Tuesday, February 09, 2010

`The Thing That Doesn't Match the World'

“Well, there are a lot of things that I deep six right away. Most things I write don’t pass muster.”

The words are Kay Ryan’s, though one wishes for a world in which every writer could honestly say the same thing. The admission bears Ryan’s characteristic astringency, fondness for American idiom and for retrofitting clichés (“deep six”). Thanks to Dave Lull for alerting me to issue #11 of Drunken Boat, which includes the interview excerpted above and six of Ryan’s poems. In the subsequent sentences, Ryan discusses “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard” (from The Niagara River, 2006):

“A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space –
however small –
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard.”

The poem treats a familiar human yearning with farfetched literalness, a common Ryan strategy. We want the world to commemorate the lives of those we love who now are dead. We don’t want their passage through life erased. To take literally another figure of speech: We want loved ones to leave their mark. The speaker even longs for “ruts,” a word conventionally scorned, as in “stuck in a rut” (though ruts worn by chariots endure in Roman paving). In the interview, Ryan, the least autobiographical of poets, reveals the poem’s personal origins:

“I was kind of carried away in that poem. It really is about my mother, written many years after her death, although it’s generalized … I guess I saved the poem because I was overcome by its beauty … The poem says not our circumstances but our objects shouldn’t be so hard. Our lives should make more marks. That wordplay is kind of characteristic. The poem isn’t literal, but it still gives you the rich feeling of somebody’s life vanishing without much of a trace, even of wear.”

One senses Ryan’s embarrassment at revealing too much. She’s the opposite of a confessional poet. Like Dickinson, her instinct is to conceal and at the same time reveal enough to let us know she’s concealing something. This tension, like the tease in striptease, drives the poems and keeps us coming back. The most touching of her remarks reveals the enormous confidence often concealed by true modesty: “I was overcome by its beauty.” In the same interview she says:

“A lot of the job that one has to do as a writer is to protect the thing that doesn’t match the world.”

1 comment:

Hannah Stephenson said...

Sheesh. I love this post and the end quote. It's a little sad, isn't it.