Skip to main content

Kay Ryan’s Delicate Strength

ISSUE:  Summer 2012

That great aesthete and reader Marilyn Monroe once said: “I read poetry because it saves time.” In the age of Twitter, and other tweet-like utterances from all sorts of birdies, not to mention attention deficit disorder on an epidemic national scale, it’s refreshing to find poetry that both saves time and enlarges it. We teachers tell our students that poetry is characterized by two—seemingly opposed—principles. First, it is language condensed, abbreviated, as hot as volcanic magma, as resistant as marble, Coleridge’s “the best words in the best order.” And second, that it has the supple power of suggestiveness, that its primary resource—figurative language—always implies more than it states, can generate differing interpretations and responses, some complementary, some contradictory. Poems say one thing and mean another thing, or they say several things at once, sometimes contradicting themselves. Even small ones, not just Whitman’s rhapsodic mutterings, contain multitudes. The less said, the more implied. The more implications, the more “meanings” generated, or the more responses from intelligent readers. 

We should be happy for the great things that proverbially come in small packages. In literature, we secretly think that size matters although we sometimes pretend that it does not. Just as tragedy seems deeper, or more important than comedy (it is “serious,” after all), so a Big Bow-Wow elicits more attention than a polite utterance made with quiet modesty. This is, needless to say, a Western, especially an American, obsession. The late Grace Paley finally got tired of answering readers’ questions about when she would write her big novel. She wasn’t going to; she preferred stories. Does this signal a lack of ambition or simple self-knowledge, an understanding of what one wants to do and what one does best? In his wonderful poem “Strange Metamorphosis of Poets,” the late, always astute Howard Nemerov put it this way:

From epigram to epic is the course
For riders of the American winged horse.
They change both size and sex over the years,
The voice grows deeper and the beard appears;
Running for greatness they sweat away their salt,
They start out Emily and wind up Walt.

The gender business here is only one part of his equation. I wonder whom Nemerov—more than two decades after this pronouncement—would include by way of example. Among today’s most prominent poets, Jorie Graham, with her claim for “a big hunger,” with her lines, sentences, and entire poems that have become more ambitious, less tied down, more difficult to read and even, sometimes, impossible to parse, might qualify as a major salt-sweater. Nemerov was probably not, however, really serious about gender roles, or the loss of femininity and womanhood, in his literary-historical assessments. Rather, he’s merely re-imagining the ancient notion of a generic ladder, on which most important poets from Virgil onward have placed themselves, cutting their teeth on eclogues or lyrics before proceeding through georgics and longer meditations up through the majesty of epic.

The best proofs of Nemerov’s thesis—irrespective of gender—in American poetry of the past century are, of course, Ezra Pound, working his way from the delicate imagism of Metro stations to the bloviation of the Cantos, a “poem containing history” and a lot of every­thing else; William Carlos Williams, going from red wheelbarrows to Dr. Patterson; James Merrill, from black swans, ormolu, mirrors, and bric-a-brac through the cosmic posturings and pseudo-scientific baggage of The Changing Light at Sandover; John Ashbery, alternating between the modesty of “Some Trees” and the neat quatrains of Houseboat Days, and the book-length expostulations of Girls on the Run and Flow Chart; and A. R. Ammons, wandering between work subsequently collected as The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons, and the heftier single-poem volumes Tape for the Turn of the Year and Sphere. One could add others, especially because most great poets like to try their hands at different maneuvers: Hart Crane, Robert Duncan, T. S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, and Wallace Stevens all moved between short forms and long ones. Like breath itself, poetic articulation comes in many styles, and one poet in his life will experiment with several to see which ones he prefers. Pragmatists all, American poets want to “make it new” and also to do what they do best. Once they have found the fitting shoe, they wear it.

