Kay Ryan, “Linens”

Linens (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

There are charms
that forestall harm.
The house bristles
with opportunities
for stasis: refolding
the linens along
their creases, keeping
the spoons and chairs
in their right places.
Nobody needs to
witness one’s exquisite
care with the napkins
for the napkins
to have been the act
that made the fact


Napkins wipe clean: are they an “act,” though, that makes “the fact unhappen?” That’s asking a lot of napkins, but a lot is at stake in this poem. We were introduced to “charms,” “harm,” and a “house.” Out of the two primary appetites – sex and food – we have constructed elaborate rituals (“charms?”). A marriage founds a household and stays private in a sense. Dining is where the household reveals itself. It isn’t just public, but orders the public that arrives.

And dining orders itself first. “Stasis” is a curious word. It isn’t just “standing still,” I don’t think. I’ll have to check this, but I’m pretty sure I have a note somewhere that talks about “stasis” being the ancient Greek term for political revolution. When factions fight, the time of the city has ceased: who’s bothering to count minutes? So “stasis” could encompass both motion and rest in a strange, dark way. No matter what, this is a forced standing still. However, Ryan’s speaker contrasts the house bristling, a house as a tense organism, with “stasis.”

“Creases,” “right places” – the first has to do with personal preference. You can look up how to fold things, but you’ll fold them your own way no matter what. “Right places” for “spoons and chairs” imply external constraints on the household. You do have to follow the guidebook for where the spoons go. And you can’t just stick a guest in a corner. There’s only so much a household can arrange itself. One gets the feeling that whoever has finished with the linens and the spoons is now taking too much time with the napkins, wondering how something that has the most personal use has that use because of public demands.

I suppose one could try to read this poem as a story of how something bad happened during a marriage (maybe someone committed adultery?) and life went on in hollow, empty rituals. If you did that, you’d have to do the same thing we’re doing while reading now.  Emphasis is placed on “linens” perhaps being clothes: an original shame is being covered up. The napkins sound like wiping away sin with purity. But I don’t know that we can read this as the story of a couple’s feelings toward each other gone sour. Something more fundamental is at stake. Piety doesn’t make a lot of sense, if we read it into the poem. First we were naked, then it was bad to be clothed. Now we’re clothed and it is bad to be unclothed. The rituals aren’t just hollow and empty in this poem. How do they add up? First man didn’t have houses or need protection from the elements or a place to help others out. Now he pretty much needs this, and charity takes us far beyond dominion in a garden.

That’s where I think the poem is going: our very conventions don’t add up because they’re a denial of fact. The poem is not an atheist’s creed – the facts are denied because we’re supposed to be striving for a higher good. Unity: family and fraternity. Linens, spoons and chairs, napkins: these things not only mark our conventionality, but they emphasize our individuality. The real promise of Eden was unity in simply being mankind. The “charms that forestall harm” are all around us. We’ve substituted ritual for trust for countless years now, and Lord knows we desperately need the trust.

1 Comment

  1. After reading this the second time (after your analysis) I saw exactly what you were talking about. I think the refolding is attempting to erase the creases (whatever the event was) from her life in an attempt to erase it and start fresh.

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