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Kay Ryan, “Wooden”

Wooden (h/t Tessa Hulls)
Kay Ryan

In the presence of supple
goodness, some people
grow less flexible,
experiencing a woodenness
they wouldn’t have thought possible.
It is as strange and paradoxical
as the combined suffering
of Pinocchio and Geppetto
if Pinocchio had turned and said,
I can’t be human after all.


This poem is what I can’t say. I can say generally that I feel taken for granted. It’s true but generic and doesn’t indict anyone.

The poem, on the other hand, explores a boast and a related pain. “Supple goodness” is no less than showing gracefulness. To say it characterizes you, or that you help make it present, seems like insane bragging. But at some point, you know you’ve exhibited it. You know you’ve worked to put others at ease, you know you’ve achieved it at moments, you’ve seen them happier and heard their gratefulness and have good reasons you weren’t lied to.

And then it’s all over. Your “supple goodness” produces nothing for anyone. They’ve moved on, whether back to families, or to other friends, or to relationships or careers. And the kind of grace you manifested seems a colossal waste. What you were doing was not a lie, contrary to every thought in your head screaming otherwise.

Just as virtue depends on the existence of vice, our better traits encourage behaviors which in turn take them for granted. This is more than a cynical consequence. When you act one way well, you allow others to act differently, even as they seem to participate in your action. Complicating things infinitely: woodenness may not be a vice. It’s a kind of cementing in the way one way is, a kind of self-knowledge that willfully withdraws. It creates the conditions for certain graces to emerge, but it is what grace allows.

The end result is tragic, there’s no doubt about that. And this: grace didn’t replicate, but stayed itself, and that was the problem. The sadness is that things are known, and hard – if not impossible – to accept. Pinocchio deciding not to be human feels wrong to us, but in a way, it is true to his origin and Geppetto’s love for him. We can’t really accept that the perfection of a virtue could be that virtue’s very failure. Don’t virtues create good in the world? Don’t they make us better? Sort of. You can be the best person the world has ever known, and strictly speaking no good for anyone.

Kay Ryan, “Chop”

Chop (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The bird
walks down
the beach along
the glazed edge
the last wave
reached. His
each step makes
a perfect stamp–
smallish, but as
sharp as an
emperor’s chop.
Stride, stride,
goes the emperor
down his wide
mirrored promenade
the sea bows
to repolish.


I was at a sports bar tonight and I couldn’t do a thing there. Everyone came in with their group and no one was particularly prone to saying hi or sharing a conversation with strangers. The bartenders were these gorgeous women with tattoos, and the tattoos were elaborate enough to be conversation starters. Emphasis on “start,” as there wasn’t much of a middle or end.

So let’s talk about our speaker in this poem. She’s watching a bird walk – maybe there’s a bit of a waddle? – down the beach. She gives us three sentences about this. In the first sentence, she mentions “bird” and “beach,” but elaborates that the last wave created a “glazed edge” upon which the bird walks along. In the second sentence, she talks about the footprints this bird makes as he steps. They are perfect stamps, “sharp as an emperor’s chop.” You can read about chops here; they are official stamps that were as good as a signature of the emperor. In the third sentence, she talks as if the bird was the emperor, striding down a “wide mirrored promenade” belonging to him, repolished by an obedient sea.

Okay then! This is already a step up from my bar conversation – the speaker is a crazy person with big ideas. As is always the case with Kay Ryan, her speaker’s imagery is “as sharp as an emperor’s chop.” A lot rests on “the glazed edge the last wave reached;” this is a mirror, sure, but a mirror created by the sea or ocean. It isn’t hard to stretch the idea of water a bit further and assert that no less than time reflects the bird, giving it back a perfect, even idealized image, maybe of itself. Ryan’s speaker does not say “mirror” initially. “A glazed edge” is literally a reflective line, and maybe even not a line. Where the ocean meets the earth is not clearly drawn or given, just like the present is nothing but what has passed turning into the future.

So what does it mean that Nature gives this little bird back a resplendent image of itself? (This has happened: it is origin of the poem.) That’s a bit tricky, but it’s easy to see that our notions of power start looking pretty pathetic. We create all this conventional machinery, rig up entire systems of belief and virtue, to give an Emperor the power he has. All that power, power over life and death, culminates in his stamp. And we go through even more elaborate lengths to make sure that stamp looks perfect, like the power of God has made itself manifest. And here’s a small bird with small steps making footprints that are just as good, if not better.

