November 20, 2015
ince the start of this century we have lost poets, such as Seamus Heaney, Thomas Tranströmer, Maxine Kumin, Anthony Hecht, and Gwendolyn Brooks, who will be familiar to poetry lovers a century from now. A few others of their caliber remain, particularly Richard Wilbur and Derek Walcott, as well as the underappreciated Rhina Espaillat and X.J. Kennedy.
If we were being honest, most of us would admit that, as a group, the celebrated poets of the next generation are poor replacements for their predecessors. Relentless networking, prolific but generic free verse, and safe ideology portrayed as radical courage have lifted a host of mediocre poets into what passes today for literary celebrity.
One poet who legitimately stands apart from others of her generation is Kay Ryan, who comes from outside the academic and literary establishments. Ryan, a two-time Poet Laureate, has honed the techniques of her latest book, Erratic Facts, for decades, but the eclectic themes of this book are darker and more metaphysical than much of her previous work.
It is fair to say that the remarkable Ryan is an acquired taste. The building blocks of her brief poems are not lines or stanzas, but declarative sentences beginning with a subject and an active verb. Most of her poems have two to six of these sentences fragmented into the type of brief lines popularized by Robert Creeley.
As with the blank verse of Robert Frost, Ryan’s sentences tend to seem straightforward, even flat, at first. They often repeat (or slightly warp) the tropes of clichés; her aphorisms frequently sound familiar even when they are novel. These techniques make her initial sentences easily accessible to a nonacademic audience, and her seeming rejection of literary artifice reinforces her poems’ authenticity:
The fatal flaw
the body like
a needle, just
a stitch now
and then, again
and again missing
the heart. (“Fatal Flaw”)
this is the
rule of dogs
for whom there
are no fool’s
errands. (“Fool’s Errands”)
The sense of security Ryan initially creates does not last for long: she is intent on “lulling us/to the essential/focal baffling/inherent in/experience.” Within her flat opening sentences one invariably finds the shrouded foundations for meticulously crafted puns and other wordplay (“hearts can go/with chambers/broken open”), fresh rhyme (began/Chopin; untrackable/implacable) and off-rhyme (“information/ocean”) in both neat couplets and unexpected locations, alliteration (“where the windows went”), paradoxes (“Dry things/letting us/drink?”), and innovative fusions of words (“the fizz of conversion”).
Ryan’s “baffling” of the reader often begins with an unexpected turn in her second sentence:
The tree must be
the house, the
doors of which
must fix upon
a width proportionate
to people. Objects
in the rooms
must coexist. (“Putting Things in Proportion”)
Subsequent sentences veer in directions whose logic is not always immediately clear. These leaps are not in the least lazy or sloppy—they are the intended moments of “baffling” in which Ryan wants her audience to ponder her words in order to see the world differently.
Erratic Facts’ opening poem, “New Rooms,” casually casts epistemological doubt on every poem that follows; it extends a metaphor for the mind that describes how we repeatedly use the same limited mental tools for each new subject we fail to understand. The same theme continues more explicitly in the next two poems. In “On the Nature of Understanding” Ryan compares the process of intellectual discovery to taming “something wild.” Despite what seems like progress, the effort at discovery is vain (perhaps in both senses of the word) because the “something wild” turns on its captor and exposes the captor’s delusions:
strange when it
attacks: you thought
you had a deal.
Similarly, in “Why Explain the Precise by Way of the Less Precise?” Ryan returns to the difficulty of attaining true understanding in a tone of barely suppressed frustration (“It doesn’t seem right…”), but pulls back to end on a more upbeat note by declaring that the mind can grow “somehow/more exact”—as if she doesn’t want to be responsible for discouraging people from the introspection that can give meaning to life.
Ryan shifts gears in the fourth poem, “Ship in a Bottle,” but stays on her dark and ambitious road by addressing mortality, albeit in a quirkily comic way, blurring reality and art as she looks at a ship crafted to appear as if it were sailing stormy seas. She imagines her godlike choice between letting the boat founder in its storm or destroying it by breaking the bottle in a doomed effort to free it, then concludes with the macabre, “Which death/will it be,/little sailors?”
“Tracers” continues the uneasy contemplation of mortality. It begins with an off-key baseball metaphor—it uses the phrase “left outfield,” which may be wordplay or may indicate that Ryan’s knowledge of baseball does not match Marianne Moore’s. The poem considers the physics of motion as a tool for thinking about the trajectories of our lives, and concludes with another jarring but comic assertion: “the dead can’t finish/a thing.” Once one gets past the humor and strangeness of that thought, it is a reminder that activity is what characterizes life, and that a life watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians and cat videos barely counts as life at all.
Many of the poems of Erratic Facts rely upon close attention to detail in a manner reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop. “The Paw of a Cat” beautifully describes the way that water flows into a ditch; “Erasure” notes a pencil’s “rubbery crumbs.” There are also many highly compressed poems of whimsy, such as the eighteen words of “Velvet” or the dragon’s tale in “Token Loss.”
Erratic Facts includes a haunting elegy for Joseph Brodsky, meditations on biology, a poem on infinity, intimate pieces that worry about losing love, and a host of poems that resist concise description. Ryan’s impressive breadth is equaled by her great wit; epiphanies abound in these carefully crafted verses that justify occasional struggles with opaque phrases.