By Kerry Ryan
Reviewed by Jorge Antonio Vallejos
In her book On Boxing, famed American writer Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men.” She was wrong! And Kerry Ryan’s autobiographical collection of poems—Vs.—is proof of that.
Described as “a shy, bookish woman you’d never expect could hit someone in the face,” Ryan’s poetry packs a punch. With already one book to her name and having been published in many literature journals across Canada, Ryan knew what rhythm meant on the page; she bravely chose to discover what rhythm meant in the ring.
Boxing is no joke. Although there are rules, regulations, and a referee, boxers can, and often do, get hurt. And unlike other sports there are no substitutes in boxing. If you cannot continue the match is over. Everything lies on the shoulders of the fighter in the ring.
The life of a writer is similar. Not only do writers use their hands to make a living and practice their craft, they are the sole people in front of the page; it is up to them to write or not, finish their piece or scrap it. At the start of her collection Ryan aptly quotes legendary boxing writer A.J Leibling: “A boxer, like a writer, must stand alone.” Boxers and writers also have to get up every time they are knocked down. Many people are not willing to do that. This is why everyone who thinks they are fighters are not, and everyone who thinks they are writers are not. Kerry Ryan is both.
Vs. is split in to five sections:
3) In The Ring
5) Six Minutes
The reader is taken on Ryan’s boxing journey from beginning to end in 82 pages. And it is a ride worth taking.
Bloodline, the first poem in the collection, is about a beautiful moment betweern a father and daughter taking place at the end of Ryan’s journey. Her father holds up her trophy and shares stories of his boxing days as a young man. He names Manitoba’s boxing greats, “The Winnipeg Walloper, Manitoba Mauler, Canadian Clobber”, and remembers what it was like in the ring. Ryan writes, “I didn’t know boxing ran in the family.” Seeing the pride in her fathers face Ryan ends the poem the only way she could, with feeling:
“That prize lasts a lifetime,
not on a mantel,
but rooted in the body,
lighting it quietly from the inside.”
Like any true student Ryan studies her craft whether it be poetry or the sweet science (boxing). Her poems show that she is well read. They also reveal her dedication to the sport she took up. To do well at anything you have to put in the extra. Ryan put in the extra that is needed of a boxer and writer. This writer was reminded of a quote in the film Girlfight when reading Vs.: “When you’re not training, someone else is.” Ryan not only trained in the gym, she trained at home immersing herself in her new chosen art:
“I watch documentaries
on Ali for the poetry,
Raging Bull on a De Niro kick,”
Later, in Friday Night Fights Ryan cleverly writes of “watching the real boxers on TV” while flirting with her lover on the couch. As fists are thrown in a ring brought to Ryan’s TV via satellite, she and her partner play a rough game of footsy. Ryan’s training in the ring and out earns her a victory on the couch:
“After twelve rounds, a decision
but my win undeniable
as I unfurl ragged legs
across your defeated lap.”
Boxing is often compared to dancing. There is technique needed to be a true boxer. And the most important part of a boxer’s arsenal is their footwork. You can have all the strength in the world but if you do not know how to stand correctly and move around the ring you will get nowhere. Like dancing, there is an erotic side to boxing: sweat, adrenaline, hugging, and emotion. Ryan cleverly brings that eroticness to the page when writing of her trainer:
“In the gym he holds heavybags
as casually as you might slip hands
around a lover’s waist”
You are with Ryan as she learns how to warm up, wrap her hands, stand, and throw a punch. All are important lessons that a trainer teaches. Ryan also takes you to a place where no one can teach you but experience itself: how to hurt someone. In The Hardest Lesson Ryan writes:
“Your fists stall, rear
approaching her face
You have to learn how to hit
To watch your glove smash
against her forehead
like a fender into flesh
Have to practice to land
a pure shot to her belly—
hard leather echo—
without saying sorry.”
Honesty runs throughout Ryan’s collection. The poet gains her readers trust. They feel what she feels. Her craft is honed tight, she lands three punch combos in the ring and on the page.
There are some things that are missing. For example, the golden rule: to hit and not be hit. That is a fighter’s ultimate goal. Another is the beloved speed bag. The rhythm of fists moving in a circular motion as they hit balled leather making the repeated sound badoom badoom with the metal swivel singing at the same time would have been a pleasure to read. The art of skipping was also not present. The dance of rope and feet to the smacking song and wind being cut would have added more musicality to the collection.
There are many lessons and confessions Ryan writes of in Vs. True boxing fans, recreational boxers, and lovers of poetry will appreciate Ryan’s collection. She’ll win the readers attention just as she won her fight after months of training in the ring. Vs. is a knockout!
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Wednesday March 9, 2011 for an inclusive interview with Kerry Ryan and a photo essay of the Toronto News Girls Boxing Club!!!