Kay Ryan, Poet Laureate between 2008 and 2010, has stuck to her last, hitting upon a comfortable form and remaining true to, and in, it for the two decades of a slowly unfolding, late-in-achieving-recognition poetic career. Whatever grand hunger or big ambitions have distinguished all of the poets I mention above, she has maintained her diet of plain fare. No poem in this volume of new and selected older poems is more than two pages long; most are only one. Most of the lines are so short (four to six syllables is the preferred mode, especially in her new poems) that you get even more generous white borders than you would in the pages of other poets: the book is perfect for annotators, scribblers, and other makers of marginalia.

All of her reviewers feel obliged to remark on the brevity of her poems. (I include myself.) David Orr, in Beautiful & Pointless, his 2011 beginner’s guide to poetry—an effort to make poetry and poetry critics seem ordinary and unthreatening—devotes three pages to Ryan, and quotes from David Kirby’s New York Times review of 2005: “Ryan’s are the biggest little poems going.” Orr then proceeds to comment on Ryan’s “casual, if sometimes convoluted” phrasing, and the fact that she seems to lack the big hunger, the great ambition of our (mostly) male poets.

This is only part of her story. In her miraculous output, Ryan has proved that brevity is not only the soul of wit but also the essence of wisdom. Her poems are condensed and expansive, razor-sharp and richly suggestive, at once. Marilyn Monroe would save lots of time and get, simultaneously, lots of pleasure and food for thought. The poems would fit quite nicely on buses and subway cars, part of the “Poetry in Motion” series that started in 1992 and has spread to twenty American cities, including Dallas, my hometown. “Spend a few minutes gazing at this thing, en route to or from work,” the posters seem to say, “and you’ll either ready yourself for the drudgery ahead of you or steady yourself from the drudgery you have just had to endure.”

The literary genesis of a production like Ryan’s is hard to gauge but easy to speculate about. On the one hand, she looks like Athena, springing full-grown from the head of Zeus. Her appearance on the poetry scene came unheralded and she has always occupied a seat on the professional periphery, happily teaching freshman composition in a northern California community college for decades, and with no connection to MFA programs, literary schools, or “isms” of any sort. On the other hand, she seems to be the love child of Marianne Moore and Ogden Nash; or perhaps of Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens; or of May Swenson and A. R. Ammons. All of these poets figure in her background as does, as a Bloomian “covering cherub,” the much more subtly revealed and honored Elizabeth Bishop. Ryan has both done her homework and tried to conceal her tracks.

Her biography looks alarmingly simple: Born and educated in California; since 1971 a resident of Marin County; partnered by Carol Adair, who died in 2009, and to whom The Best of It is laconically dedicated (“For Carol who knew it”); published a first collection, Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends, privately in 1983. In the mid-90s her work began to be anthologized. In 2004 she won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize; in 2011 The Best of It took the Pulitzer. Last September the MacArthur Foundation tapped her with a “genius” grant.

In terms of a career but not a style, her closest analogy—instructive for purposes of both comparison and contrast—is Amy Clampitt. Clampitt, late blooming and both derided and praised, famously published her first book at the age of sixty-three (in 1983), and then four additional ones in the remaining decade of her life. She had lived in Greenwich Village bohemian obscurity for decades, arriving in Manhattan from Iowa at the age of twenty-two, thinking herself a novelist and failing at her trade; re-inventing herself as a poet; coming out after attending writing courses at the New School in the mid-1970s; getting recognized and then published by Howard Moss at The New Yorker. The rest is known.

But Clampitt is Ryan’s antithesis in all the more important ways. If Ryan is “Emily” in her laconic compactness, Clampitt—who worshipped Dickinson as much as she did her handful of other nineteenth-century culture heroes—is more like “Walt,” gushing, exuberant, releasing her words and her energies instead of holding them back. Not confessional in any garish ways, at least she gives us the details of her daily life, in New York and Maine, or as a traveler to Europe with her open-eyed, almost childlike willingness to take it all in. We experience her political activism and her deeply held Quaker beliefs. We learn what she has been reading. She moves unstoppably through syntactic thickets of her own creation as well as depths of enthusiastic feeling. Another poet—male, of course—once accused her: “You are in love with words.” She writes this to Mary Jo Salter in a letter, and then adds the man’s implication that she uses too many of them.

