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An excerpt from Bulabula 1, a painting currently hanging in my show at Lyman-Eyer Gallery in Provincetown

A Ball Rolls on a Point

The whole ball
of who we are
presses into
the green baize
at a single tiny
spot. An aural
track of crackle
betrays our passage
through the
fibrous jungle.
It’s hot and
desperate. Insects
spring out of it.
The pressure is
intense, and the
sense that we’ve
lost proportion.
As though bringing
too much to bear
too locally were
our decision.

–Kay Ryan

I am consistently drawn to Ryan’s work. Her poems are often epigrammatic, taut, terse, slightly off kilter, smart. All qualities I admire.

David Kirby honors Ryan’s work by drawing a comparison with those towering figures in American poetry, Whitman and Dickinson:

Emily Dickinson, hands-down champ at writing poems that are as compressed as Whitman’s are sprawling…

But of course there is no real competition between the Whitman who boasted “I am large, I contain multitudes” and the Dickinson whose niece Martha reported that her aunt once pretended to lock the door to her bedroom and pocket an imaginary key, saying, “Mattie, here’s freedom.” In other words, Ryan’s are the biggest little poems going.

Rather than hunting down the world and making it cry uncle, Ryan likes to create an elastic space the world can enter and fill.

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.

spk2_myc

Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard

A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small—
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard.

–Kay Ryan

I’ve featured the work of current Poet Laureate Kay Ryan on this blog before. This poem captured me completely when I ran into it quite by accident.

But you know how that goes. Our minds are enormous filtering machines, sifting through the chaotic onslaught of information and stimuli to find that one piece of relevance, that one statement that brings a semblance of order, a sense of patterning.

I call this a “chop wood, carry water” poem. From its mystical tradition, the phrase was the answer the koan double question: What do you do before enlightenment, and what do you do after enlightenment? For many of us, chop wood, carry water is the mantra that describes creative labor, whatever its form.

In her small book, The Quotidian Mysteries, Kathleen Norris discusses the concept of acedia, a term that means spiritual torpor or apathy:

Any person called to a vocation that is inner-directed and requires one to spend a good deal of time alone is subject to periodic attacks of acedia. The writing process is notoriously cyclical—and dangerous if one is prone to either mania or depression or both. There is the “up” of an inspired bout of writing and a “down” of seemingly fruitless labor and revisions, and times when one is incapable of writing at all. When I was a very young writer, I hungered for more, always more. But deep down, I had so little faith in myself, let alone in my vocation as a writer, that I saw each poem as potentially my last. Having invested my psychic and emotional energies in a romantic notion of “inspiration.” I would panic whenever the ability to write seemed to leave me. Now, rather than succumb to despair during my dry spells, I generally employ a prairie metaphor and think of it as a lifesaver, a dying down to the roots during a drought. Although the grasses look dead, they are merely dormant, and the slightest bit of moisture will occasion a change.

How rejuvenating to read Norris’ idea, that the retreat to the roots is in fact a lifesaving strategy. And what a redemptive gift, reminding us that just the “slightest bit of moisture” changes everything.

niagara

The Niagara River

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.

–Kay Ryan

There’s a subcontinent of dread beneath these words, a tectonic shearing away of what’s up and what’s down. This is an unforgettable and terrifying poem.

Just hours after I found this poem, Sunday morning’s email from A had a hauntingly correlative paragraph:

The singularity is near. Futurist Kurzweil in his book of that name describes a singularity as the point beyond the knee of an exponential curve, where progress accelerates from manageable to runaway change. He argues that by mid-century the advance of technology will be so explosively steep as to seem vertical or infinite, fundamentally altering consciousness. A tear in the fabric of history, he describes it. In Kurzweil’s eschatology, the entire cosmos will suffuse with an immense knowledge and intelligence that originated in biological process on earth, infinitely leveraged by intelligent machines and reaching outward at the speed of light. I too feel the signs of the times, though with less optimistic outcomes. But whether it is from paradise or cataclysm, there is no turning back. In my personal rowboat just up river from some Niagara’s spectacular fall off, I vainly imagine I am skirting the event horizon of the water’s immense tug, the point beyond which no oarsmanship can reverse course. The repeated addictions and compulsions, the pervasive dread in my soul, are mere preliminaries to the final sweep over the edge. The true singularity is death.

Maybe we all need an allowance for a bit of misery spewing. I hope this is my one and only ration of foreboding for the week.

A new poet laureate was announced today. Kay Ryan’s story is humble, unpretentious and heartwarming. Here’s an excerpt from the announcement in the New York Times:

When Kay Ryan was a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, the poetry club rejected her application; she was perhaps too much of a loner, she recalls…

Known for her sly, compact poems that revel in wordplay and internal rhymes, Ms. Ryan has won a carriage full of poetry prizes for her funny and philosophical work, including awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1994, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, worth $100,000.

Still, she has remained something of an outsider.

“I so didn’t want to be a poet,” Ms. Ryan, 62, said in a phone interview from her home in Fairfax, Calif. “I came from sort of a self-contained people who didn’t believe in public exposure, and public investigation of the heart was rather repugnant to me…”

Dana Gioia, a poet and the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, was an early supporter of Ms. Ryan’s work, describing her as the “thoughtful, bemused, affectionate, deeply skeptical outsider.”

“She would certainly be part of the world if she could manage it,” he said. “She has certain reservations. That is what makes her like Dickinson in some ways…”

Her father was a dreamer. She once said he could “fail at anything,” having tried selling Christmas trees, drilling oil wells and working in a chromium mine.

It was after his death, when she was 19, that she started writing poems. But Ms. Ryan said she always had mixed feelings about it. “I wanted to do it, but I didn’t want to expose myself,” she said…

In 1976 she finally realized that she could not escape the poet inside her. She had decided to ride a bicycle from California to Virginia in 80 days. Riding along the Hoosier Pass in the Colorado Rockies, she said, she felt an incredible opening up, “an absence of boundaries, an absence of edges, as if my brain could do anything.”

“Finally I can ask the question: Can I be a writer?” The answer came back as a question, she said. “Do you like it?”

“So it was quite simple for me. I went home and began to work.”

Public recognition came slowly. It took 20 years for her to receive acclaim for her work. “All of us want instant success,” she said. “I’m glad I was on a sort of slow drip.”

Here are two samples of her work:

Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard

A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small —
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard.

***
Home To Roost

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small —
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.