Diagnosing Minor Illness in Children by Kerry Ryan

I’ve been in a bit of a poetry rut lately – not reading as much as I like to, normally – and so when I saw Diagnosing Minor Illness in Children (Frontenac House, 2023), I thought two things: one, that the cover art was incredible; and two, that this would be the one to help me get out of a rut. That’s a lot to put on a book, but Kerry Ryan delivers in this slim, impactful volume of poetry. Diagnosing Minor Illness in Children is full of brief, spare poems, but has so much to say about the challenges of parenthood and the ways humans are not as enlightened as we think we are. Ryan takes the wildness of nature and translates it to the experience of giving birth and post-partum. This collection is direct and feral, in the best way.

I also really like the smallness of these poems: there is no grand epic here, no sweeping arc with a lesson or a quest to have us know more. This is about a daily experience, incredibly common, and yet Ryan stops us in our tracks with her observations about her body and life after giving birth. Ryan also explores nature through her window and in her yard, giving us poems with quiet observation of the way our lives intersect with nature.

Poetry doesn’t need to be lengthy or deal with the abstract to be well done or meaningful. Diagnosing Minor Illness in Children proves this definitively. These poems are fierce and funny. Ryan does not shy away from sharing the moments of joy, the strangeness of early parent rituals, and also the body horror of the whole thing – Ryan strips back the layers of sanitizing we build around life and parenthood and presents them unflinchingly. In the poem “Baby Book,” for example:

I log contents of every diaper,

minutes spent at each breast,

your appetite a starred review.

No milestones, just meticulous,

ridiculous columns: profit, loss,

as if, one day,

                         you might audit me.

Might see me,

                           nipple hanging

by hinge of skin over rippled

La Leche League pages.

See me working shit into pattern,

boiling the meat off this thing

to count its bones.

I was partial to this one as an adult who recently received her baby book from her mother, which had these carefully detailed moments, written over the years, including summaries of every birthday until I was well into my teens. Ryan’s poems have me sit with my mother, thirty years ago, as she would have neatly written about my life, in hours she took to keep track of that instead of taking care of herself. But all of the poems in Diagnosing Minor Illness in Children had me reflect not only on my own babyhood but the experiences of my friends and family as they become parents too. A lovely collection, and a lovely step back into poetry for me.

Kerry Ryan has previously published two books of poetry, The Sleeping Life (The Muses’ Company) and Vs. (Anvil), which was a finalist for the Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in journals and anthologies across Canada. In 2022, she was shortlisted for the CBC poetry prize. She lives and writes in Winnipeg.

Alison Manley has ricocheted between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for most of her life. Now in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she is the Cataloguing and Metadata Librarian at Saint Mary's University. Her past life includes a long stint as a hospital librarian on the banks of the mighty Miramichi River. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. While she's adamant that her love of reading has nothing to do with her work, her ability to consume large amounts of information very quickly sure is helpful. She is often identified by her very red lipstick, and lives with her partner Brett and cat, Toasted Marshmallow.