But the bird is obviously not waddling along the beach because it is powerful. It probably looks free. To be free is to be mirrored by nothing less than time, which stands outside you. The Emperor ultimately was crafted out of necessities to respond to necessities. His stamp leads to a world of even more conventions and all sorts of pointless pettiness. The bird makes stamps as it walks. It seems to do as it will in a world which exists around it. The bird points to the rest of the world, not just what is man-made with singular purpose. We can learn from the bird, maybe be truly governed by it.

Kay Ryan, “Still Start”

Still Start (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

As if engine
parts could be
wrenched out
at random and
the car would
still start and
sound even,
hearts can go
with chambers
broken open.


I brushed this poem aside several times, thinking there wasn’t much happening except the obvious. But something nagged and pushed me to go back each time. This time, it wasn’t a small voice inside my head, but just rereading my journal to see what I was working on.

A counterfactual is proposed: a car with engine parts wrenched out at random can “still start” and sound. This is the exact same as how broken hearts keep going.

So fine. We’re not machines, because we go on in an even dumber way – that was my first read.

This time, I became fixated on “still start.” It’s a strange expression. It has some very dark implications; I felt it implied “still born” in a way. It isn’t simply equivalent to “yet will start in spite of.” It is the image of “starting” while still, making one wonder if something started so can move at all or is ready to die again.

To extend the metaphor a bit less morbidly: maybe all of us “still start.” Our being contains potential and pain; there are spaces within us distributed randomly. Thing is, our being is realized in time. To put something incomplete out there is to watch it “go” as a cruel joke. It makes a sound and seems to move, but it doesn’t accomplish an end except by chance. The heart/engine isn’t precisely because it is.

This brings us to more extended metaphor. The only way the heart can be is to be whole in time. Time, then, has the burden of making us “go” and making us count. It does the former in a way no matter what; our speaker grudgingly hints it may also do the latter. One might be tempted to write the speaker off as a romantic, seeing love and disappointment as a totality that they aren’t necessarily. That doesn’t quite do justice to the fact that some losses are utterly crushing, that time is a cruel taskmaster of a machine. The darkness of this poem is that in spite of it all, our hearts are crucially dependent on mechanism. Disappointment isn’t our regret we weren’t loved. It’s our thought that we didn’t love well enough.

Kay Ryan, “Salvage”

With thanks to Nadia Nasedo

“Salvage” (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The wreck
is a fact.
The worst
has happened.
The salvage trucks
back in and
the salvage men
begin to sort
and stack,
whistling as
they work.
Thanks be
to god—again—
for extractable elements
which are not
carriers of pain,
for this periodic
table at which
the self-taught
salvagers disassemble
the unthinkable
to the unthought.


What Nadia and I discovered reading this poem is what you discovered. Namely, it is impossible for us not to have strong feelings about how the speaker, someone we assume has suffered something catastrophic, should feel.

It isn’t that we’re wrong in our judgment, necessarily. The last word, “unthought,” implies there might be a point where the wreck might not matter. The speaker seems to want to move there too soon. Only the wreck is a fact. “The worst has happened” is our narrator’s opinion, presented as if it were a fact. Thanks are given to god for parts of the wreck; apparently, those parts don’t carry any pain and the potential for reassembly is implicit. We are all salvagers to a degree; does the speaker identify with that?

The trouble with the above reading is that it is a “first sailing,” to use the term in Benardete’s strict sense. We see an argument and disagree with it: case closed. We have failed to reconstruct the full drama, which in this case includes us. When the drama is accounted for, the argument reveals something quite unexpected.

The second sailing starts with taking the speaker seriously as an observer. Yes, she’s hurt and probably wrong that “the worst has happened.” There are many wrecks in life, to say the least. But she watches the salvage men with keen interest.

They truck “back in” and they “begin to sort and stack.” It feels like they’ve been here before, turning disorder into order. They’re whistling as they do this, again. Why the cosmic imagery, why the need to invoke Creation? Yes, there are “extractable elements” that don’t carry pain; yes, the “self-taught salvagers” break down in order to build again. The speaker can’t possibly be thinking all acts of destruction are also acts of creation, no matter how much one part of the cycle depends on the other. It’s too glib to say such a thing.