No good poet uses either too many or too few words. Each finds what will serve, and one person’s exuberance is as comme il faut as another’s reticence. If Robert Creeley is the prince of paucity, and Clampitt the goddess of giddiness, what we readers prize is the way each has fashioned a self by fashioning a style. Poems are made, as Stéphane Mallarmé said to his friend Edgar Degas, not with great ideas but with words. And with their arrangements (which we call syntax) as well as their sounds (which we call their music). Ryan’s are like no one else’s.

Of the many parts of these poems’ uniqueness, I’ll single out the three most obvious ones: brevity, which I have mentioned; music, which I shall come to in a moment; and, most startling of all for such an intimate poetic voice, the virtually total absence of first-person pronouns. “I” appears no more than a dozen times over the course of 265 pages, and even when it does it says little about a knowable “Kay Ryan.” “We” appears only slightly more frequently, but always with a sense of entre nous chumminess rather than any specific references. No poet with so distinctive a style has ever been less personal or revelatory, except Stevens, who uses the first-person singular even more sparingly. Even Marianne Moore makes sure that we know that her “observations” are coming from her and not from someone else. We learn, from Ryan’s work, virtually nothing about Ryan the person, even about where she lives. (You wouldn’t know that she inhabits one of this country’s most gorgeous landscapes.) What a pleasure. Instead of confession, we have words; instead of bloody limbs we have observations; instead of a cri de coeur we have charm and wit. We can make a partial intellectual autobiography out of the sources of the epigraphs to many of the poems: Ryan has been reading Chagall, Marianne Moore, Darwin, T. S. Eliot, Annie Dillard, Stephen J. Gould, Joseph Brodsky, Martin Buber, Fernando Pessoa, Robert Lowell, as well as Ripley’s Believe It or Not and many other sources you’ve probably not heard of. I cannot imagine anyone in a “creative writing” course getting away with this kind of thing. (Which says something about “creative writing” courses.)

It is natural, and often legitimate, to warm to a writer who seems to be speaking directly to you, even about you. A book is a mirror in which we find ourselves reflected, sometimes when we least expect to. I think of Ammons’s great small poem “Reflective”:

I found a
that had a

mirror in it
and that

looked in at
a mirror

me that
had a
weed in it.

As with weeds, so with reads: we lose ourselves in books and also find ourselves there.

Years ago, Helen Vendler mentioned that when she read the early volumes of Adrienne Rich, a contemporary, she had the feeling that someone else was writing down her life. Vendler was born in 1933, Rich in 1929. The critic is forthright in her sense of what she goes to poems for; part of that is learning about herself by learning from poems. When James Merrill (1926–1995) died, she regretted that she wouldn’t be able to get from him some valuable lessons on the aging process. Louise Glück has said that she was first moved by Blake and Eliot because she thought they were speaking directly to her. An even more narcissistic response is Emerson on reading Montaigne: “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, so sincerely it spoke thought to my thought and experience.”

How does this work with Kay Ryan? She is not writing down anyone’s life—perhaps even her own, except at second-hand—and she remains even more modest in her observations than Bishop. (Perhaps she’ll open up, as Bishop did, in the great autobiographical poems of Geography III, but at sixty-six she seems unlikely to do so.) Rather, her poems speak to us via the “Eureka!” principle, what Pope meant in his famous epigram “True Wit is Nature to Advantage dress’d / What oft was thought but ne’er so well-express’d.” Or Keats’s pronouncement in his letter to John Taylor of February 27, 1818, that “poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance.” The poems are not about the author, or her reader; they are about the world and about themselves. They are about the world in the way they are about themselves. The way we respond to them is almost a version of l’esprit de l’escalier: “Why didn’t I see or say that? It’s obvious and wondrous at the same time.”

