The spindly, aphoristic poetry of Kay Ryan, our new poet laureate
If Emily Dickinson, as Ted Hughes once suggested in his exquisite, under-read introduction to A Choice of Emily Dickinson’s Verse, combined “the riddle and the hymn,” Kay Ryan has selected the margin and the aphorism. Ryan is a gleaner, a poet constantly imagining and fleshing out whimsical circumstances such as those suggested by a quick sampling of her titles: “Living With Stripes,” “Imaginary Eskimos,” “The Fourth Wise Man” (who, in Ryan’s conception, “disliked travel”), “Death By Fruit.” She’s a champion of underdogs and the overlooked. A poem titled “The Excluded Animals” begins, “Only a certain / claque of beasts / is part of the / crèche racket,” later imagining the toothy grins of “unchosen alligators.” The title poem of Elephant Rocks extends this theme in its description of odd surfacings at the “edges and marges” and the pushing of fragments of “shambling elephant armature, / up through the earth.” In fewer than twenty lines, Ryan explores the extraordinary strangeness of elephants, the craggy, rock-like nature of their humps and bulges, the enduring value of what is “too patient and deep to be lost,” and the artistic process itself. Her margins are achingly, eerily, wonderfully alive.
Though her lines are often half the length of those of her predecessor, Ryan’s aphorisms are fully Dickinsonian in their oddness. “Doubt uses albumen / at twice the rate of work,” she tells us, and later “Time is rubbery. / If you hide it / in the shrubbery / it will wait / till winter and / wash back out.” She is often quite tender, for instance when she assures us that “Patience is / wider than one / once envisioned” and calms us with the notion that “There could be nutrients / in failure — / deep amendments / to the shallow soil / of wishes.” Don’t be fooled, though, for, as Ryan herself puts it, “Tenderness and rot / share a border. / And rot is an / aggressive neighbor / whose iridescence / keeps creeping over.” Ryan delights, but she does not console. Her filament-like poems are short, spindly, slant-rhymed contraptions, punctuated by deliciously exact words such as “sedges,” “lacunae,” “apertures,” and “castanets.” Hers is a poetry of “herringbones and arrows,” one that evokes the “guilty shimmer” of cribbed objects. Ryan prefers the third person to the first, and her poems revolve around animals and strange facts rather than interpersonal relationships. Reading her work, I hear the voice of a particularly wry, elegant schoolteacher whispering into my ear. As she writes in “Outsider Art,” “We are not / pleased the way we thought / we would be pleased.”
Emily Moore teaches English at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and the Yale Review.