Kay Ryan, “Still Start”

Still Start (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

As if engine
parts could be
wrenched out
at random and
the car would
still start and
sound even,
hearts can go
with chambers
broken open.


I brushed this poem aside several times, thinking there wasn’t much happening except the obvious. But something nagged and pushed me to go back each time. This time, it wasn’t a small voice inside my head, but just rereading my journal to see what I was working on.

A counterfactual is proposed: a car with engine parts wrenched out at random can “still start” and sound. This is the exact same as how broken hearts keep going.

So fine. We’re not machines, because we go on in an even dumber way – that was my first read.

This time, I became fixated on “still start.” It’s a strange expression. It has some very dark implications; I felt it implied “still born” in a way. It isn’t simply equivalent to “yet will start in spite of.” It is the image of “starting” while still, making one wonder if something started so can move at all or is ready to die again.

To extend the metaphor a bit less morbidly: maybe all of us “still start.” Our being contains potential and pain; there are spaces within us distributed randomly. Thing is, our being is realized in time. To put something incomplete out there is to watch it “go” as a cruel joke. It makes a sound and seems to move, but it doesn’t accomplish an end except by chance. The heart/engine isn’t precisely because it is.

This brings us to more extended metaphor. The only way the heart can be is to be whole in time. Time, then, has the burden of making us “go” and making us count. It does the former in a way no matter what; our speaker grudgingly hints it may also do the latter. One might be tempted to write the speaker off as a romantic, seeing love and disappointment as a totality that they aren’t necessarily. That doesn’t quite do justice to the fact that some losses are utterly crushing, that time is a cruel taskmaster of a machine. The darkness of this poem is that in spite of it all, our hearts are crucially dependent on mechanism. Disappointment isn’t our regret we weren’t loved. It’s our thought that we didn’t love well enough.

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