Kay Ryan, “Fatal Flaw”

Fatal Flaw (from Erratic Facts)
Kay Ryan

The fatal flaw
works through
the body like
a needle, just
a stitch now
and then, again
and again missing
the heart. Most
people never bend
in the fatal way
at the fatal instant,
although they
harbor a needle
they shouldn’t,
or, conversely,
some critical little
lifesaving sliver
is absent.

Comment:

What we use for repair also destroys us. It sounds a most natural law, this fatal flaw. “The fatal flaw works through the body like a needle, just a stitch now and then, again and again missing the heart.” The heart aches, yearning; the body and spirit suffer; the fatal flaw delivers relief in the service of desire, giving stitches where need be. Yeah, it can break us, but it is who we are. It “works through the body like a needle,” carrying out a mission, evoking our narrowness, pointedness.

“Most people never bend in the fatal way at the fatal instant.” I disagree. The more I get to know people, the more hurt and broken I realize many of us are. One might say that’s not what Ryan’s talking about. She’s talking more or less about an instant where people are completely undone, where we realize we’re living a lie and have to remake our entire lives. But I’d say that’s happening more often than one might think; some of us are remaking ourselves on a weekly if not daily basis. Ah, but those people are still living in some sort of denial, one might say, continuing with inconsistent, but nonetheless real, sense of purpose. They have not completely given up. Again, I’m not so sure. That these issues of self-esteem can be broached with such broad language, I suspect, bolsters my point. We’re hurting, we’re broken, we’re searching for some sense of serious expectation. Something has not treated us well, and the result is that we’re not sure how to treat ourselves well.

A third objection: my reading of “fatal flaw” is too narrow, as I’m implicitly blaming a sense of expectation, something that may even be societal, for its existence. I’m claiming, in a way, that it is possible to be healthier. The trouble with this objection is that Ryan agrees with me. “Most people never bend in the fatal way at the fatal instant, although they harbor a needle they shouldn’t, or conversely, some critical lifesaving sliver is absent.” In two ways, the poem overtly claims, things could be better. The needle could be absent entirely, or a “critical lifesaving sliver” could be present.

Oh, but the irony is so delicious: you want another fatal flaw to replace the one you have already? Fatal flaws are a most natural law! You can never escape the fact that what you desire can undo you. The needle must always be there, the needle is the “critical lifesaving sliver,” both present and absent. I’ll say this: it isn’t too hard to imagine ourselves healthy and productive, working for larger purposes. I do think that what we use to repair ourselves destroys us, but that’s ultimately a separate issue from the fatal flaw of a given heart, as strange as that sounds. That’s the conclusion I have to reach, given that a “critical lifesaving sliver” isn’t really a needle in the body, but a thought. Just the mere thought that we can serve a variety of ways – they also serve who only stand and wait – that we can be destroyed but not come undone.

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