Kay Ryan, “New Rooms”

New Rooms (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The mind must
set itself up
wherever it goes
and it would be
most convenient
to impose its
old rooms — just
tack them up
like an interior
tent. Oh but
the new holes
aren’t where
the windows
went.

Comment:

I’d like to think myself open-minded. Not a mind that “must set itself up wherever it goes,” but one that receives the world, works for the truth, matches the universal and particular accordingly. To say “the mind must set itself up” already feels like one imposes on situations, one declares oneself because one can.

Contrary to my egoistic idealism, this poem goes a different direction. Again, the mind sets itself up “wherever it goes,” implying that it gets bounced around a bit more than it would like. Responding in the spirit of convenience at times, it imposes “its old rooms.” Going right up to the limits of wherever, the mind tacks those old rooms up “like an interior tent.” Ryan ends the poem with one simple detail, one lament, after the old rooms are imposed upon the new location: “Oh but the new holes aren’t where the windows went.”

I’ve got a million questions at this point. I want to learn more about what sort of inquiry we’re talking about, where we tack up an old interior inside a new one, where mind feels bounded no matter what. I want to understand the idea of nature hinted at in this poem. “Windows” prioritizes a link to the outside, even though there is so much interior talk.

But mainly, I need to know who is speaking. The poem does not shy away from conceptual metaphors, ones which seem far too abstract, potentially denying coherence. Still, each metaphor taken by itself sheds light on the central problem. “The mind must set itself up wherever it goes” gives us the image of a wandering nomad. In the name of freedom, of not being bound to a specific piece of land, she has to embrace necessity. This is at times more a burden than a willed way of life.

The next metaphor, “it would be most convenient to impose its old rooms — just tack them up like an interior tent,” contains some consistency with the previous one. I can’t help but think of yurts, those portable tents used by Mongols. Still, these verses taken on their own constitute a decisive break with what has come before. The mind must impose “old rooms” like an “interior tent” because in some sense, mind cannot possibly be completely open. It has a structure, it has limits, it is an interior itself. Those limits can be relative to the situation, of course, and that’s what we’re talking about in this poem. Whatever situation our speaker/wanderer/nomad faces, it’s forcing her mind to be different, to see differently, confusing her completely. So why not put up the old rooms, use the conceptual framework previous? The limits of the new situation, the rules that must be mastered, can simply be covered up. Just tack up those walls already.

“Oh but the new holes aren’t where the windows went,” cries the speaker in an all too personal way. It’s really funny how the mind is an interior, yet one can’t just shape it however one likes. You can’t just graft old rooms onto the new, because then you block the outside. You block the possibility of enlightenment, of seeing nature. It’s strange how that possibility is entirely contingent on an internal arrangement, as if rationality were a moral endeavor or a miracle. As if you had to believe you can know.

Who is our speaker? Probably not someone as overtly concerned with rationality or enlightenment. I know the times I use the old rooms to cover the new. I didn’t want to face being wrong then, I certainly don’t want to face it now. Those friendships and relationships broke apart for every reason other than me; I changed where I live to simply be me elsewhere. It only takes a few moments to realize how deep the delusion goes. I can’t see out the window, indeed.