Kay Ryan, “Chop”

Chop (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The bird
walks down
the beach along
the glazed edge
the last wave
reached. His
each step makes
a perfect stamp–
smallish, but as
sharp as an
emperor’s chop.
Stride, stride,
goes the emperor
down his wide
mirrored promenade
the sea bows
to repolish.

Comment:

I was at a sports bar tonight and I couldn’t do a thing there. Everyone came in with their group and no one was particularly prone to saying hi or sharing a conversation with strangers. The bartenders were these gorgeous women with tattoos, and the tattoos were elaborate enough to be conversation starters. Emphasis on “start,” as there wasn’t much of a middle or end.

So let’s talk about our speaker in this poem. She’s watching a bird walk – maybe there’s a bit of a waddle? – down the beach. She gives us three sentences about this. In the first sentence, she mentions “bird” and “beach,” but elaborates that the last wave created a “glazed edge” upon which the bird walks along. In the second sentence, she talks about the footprints this bird makes as he steps. They are perfect stamps, “sharp as an emperor’s chop.” You can read about chops here; they are official stamps that were as good as a signature of the emperor. In the third sentence, she talks as if the bird was the emperor, striding down a “wide mirrored promenade” belonging to him, repolished by an obedient sea.

Okay then! This is already a step up from my bar conversation – the speaker is a crazy person with big ideas. As is always the case with Kay Ryan, her speaker’s imagery is “as sharp as an emperor’s chop.” A lot rests on “the glazed edge the last wave reached;” this is a mirror, sure, but a mirror created by the sea or ocean. It isn’t hard to stretch the idea of water a bit further and assert that no less than time reflects the bird, giving it back a perfect, even idealized image, maybe of itself. Ryan’s speaker does not say “mirror” initially. “A glazed edge” is literally a reflective line, and maybe even not a line. Where the ocean meets the earth is not clearly drawn or given, just like the present is nothing but what has passed turning into the future.

So what does it mean that Nature gives this little bird back a resplendent image of itself? (This has happened: it is origin of the poem.) That’s a bit tricky, but it’s easy to see that our notions of power start looking pretty pathetic. We create all this conventional machinery, rig up entire systems of belief and virtue, to give an Emperor the power he has. All that power, power over life and death, culminates in his stamp. And we go through even more elaborate lengths to make sure that stamp looks perfect, like the power of God has made itself manifest. And here’s a small bird with small steps making footprints that are just as good, if not better.

But the bird is obviously not waddling along the beach because it is powerful. It probably looks free. To be free is to be mirrored by nothing less than time, which stands outside you. The Emperor ultimately was crafted out of necessities to respond to necessities. His stamp leads to a world of even more conventions and all sorts of pointless pettiness. The bird makes stamps as it walks. It seems to do as it will in a world which exists around it. The bird points to the rest of the world, not just what is man-made with singular purpose. We can learn from the bird, maybe be truly governed by it.