He Lit a Fire with Icicles

For W.G. Sebald, 1944-2001

This was the work
of St. Sebolt, one
of his miracles:
he lit a fire with
icicles. He struck
them like a steel
to flint, did St.
Sebolt. It
makes sense
only at a certain
body heat. How
cold he had
to get to learn
that ice would
burn. How cold
he had to stay.
When he could
feel his feet
he had to
back away.

–Kay Ryan

One of my favorite Far Side cartoons features a back woods, slouchy guy lazying in front of a ramshackle rundown shack. The place of business sign above his head reads: HUBCAPS AND CROISSANTS.

Sometimes pairings are exciting because they are unlikely. But then there are those pairings that, as soon as they appear, make complete sense. It is intuitively obvious. That’s the way I feel about two writers whose works I love—Poet Kay Ryan and German novelist/memoirist/mystic, W. G. Sebald.

In a recent profile of Kay Ryan written by Adam Kirsch in the New Yorker called “Think Small: America’s quiet poet laureate”, Kirsch comments that on the surface these two writers do not have a lot in common. But as Kirsch points out, “Sebald wrote a book called ‘The Rings of Saturn’, and Ryan is another disciple of the god of melancholy; Sebald was obsessed with transience and decay, and Ryan can never stop noticing what she calls, in ‘Slant,’ ‘a bias cut to everything,/a certain cant/it’s better not to name.'” So writing this elegy for Sebald about an incident in the life of St. Sebolt, the writer’s namesake, is memorable and timbre-perfect.

As a further comment on Ryan’s work, Kirsch identifies where she lives on our cultural poetic continuum:

In American poetry, the contest between glut and starvation is inevitably epitomized by Whitman and Dickinson. Between these two tutelary spiritis, Ryan would of course choose Dickinson, and the resemblances between them have been made much of by critics. This is natural enough—after all, Ryan, too, writes brief, compressed lyrics, and has been a kind of outsider to the literary world.

But of course. As always, I am drawn to the quiet ones, the outsiders, the understated. And my interest in Ryan’s work is even more alive after reading Kirsch’s excellent piece.

Note: You can hear Kay Ryan read her poem at Poetry Archive.

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