Kay Ryan is certainly not writing down my life. My admiration of her work has nothing to do with the fact that we are the same age, and both gay. I know the facts of her life only because I have done my research outside the poetry. Auden wrote that when we read a good poem we ask ourselves two questions: How does this thing work? And what does it say about the person who wrote it? Ryan’s poems say little about their author, at least at first hand. As with Stevens one infers, via close reading, some muffled autobiographical gestures. From The Niagara River (2005), “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard” is an anonymous elegy for her mother; among the new poems, “Polish and Balm” seems to be an elegy for Carol Adair. It is a twenty-line poem. The second half contains a question posing as a statement, followed by another statement containing its own implicit question:

Who knew
the polish
and balm in
a person’s
simple passage
among her things.
We knew she
loved them
but not what
love means.

Not a single word has more than two syllables; not a single word is unusual. “Passage” stands out as a synonym for both movement and death; the repetition of “knew” alerts us to ignorance within understanding; “loved”/“love” gently announces the process by which a verb hardens into the abstraction of a noun. Ryan keeps her grief stoically in check. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, we can learn something about the author from her jacket photo: Ryan is off-center, to the right of a black background, her left hand playing gently across her closed lips, her eyes looking out with a combination of wonder and uncertainty. She seems to be thinking. It is the moment before speaking. An early poem, “Impersonal,” strives for tangential self-definition:

The working kabbalist
resists the lure of
the personal.

The “impersonal,” on the other hand, retains and demands its own vividness:

a crescent
bright as the moon,
a glimpse of a symmetry,
a message so vast
in its passage that
she must be utterly open
to an alien idea of person.

From the outset Ryan insinuates herself into our minds by reminding us, through epigram, vatic advice, and cockeyed vision, that people like her (and Moore and Dickinson) want to write and talk straight, but tend to circuitousness out of deference, modesty, and their general acknowledgment that the world will not align itself to our demands for simplicity (see, in Flamingo Watching, “Say It Straight,” and “The Tables Freed” with an epigraph from Chagall about nature’s instability). The new poem “The Pharaohs” is a plug for secrecy and hidden chambers, as well as an acknowledgement that our “underground systems” will eventually be found out. A following poem (“Bitter Pill”) must be read as a welling up of grief at one remove, with its pharmaceutical admonition that just “reading your name / on the bottle” produces its own “anti-/placebo effect.” And then the zinger: “As though the / self were eager / to be wrecked.” You do not need to swallow the bitter pill, whether of grief or anything else: it’ll get to you all by itself. What Ryan never says is “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense / As though of hemlock I had drunk.” Her unfashionable, frequently stiff-upper-lip stoicism is a tonic.

In “An Octopus,” Marianne Moore makes her case for “Neatness of finish!” but both she and Ryan feel the equal and opposite pull of entropy, disorder, and the uncontrollable sloppiness of ordinary life. The more we cherish clarity, it seems, the more impossible it is to maintain. “Success in circuit lies” said Dickinson, one of Ryan’s other genuinely American precursors. And circuitousness often spells horror. “The crisp act is deferred,” says Ryan, “the object blurred by scruples” (“Say it Straight”). The inner rhyme—“deferred” and “blurred”—is part of Ryan’s game. In her playfulness she is like Robert Frost as Lionel Trilling famously characterized him in 1958 at his eighty-fifth birthday party: a poet of grim, visionary terror. She often keeps the terror under wraps, but it is there.

