Kay Ryan, “Insult”

Insult (from Persimmon Tree)
Kay Ryan

Insult is injury
taken personally,
saying, This is not
a random fracture
that would have happened
to any leg out there;
this was a conscious unkindness.

We need insult to remind us
that we aren’t always just hurt,
that there are some sources —
even in the self — parts of which
tread on other parts with such boldness
that we must say, You must stop this.

Comment:

“Insult is injury:” alone, a strong claim. Our emotional and mental well-being, perhaps our pride, is just as important as our physical well-being.

Immediately, a qualification. “Insult is injury / taken personally” introduces the more typical problem. What if we didn’t take injuries personally? Would we lessen our hurt in life, would we be stronger?

The poem begins to address those issues:

…saying, This is not
a random fracture
that would have happened
to any leg out there;
this was a conscious unkindness.

Ryan’s “Insult” speaks, and speaks weirdly. Not unjustifiably, we assume other people insult us. But other people may not be speaking these words. Perhaps they do think our specific legs deserved to break, which on one level is “insult,” sure. If such an idea rankles us, though, it does so because we are trapped in a cruel, bigoted climate where people can honestly believe their god hates others.

Maybe all insult, in a way, presupposes such a climate. “Insult,” speaking impersonally, is our perception, our reaction. One feels the universe against them, for in at least one case it empowered someone or something to cause harm to them alone.

These musings approach conspiracy theory. However, Ryan’s speaker realizes just how dangerous it is to posit that insult “is all in your head,” or some other dismissive tripe. If there is no insult, there is nothing capable of being insulted. That means we’re either gods, or we don’t exist:

We need insult to remind us
that we don’t always just hurt…

Insult reminds us that we’re real. We are not moral abstractions who cannot be injured. Degrees of hurt matter; that hurt can come from ourselves, another, or some part of society.

But what most questions our own reality, our own significance, is ourselves:

…there are some sources —
even in the self — parts of which
tread on other parts with such boldness
that we must say, You must stop this.

It’s not just in our head, but it’s up to us to stop it. That means in all cases making a decision, asserting ourselves against a part that wants to shut down or get obsessively angry. Maybe that means acting against the source of the insult external to ourselves. Still, first things first: we must show ourselves respect.