But again, I’ve been led into a trap. She’s just bearing witness and expressing an ironic thanks. What she’s witnessing is just how inhuman not just destruction but creation is. How inhuman the self that can get away from her own vulnerability is.

I think I’ll leave this commentary at that, except for one thing which came up with “unthinkable” and “unthought.” Of course the elements of the wreck carry pain, and of course loss subsides because of the mere fact of time. We forget in the sense that we have other things to think about. That’s why “unthought” seems a mistaken word by the speaker, but actually is the truest thing spoken. To wit: when catastrophe occurs, we respond two ways. First, we mourn that reality has been shaken, that something has disrupted a normal flow that would proceed smoothly if everything else just stayed in its place. Second, sometimes we are confronted on a deeper, much more frightening level, with our “reality” being pretty much just our conventions and expectations, that what we possess and love has no necessary being. That our “creation” isn’t truly creation, that destruction wasn’t a happenstance. I obviously am not saying this to be cynical or mean, but to drive home the point that the scariest thing really is to question the value of value. Not because of nihilism, but because of where one must be thrown to do this, shipwrecked if you will.

Kay Ryan, “Lime Light”

“Lime Light” (from Persimmon Tree)
Kay Ryan

One can’t work by
lime light.

A bowlful
right at
one’s elbow

produces no
more than
a baleful
glow against
the kitchen table.

The fruit purveyor’s
whole unstable

doesn’t equal
what daylight did.


For now, I want to use this poem as an introduction to a theme I consider more radical. I’m not sure, but I think fame in Dickinson is closely connected to the problem of self-knowledge. Again, not sure. One might consider fame destructive of self-knowledge, but at the same time to speak our own name is to hope someone else can understand or appreciate it.

“One can’t work by lime light:” fame and related aspirations are not conducive to our everyday work. That seems intuitive enough, though there is a trap. Some people do seem to work in the lime light, by lime light, for the lime light. We can’t really say their efforts are nothing but vanity. Such a thing would probably be akin to saying that saying one’s own name is vanity, or that speaking at all is vanity. That gets absurd in the extreme.

So the speaker talks about what seems to be her own experience with limelight. She had a “bowlful” right at her elbow at the kitchen table. The bowlful produced nothing but the baleful. The joke is that this is a light literally made of limes; this is as far away from anything recognizable or honorable. It is nonsense, except for this thought: we construct fame from the everyday. Our speaker sees smallness and weirdness. Nothing good comes from it.

This is counterintuitive to me, to a degree. I read Xenophon. I play with the idea that once upon a time, there were men who wanted to lead. If they could prove themselves leaders, they would be rulers, others would be ruled. And if something in their nature meant that they were better at ruling, it might mean they were a higher class of being, not simply human being. Perhaps they would have credible claims to divinity.

So it is strange for me to have to think that fame is like a weird, slightly ominous glow coming from a bowl of fruit in the kitchen. I tend to think that whatever fame generally is, it is related to the problem of men competing with each other for a status they think immortal.

Ryan’s speaker seems to understand my concern, as she introduces another figure into the poem: a fruit purveyor. That weird, ominous everyday glow which is nearly useless came from someone – anyone – who arranged a bowl of fruit. Dickinson makes a similar point in her work, that fame is contingent on whatever some yahoo or combination thereof thinks. To want fame is to subject your good graces to their judgment, to build from that. The classical problem in a way speaks past both Dickinson and Ryan. It ties fame to rule; the highest sort comes from rule. All other sorts of fame don’t matter as much as those where leadership is involved.

Whereas for the artist or artisan simply trying to make the most of the everyday, fame is actually unnecessary. The light we see with every day is fine. The important thing, it seems, is the broadness of perspective “daylight” implies as opposed to “lime light.” That much does speak to a point which comes up in the classics. It is amazing how narrow minded, how purposeful, leaders have to be at times. Like as if they have to deny themselves real knowledge of others, maybe even self-knowledge, in order to act.

Kay Ryan, “Album”

Album (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Death has a life
of its own. See
how its album
has grown in
a year and how
the sharp blot of it
has softened
till those could
almost be shadows
behind the
cherry blossoms
in this shot.
In fact you
couldn’t prove
they’re not.