Ryan’s poems work with the magic of provocation, surprise, and then satisfaction. Syncopation, jaggedness, and scientific acumen offset regularity, elegance, simplicity, and naïve aesthetic wonder. Her poems present or describe moments of observation and definition. Like Ammons, she is drawn to edges. Her poem “Peri­phery” announces simply: “periphery is no / one substance, / but the edges / of anything.” And like Ammons, too, she delights in wordplay for its own sake, although she lacks his antic disposition. No bosh or flapdoodle for her. “Blandeur” invents a title word as the opposite of “grandeur,” and a verb—to “blanden”—as the process of flattening out the high places of the earth. Ryan’s titles are themselves often as bland and flat as sheared valleys: non-committal, pared down, often unadorned nouns. Among the new poems we have “Virga,” “Dogleg,” “Cloud,” “Ledge,” “Stations,” “Repetition,” “Retroactive,” “Finish,” “Shift,” and “Spider­web.” “We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It,” an aphoristic full sentence, stands out like a baroque ornament on a Doric column.

The most poignant poem of grief in the whole book, “After Zeno,” is the earliest composed (1965), and the only one from Ryan’s first two volumes reprinted here. (Flamingo Watching, published in 1994, marks the beginning of her “mature” work.) It acts like a hinge between the new poems and the earlier ones. It is a double elegy, at least implicitly; it is dedicated to the poet’s father but because it comes right after the poems marking the death of a lover, we can hear in it an additional, more recent grief. It also introduces the poet’s distinctive voice and methods, already in place although not entirely perfected when she was twenty years old.

It’s a sonnet. It contains only two words with more than one syllable, and they—naturally—are quite important:

When he was
I was.
But I still am
And he is still.

Where is is
when is is was?
I have an is
but where is his?

Now here—
no where:
such a little
fatal pause.

There’s no sense
in past tense.

The mature Ryan exists here, inchoately. The poem experiments a bit too coyly with techniques she develops as she matures: the simple diction, the playful but serious repetition (“still,” “was,” “is”), the antitheses (“he” and “I,” “is” and “was,” “here” and “where”), and most of all the rhyme that sounds simple but in fact rings powerfully true especially when slightly off-balance. Three “was”es are matched by the off-rhyme in “pause” at the end of the third quatrain. “Still” at the end of line 4 rhymes with “still” in the middle of line 3, and makes a partial eye-rhyme with “little” (line 11). “Am,” like the surviving daughter, stands alone, unsupported. Most moving: the simple couplet, which proves that rhyme is crucial rather than ornamental, that only the present tense makes sense. One might even reverse the lines to say that there’s no tense in past sense because grief remains an ongoing burden. No tense, but plenty of tension. When “was” has gone, it still “is.” Her father lives.

In the forty years since “After Zeno,” Ryan has made herself a master of the off-balance, slightly syncopated rhyme that both hides and reveals depths of anxiety, muted horror. Her most personal poem, written in adolescence but reprinted in maturity, uses nonsensical lightness as self-protection and self-revelation. Later ones maintain greater subtlety.

I offer one example among many, “Turtle.” Ryan draws us in with what promises to become a poem in couplets. The first line has ten syllables, the second one twelve with an off-center caesura:

Who would be a turtle who could help it?
A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared

Hereafter the rhymes lurch a bit more, and the couplets disappear:

Her track is graceless, like dragging
a packing case places …


… Even being practical,
she’s often stuck up to the axle on her way
to something edible. With everything optimal,
she skirts the ditch which would convert
her shell to serving dish.

And finally, in this rare poem of longish lines (appropriate to a turtle), a perfect iambic pentameter line, followed by a slightly awkward nine-syllable one, and then a perfect iambic tetrameter. The turtle never imagines that “some lottery”

will change her load of pottery to wings.
Her only levity is patience,
the sport of truly chastened things.

This verse is neither “dragging” nor “graceless.” The pace alternates between the regular and the off-beat, the rhyme between the perfect and the accidental. This is charm minus quaintness. It is a tough-minded exercise in patience and levity. So, naturally, is a turtle.

