of course, except to return for the umpteenth time to the ‘Subjunctive’ chapter in my Spanish textbook (it is well thumbed and I still don’t get it). It also means that while we are OK in the boat we aren’t always OK in the boat—or necessarily doomed for that matter.

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