How does death have a life of its own?

It certainly seems to have an album that grows with time. The speaker is specific about the time: a “year.” By saying “year,” she has implied all four seasons. This album does not just catalog the dead, it catalogs the cycle of our lives. We go through the years and leave moments behind, moments that have parallels with other moments but are always unique in themselves.

You would say that’s not quite death: we need the specific pictures of those we’ve lost. We would need their names, to account for what exactly has been lost. So she moves to “the sharp blot of it.” There’s the album and now also the “sharp blot.” Right away, one thinks “ink blot,” like death is written or spilled. That “sharp blot” is an oxymoron helps this reading, as writing is a likely candidate for something that could be smudgy but still legible. Newspaper obituaries can “soften.”

And yet that metaphor can’t be quite right, either. The album, at least, has the courtesy to grow, be a collection of our losses. The “sharp blot” that softens, on the other hand, sounds like us forgetting not just the sting but even what those we lost said to us and what we said to ourselves about them. How can these two things be reconciled? There’s more than a tension between them; at this point, they flatly contradict.

The two metaphors end up getting jammed together. The shadows are “almost” the softened blots, the writings in memory of another. Those shadows are “behind the cherry blossoms,” one picture in an album. It tempting to think the cherry blossoms, to speak in metaphor, are a combination of shadows and album, words and seasons. The shadows and album frame a vague space in which an image appears. This sounds too beautiful to be true and it is. Cherry blossoms are symbolic of the ephemeral as they so quickly blossom and wither. If those shadows are indeed what we thought about another, then what is most scary is how the picture of cherry blossoms contains nothing but our forgetfulness. Remembrance is really trying to remember, finding something that may or may not be the person we loved. “You couldn’t prove they’re not:” we can never say for certain that what we think we remember is wrong, so we cannot be right about them either.

Ryan’s poem prevents that dark a cynicism. Death does not have a life of its own because we forget as time goes on, losing even our memory of those we loved. The cherry blossoms were natural and are not now an image: we have what we think is an image of them. Death has a life of its own because, somehow, we eventually come to terms with it. I am speaking almost glibly, with no real way to convey the pain involved in these things. We recognize the natural as greater than our attempts to grasp it. Those who are lost are unique and irreplaceable, like those blossoms. We know nature is not final, hoping its incomprehensibility justifies the hope of rebirth.

Kay Ryan, “Emptiness”

“Emptiness” (from The Atlantic)
Kay Ryan

Emptiness cannot be
compressed. Nor can it
fight abuse. Nor is there
an endless West hosting
elk, antelope, and the
tough cayuse. This is
true also of the mind:
it can get used.


The cayuse is exceptionally tough; Wikipedia described them as “feral” horses. The cayuse sounds like some kind of survivor, something unwanted that finds its way and its place on its terms. What does this have to do with “emptiness?”

Going back, we find “emptiness cannot be compressed” a peculiar statement. Usually we speak of finding fulfillment, taking advantage of an empty space to put something fruitful. Instead, this speaker wants to crush emptiness. There’s resentment toward it: “Nor can it fight abuse.”

I think I understand the feeling. There are times I’ve been treated unjustly by people I depend on, people I need to believe in me. When they don’t provide or show kindness or support, there’s less anger and more a self-questioning. Is this all for naught? Should I have done everything differently? That’s emptiness – not potential for fulfillment, but doubt any such fulfillment exists.

Going further, the “endless West” metaphor makes perfect sense. Maybe there are objects worth hunting, a frontier worth building. But “cayuse” is a stark reminder that one can read oneself wrongly into a place. The feral horse survives just as we do. We’re aiming wrongly when we want success to bail out our failure. We need to be able to fail and be right, both at once. The rightness of our being should never translate into advantage strictly, if at all.

Ryan’s speaker isn’t looking for solace in her last line. Sometimes you do need to question when all you have is nothing. Of course, there are complications. The mind can be used as emptiness is abused. But emptiness is abuse of the mind, no?

I’m tempted to think we’ve covered the relevant issue. Make someone feel emptiness, you abuse them, you make them use their mind in terrible ways. They have to fight with a number of issues regarding failure and possibility that don’t always lead to serious or healthy answers. At the same time, the mind getting used is emptiness’ inability to fight abuse. To think is to establish a “blank” of sorts. It is to pretend there is an endless West and try to put aside for a second that we are survivors. That we are survivors, though, is screaming from the emptiness itself.

