Kay Ryan, “Atlas”

“Extreme exertion / isolates,” says the poem.

My mind remembers being isolated from help. However, I did not think myself exerting much of anything, unless Olympic events existed in sleeping and moping.

But Ryan’s words hold truth. There was extreme exertion. Bad habits are hard to remove because of the considerable effort spent in building them.

Here’s Atlas. A Titan. A power the most modern of gods must respect. He holds the world up. He up-lifts.

Atlas (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Extreme exertion
isolates a person
from help,
discovered Atlas.
Once a certain
shoulder-to-burden
ratio collapses,
there is so little
others can do:
they can’t
lend a hand
with Brazil
and not stand
on Peru.

*

“Extreme exertion / isolates a person / from help, / discovered Atlas.” Ryan retells the myth, and her emphasis is different. I’m not sure, but I think one can say of the more traditional telling that the Titans represent a limited idea of power. The deities in Zeus’ court rule over things such as commerce, love, craftsmanship, drama. Even the ocean and underworld can be considered less primordial forces and more like societies. What the Olympians govern are human complexes, phenomena with social and political elements. That they see power in what we sometimes dismiss as hopelessly human—well, that’s divine insight.

But Atlas in this poem doesn’t sound like he needed anyone else to expose his flaw. He went to lift the world, found he could do it, and was overcome by his own power. The “extreme exertion” isolated him; “a… shoulder-to-burden ratio” collapsed. This is told as a joke, a modern metric placed upon an ancient problem. It speaks his loneliness precisely, though. All he has is the metric. No one could help him if they tried.

*

What does it mean to be trapped by overexertion? One’s own power demonstrating an effect to one’s own detriment?

Some don’t want to watch another superhero movie in their lives, but “with great power comes great responsibility” isn’t unwise. It’s remarkable in its directness and thoughtfulness. Brian Michael Bendis in a New Avengers comic has Spider-Man spell out for someone younger with cosmic powers what exactly it meant for him. She confronts him with her anger, her confusion over all the half-truths told to her. He tells her “with great power comes great responsibility.” He confesses that he spent a lot of time wondering about his power, feeling cursed by it. It caused him to fail to act in a timely way, and he lost people he loved.

The burden can’t be solved by simply acting. Yet it may be a burden we must accept. Atlas, perhaps, shows both these things.

*

What’s at stake is the character of the burden. Ryan gives us a picture where others only exacerbate the problem of lifting the earth. “There is so little / others can do: / they can’t / lend a hand / with Brazil / and not stand / on Peru.”

No matter what, there’s isolation. Olympians and comic books point away from this. Maybe thought must be given to how we must act. That if I act, as someone with a unique power, I realize I’m not only lifting a globe but a place where others live. My responsibility is bound with the responsibility of others.

It sounds beautiful, and for someone who studies what I study, it’s captivating. I wonder why social phenomena are so complicated. Meditating on the problem posed here helps me remember that trying to define “power” as anything other than, say, the ability to lift a physical object is very difficult.

But I think Ryan’s “Atlas” has hit upon a truth which I really don’t want to admit. We can create obstacles which are far too large for us to handle. And those obstacles aren’t always created by our worst intentions, or undone without cost. In the face of this, I think I can understand why I shut down before, though I never lifted the world or had the problem of someone standing on Peru.

4 Comments

  1. A picture of the obvious, Atlas was an empath.
    I wonder if this means that’s a hard thing to get.
    That’s not what happens to empaths – empathy!

    I once looked into a woman’s mind and saw Hamlet in it.
    She was more than surprised
    He had been on her shoulders and she had been carrying him there for a lifetime.

  2. Her friend was so excited at this development she hurriedly in the middle of their going home came back into the room wanting to know if I could see Polonius on hers.

    I’d forgot that.

    I wrote to Hamlet out of concern. She did not respond to my email.

  3. Save as Atlas no title

    A picture of the obvious, Atlas was an empath.
    I wonder if this means that’s a hard thing to get.
    That’s not what happens to empaths – empathy!

    I once looked into a woman’s mind and saw Hamlet
    in it.
    She was more than surprised.
    He had been on her shoulders and she had been
    carrying him there for a lifetime.

    Her friend was so excited at this development she
    hurriedly in the middle of their going home came
    back into the room wanting to know if I could see
    Polonius on hers.
    I’d forgot that.
    I wrote to Hamlet out of concern. She did not
    respond to my email.

    If I had a title for this it would be giants on
    my shoulder.

Leave a Reply to David Elliott Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.