The poem bears out Ryan’s joint allegiance, which I have mentioned, to Marianne Moore and, more improbably, Ogden Nash, at least with regard to her surprising rhymes. She is, like Moore, a master of the bestiary. (In a poem from Elephant Rocks called “Bestiary” she even gives the word a new twist and meaning: “A bestiary catalogs / bests.”) Animals of all species—flamingoes, canaries, deer, sheep, wolves, snakes, et al.— fill her pages. Unlike Nash, whose sprawling free-verse lines amble or rumble to a close with a cementing end-rhyme, Ryan jumbles rhyme and rhythm so that the middle of one line matches the end of a previous one, not simply for the fun of it, but often to clarify her take on her subject. You could rewrite an entire poem of hers, stretch it out and re-lineate it, and then end up with something more Nashian in its effect. Here, for example, is my rearranged version of the early fourteen-line “The Well or the Cup”:

How can you tell at the start
what you can give away and what you must hold to your heart.
What is the well and what is a cup.
Some people get drunk up.

It works better as Ryan wrote it, in lines of two and three syllables that inch downward with off-beat charm. “Start” (line 3 in the original) and “heart” (line 8) make a pair of end-rhymes, with four lines between them. “Cup” sits in the middle of line 12. You never know where, when, or how, a rhyme will hit you. Ryan seldom provides the closure you expect. Perhaps Ryan has inherited her poetic tough-mindedness from Elizabeth Bishop, who hovers as a presence behind many of these poems. She certainly shares it with her predecessor. There are frequent, sometimes faint echoes: a poem called “Imaginary Eskimos” reminds us of “The Imaginary Iceberg”; “Crustacean Island,” which immediately precedes it (in Elephant Rocks), has the line “Click, click, go the lobsters,” certainly a reminiscence of Bishop’s “The Bight.” Bishop’s “Sandpiper” is surely behind “Chop” (The Niagara River), which begins:

The bird
walks down
the beach along
the glazed edge
the last wave

“Apology” (Flamingo Watching) addresses Bishop, whom Ryan had at one point considered a mere inheritor of privilege: “I never thought you knew about exhaustion.” Now, years after Bishop’s death, Ryan knows better. In “The Fourth Wise Man,” she revisits Bishop’s “Questions of Travel” through the figure of the magus who didn’t want to move, preferring “to contemplate the star” from his home turf. See, also, from Elephant Rocks, “Stars of Bethlehems” and “Crib,” with its homage to “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”: “as if we ever deserved that baby, / or thought we did.” Like Bishop, Ryan can’t get away from Christianity, skeptic though she may be.

Most of all, Ryan shares with her precursor a technique (observation), a tone (inquisitiveness), and a frequent underlying theme (a muted sense of menace). For observation that leads to questioning and wonder, consider the opening of “Paired Things”:

Who, who had only seen wings,
could extrapolate the
skinny sticks of things
birds use for land,
the backward way they bend,
the silly way they stand?

I have already mentioned Frost, in Trilling’s portrayal, as a poet of existential horror (“If design govern in a thing so small”; “I have it in me so much nearer home, / To scare myself with my own desert spaces”). Ryan’s sense of horror lacks Frost’s assertive snarl; it sneaks up on you more slowly, like Bishop’s. In “Cheshire” she reminds us, thinking of the Cat’s smile, “how our parts / may lack allegiance / to the whole; / how the bonds / may be more casual / than we know.” Among the new poems, one has the Richard Wilburesque title “The Things of the World,” but it certainly does not concern how love calls us to them. Instead, “The things of the world / want us for dinner.” “That Vase of Lilacs” is no mere exercise in sweetness. She says of the dangerous vase: “who goes / near it is erased.” Proust had it all wrong: “we’re used / by sweetness— / taken, defenseless, / invaded by a line / of Saracens.” In the more recent “Blue China Doorknob,” we become the instruments of inanimate objects: “Rooms may be / using us.”

We must be on our guard. “Connections lie in wait,” she announces: “They entrap, / they solicit / under false pretenses, / they premeditate.” Danger lurks in absence as well as present connections. “Gaps,” she says in a short poem of that title, “don’t / just happen.” They seem to have a mind of their own (“Connections”):

And where gaps
choose to widen,
coordinates warp,
even in places
constant since
the oldest maps.