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


“Impose” for me triggers another metaphor, that of mind as grasping or acquiring. I think Ryan’s poem “Octopus” (it’s behind a pay wall at the New Yorker) engages that theme. I’ll write on it soon.

So forget “acquisition” for the moment. We’re guests of some sort at a house. And while we may be good guests, one rule I’ve learned from travel is that if you can bring yours with you, you should. It is horrible when you’re someplace and there’s something you want to do and you could have done it oh-so-easily had you brought it with you. “Set itself up” must be done and “impose” is for the sake of convenience. This is not unbridled dominion. An “interior tent” can beautify a place, make it party-ready.

The explicit issue is that of mind. Why is mind an interior that must work with another interior? Our pursuit of the natural sciences breaks conventions down, no? Not exactly: it reinforces some and destroys others. It yields unwittingly its own orthodoxy. We are now tempted to throw “nature” entirely out the window. (Side note: I very often tell students that the nature/convention distinction makes sense only with regard to the question “What is justice?”)

But our speaker has brought up “old” and “new;” I wonder about beauty. Conventionality is so powerful because something in it is familiar. Aesthetics aren’t an issue – they’re the issue. They are the light we see with (“holes” matching with “windows”). Something like a natural light exists at some point. Maybe it’s the fire of the cave. In any case, we try to get it in our house as we do sunlight. Nothing so beautiful in our interior tent matters unless we orient things properly to get that light.

It would be tempting to say light and truth and nature and being have some priority over our mind’s establishment, imposition and convenience. But the one thing certain is that mind must set itself up and is setting itself up. How do we really know we missed the windows or not? The urge to get the holes and windows to line up properly is from mind itself. “Went” – motion more than settling – ends the poem. For whatever reason, mind moves on. The funny thing about dissatisfaction with one’s own opinions is that it is internal. You really can’t teach open-mindedness. It is at least twice-removed from nature.

Kay Ryan, “Masterworks of Ming”

Many thanks to Grace Pham

Masterworks of Ming (from The Writer’s Almanac)
Kay Ryan

Ming, Ming
such a lovely
thing blue
and white

bowls and
basins glow
in museum

they would
be lovely
filled with
rice or

so nice
to dinner

or washing
a daughter

a small
of course
since it’s
a small basin

first you
would put
one then

the other
end in


Perhaps refined, expensive, decorous housewares are the product and legacy of empire: we lived better than you. What kind of life, though? In the museum light, they are what they are, “lovely.” Filled with rice or water, they lose nothing. From a “glow” we considered food but not the act of eating, of actual living. Next to dinner, the filled or unfilled “bowls” would be “nice.” They are neither necessary nor lovely as dinner itself; sustenance may reside elsewhere. The basin, no matter how large, is not large enough to contain a daughter. At best she can only be put in at an angle. The manliness that constitutes politics and empire excludes the feminine (“Ming” is a male and imperial name). Women have the power of generation, of change. They are not even representative of static being.

Kay Ryan, “Pinhole”

Pinhole (from Poetry Magazine)
Kay Ryan

We say
A pin hole
of light. We
can’t imagine
how bright
more of it
could be,
the way
this much
defeats night.
It almost
isn’t fair,
poked this,
with such
a small act
to vanquish


“We say pinhole:” we (all of us? humanity? A specific group?) declare (establish? or just name?) the space where light breaks through, where visibility is achieved. “A pin hole of light:” the naming is a bringing together, an establishing through naming. The “pin” and the “hole” separately do not bring light. A “hole” can be nothing but a descent into darkness. The “pin” isn’t just size, but a break, cause, potential weaving.

But “we”also recognize the significance of the compound’s latter half. “Pin” describes “hole.” We understand the night sky as pinpricks of light. Things can’t get much brighter for us, since night would be defeated by just one pinhole.

One has to wonder whether there is always hope. Those who trust in Providence do so as a matter of belief, not as fact. “Much” and “small” make me wonder about the measure of all things. “Almost isn’t fair” and “whoever” don’t necessarily point at God beyond the void. We’re pointing at ourselves. We said, imagined, acted (“poked”). One has to wonder whether there is always hope.

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