Kay Ryan, “Salvage”

With thanks to Nadia Nasedo

“Salvage” (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The wreck
is a fact.
The worst
has happened.
The salvage trucks
back in and
the salvage men
begin to sort
and stack,
whistling as
they work.
Thanks be
to god—again—
for extractable elements
which are not
carriers of pain,
for this periodic
table at which
the self-taught
salvagers disassemble
the unthinkable
to the unthought.


What Nadia and I discovered reading this poem is what you discovered. Namely, it is impossible for us not to have strong feelings about how the speaker, someone we assume has suffered something catastrophic, should feel.

It isn’t that we’re wrong in our judgment, necessarily. The last word, “unthought,” implies there might be a point where the wreck might not matter. The speaker seems to want to move there too soon. Only the wreck is a fact. “The worst has happened” is our narrator’s opinion, presented as if it were a fact. Thanks are given to god for parts of the wreck; apparently, those parts don’t carry any pain and the potential for reassembly is implicit. We are all salvagers to a degree; does the speaker identify with that?

The trouble with the above reading is that it is a “first sailing,” to use the term in Benardete’s strict sense. We see an argument and disagree with it: case closed. We have failed to reconstruct the full drama, which in this case includes us. When the drama is accounted for, the argument reveals something quite unexpected.

The second sailing starts with taking the speaker seriously as an observer. Yes, she’s hurt and probably wrong that “the worst has happened.” There are many wrecks in life, to say the least. But she watches the salvage men with keen interest.

They truck “back in” and they “begin to sort and stack.” It feels like they’ve been here before, turning disorder into order. They’re whistling as they do this, again. Why the cosmic imagery, why the need to invoke Creation? Yes, there are “extractable elements” that don’t carry pain; yes, the “self-taught salvagers” break down in order to build again. The speaker can’t possibly be thinking all acts of destruction are also acts of creation, no matter how much one part of the cycle depends on the other. It’s too glib to say such a thing.

But again, I’ve been led into a trap. She’s just bearing witness and expressing an ironic thanks. What she’s witnessing is just how inhuman not just destruction but creation is. How inhuman the self that can get away from her own vulnerability is.

I think I’ll leave this commentary at that, except for one thing which came up with “unthinkable” and “unthought.” Of course the elements of the wreck carry pain, and of course loss subsides because of the mere fact of time. We forget in the sense that we have other things to think about. That’s why “unthought” seems a mistaken word by the speaker, but actually is the truest thing spoken. To wit: when catastrophe occurs, we respond two ways. First, we mourn that reality has been shaken, that something has disrupted a normal flow that would proceed smoothly if everything else just stayed in its place. Second, sometimes we are confronted on a deeper, much more frightening level, with our “reality” being pretty much just our conventions and expectations, that what we possess and love has no necessary being. That our “creation” isn’t truly creation, that destruction wasn’t a happenstance. I obviously am not saying this to be cynical or mean, but to drive home the point that the scariest thing really is to question the value of value. Not because of nihilism, but because of where one must be thrown to do this, shipwrecked if you will.

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