Kay Ryan, “All You Did”

All You Did (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

There doesn’t seem
to be a crack. A
higher pin cannot
be set. Nor can
you go back. You
hadn’t even known
the face was vertical.
All you did was
walk into a room.
The tipping up
from flat was
gradual, you
must assume.

Comment:

Ambition, guilt, and perspective combine in this poem’s fatalism. It casts us in the role of a panicked mountain climber, to begin:

There doesn’t seem
to be a crack. A
higher pin cannot
be set. Nor can
you go back. You
hadn’t even known
the face was vertical.

The effect of these simple observations dizzies. Climbing, assuming the summit within reach, one fails to find a crack. Panic emerges in quiet, too-reasonable propositions. “A higher pin cannot be set:” am I stuck on a sheer vertical face? “Nor can you go back:” what Ryan has left unstated is best left unstated.

Before I comment on “You hadn’t even known the face was vertical,” we should contemplate the concreteness of this poem. Often, we create no-win situations, striving, reaching a point of exhaustion and failure, like nothing has been planned or thought through. I think it safe to say this poem focuses on the largest objects: relationships, healing broken families, fighting for one’s health, raising children, creating, even getting a degree – things, in short, that take years of one’s life. The very ambition and drive pushing us to the top makes the guilt that much harder to bear. How could we have been so stupid, planned so badly?

The collapse of ambition into guilt, that terrible numbness, invites the question of perspective. Ryan does not let the emotional effect fade. The poem’s brevity makes me feel like I’m suspended on a cliff-face, wondering what in hell brought me here, watching my life flash before my eyes. That, I think, is the import of “You hadn’t even known the face was vertical.”

It is interesting, then, that the question of perspective presents itself in a flashback:

All you did was
walk into a room.
The tipping up
from flat was
gradual, you
must assume.

The flashback attempts to absolve guilt even as it makes it worse. I wasn’t really ambitious, I tell myself, I just made a simple choice of walking into a room. At once, I think I could have walked away earlier, or I was “lured” by the fact I live life. Guilt, in the end, is a pretty useless concept, as it is the equivalent of being stranded on a cliff-face.

Perspective itself offers a bit more clarity. Instead of looking at ourselves as world-beating wall-climbers or victims of fate, maybe we should just admit that we were doing what we loved all along. It was just as easy for us to climb a cliff as it was to walk into a room. That was the trap, and it was impossible to avoid, because the world presented itself to us gradually through it. We know now what it means to know. The cost is terrible. There is nothing more to say.