Sunday, October 06, 2019

'An Art that Must Be Exact About the Uncertain'

After an absence, reading Kay Ryan again is a lark. She is the rare contemporary poet who inspires old-fashioned, much-maligned readerly emotions: happiness, contentment, even joy. Her angle is always unexpected, even when we expect unexpectedness of her. No one is wittier or less cheap. There’s no axe-grinding, thank God. Her poems can be syntactically Elizabethan but always reward the attentive reader. Like some cross-pollination of Marianne Moore and X.J. Kennedy, she can make us contemplative while making us laugh out loud. Here is “Grazing Horses” from Say Uncle (2000):

“Sometimes the
green pasture
of the mind
tilts abruptly.
The grazing horses
struggle crazily
for purchase
on the frictionless
nearly vertical
surface. Their
legs buckle
on the incline,
unhorsed by slant
they weren’t
designed to climb
and can’t.”

The second line recalls the Psalmist: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.” Green signifies paradise, whether in the dry Holy Land or America’s dry Holy Land, California. This mental paradise suffers a seismic disturbance, a peculiarly geometric earthquake (again, California). The mind’s content, poor horses, scramble and slip away. But I also thought of that disputed line in Henry V. At the start of Act II, Scene 3, a character named Hostess (probably Mistress Quickly from Henry IV) describes the death of Sir John Falstaff:

“…after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers' ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a' babbled of green fields.”

The final phrase has been read as a mishearing of Psalm 23. Guy Davenport titled his 1993 story collection A Table of Green Fields. We know from Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (2007) that Davenport approved the following passage for his book’s dust jacket:

“A constant theme in this book is the transmission of the past as an imaginative act; hence the title, Falstaff’s dying vision of `a table of green fields,’ probably a mishearing of his recitation of the Twenty-third Psalm, corrected by editors to ‘he babbled of green fields,’ a symbol of all fiction, an art that must be exact about the uncertain.”

There’s a nice summing-up of Kay Ryan’s strategy:an art that must be exact about the uncertain.”

1 comment:

Nige said...

Johnson called the emendation 'uncommonly happy', and I"m inclined to agree. Unlike 'a table of green fields', 'A' babbled of green fields' makes perfect sense, either as a mishearing of Psalm 23 (though the fields there are 'pastures') or as the dying Falstaff remembering the scenes of his boyhood. It's a beautiful passage anyway.