A five-line break between “gaps” and its rhyming opposite (“maps”) hammers home Ryan’s point.

I call these lines, moments, and observations “Bishopian” because of their mingling of the gentle and the horrifying. Ryan is no poet of Sturm und Drang; neither does she avert her eye from terror. The seeming light-heartedness in her music barely contains an inner explosive­ness. It’s the sheath to a sword or some magical, searing laser beam. Wordsworth, another master of what often seem likes foolish light verse (“I’ve measured it from side to side; / ‘Tis three feet long and two feet wide”) said of himself “I have tried to look steadily at my subject.” So does Ryan, without wincing. “The Pass” takes the Donner tragedy and makes of it a moral exemplum. Like all exempla, its message is universal, its language simple: “Things test you,” she says matter-of-factly: “You are part of / the Donners or / part of the rescue.” In either case, “Both / parties trapped / within sight / of the pass.” Escape is never a possibility. Put simply—and Ryan tends to put everything simply—we are all enslaved. “Extreme exertion / isolates a person / from help” (“Atlas,” The Niagara River). What she calls “exquisite gloom” (“Ideal Audience,” The Niagara River) is her version of Bishop’s conclusion to “The Bight”: “All the untidy activity continues, / Awful but cheerful.” Ryan remains a poet of hope, even in diminished circumstances. The volume’s title poem, “The Best of It,” balances confidence with skepticism. Here it is in its entirety:

However carved up
or pared down we get,
we keep on making
the best of it as though
it doesn’t matter that
our acre’s down to
a square foot. As
though our garden
could be one bean
and we’d rejoice if
it flourishes, as
though one bean
could nourish us.

“As though”: do we take this as a sign of foolish human credulity, of bravery when under duress, or of both? Will the one bean—like the crumbs in Bishop’s “A Miracle for Breakfast”—nourish us or simply drag out our suffering? Mitigate or aggravate? We won’t know until it is too late. There’s much virtue in “if” and “as though,” of course. All metaphor is really conditional in its mood: “Let’s pretend that X is like Y and see where it leads us.” So Ryan is cagily hedging her bets, playing with and against the cliché of her title, and also diminishing even the possibility of hope in the face of disaster. Notice how the first “as though” sits neatly on one line, whereas the subsequent iterations are enjambed, parted, falling over between lines, as though even language itself has been cut down.

We get, in the new poems, the same sense of hope at moments when we have every reason not to have it. One of the most beautiful of these poems has the pragmatic title “We’re Building the Ship As We Sail It.” Like so much of Ryan’s work, it is autobiography at one remove. The first-person plural (always more frequent than the singular in Ryan’s poems) alerts us to a genuine shared intimacy. We’re all in this—this boat, this life—together:

… It’s awkward
to have to do one’s
planning in extremis
in the early years—
so hard to hide later:
sleekening the hull,
making things
more gracious.

The poem is replete with participles and gerunds from the title onward. All is process. It also reminds us, again, of Ryan’s debt to Bishop. Bishop’s “Awful but cheerful” seems to echo here in the pairing of “awkward” and “gracious,” adjectives that apply to a person as well as her navigation through the straits of life. And once we’ve read around in Ryan’s work, we realize likewise that the real subject of the new “Spiderweb” is not the arachnid (Ryan’s version of Dickinson’s and Whitman’s spiders) but the poet herself. Strength, not fragility, is the essence of the web, and of its creator(s): “It / isn’t ever / delicate / to live.”

I return to Howard Nemerov and Marilyn Monroe, with whom I began. Ryan does not start out Emily and wind up Walt; instead, she maintains a tensile strength that packs depth and power, as well as lightness and delicacy, into articulations that save and then transcend time. Living may not be delicate but poems can lighten its difficulty. Consider Dr. Johnson on literature: its purpose is to allow its readers the better to enjoy life or the better to endure it. Ryan’s poems do both. 


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading