Poets have obsessions - structures or ideas they return to ruminate on again and again. Sifting these out usually requires deep readings and re-readings, putting batches of poems in the gold pan of your mind until the motifs rise up and glimmer jewel-like on the surface. Returning to a poet you know in this way can feel wonderful; like a secret shared, or holding your lover's hand, the sensation still holds enough mystery to keep you returning, but the knowing brings you deeper. But the time and care it takes to reveal a poet's secrets might be daunting to the new poetry reader.
Enter Kay Ryan, 16th Poet Laureate of the United States. Despite her lofty government-issued title, Ryan lays her poet's cards right out on the table, in short, sly poems that wear their obsessions boldly and yield their secrets willingly. You can re-read a Kay Ryan poem several times in one minute and mine it quickly for its hidden treasures. "Say Uncle" showcases her style and trademark preoccupations in just 15 lines:
day slips by.
you will say knuckle;
Funny, right? "Ankle" and "knuckle" are funny-sounding words all by themselves, and the botched homophones make the poem delightfully silly. Upon first reading, that's what I notice most: it's rhythmic and funny. Read it again, and this time I get caught on the last lines. A little haunting feeling, or is it more sad, or wistful? Something darker lies inside. Read it again, lingering this time on "just one more try" and "another irrecoverable day slips by." Now I'm closer to knowing just what the speaker is urging the subject to give up, and the poem has suddenly changed, the fun is over, the echo of earlier laughter now haunting and mocking.
Ryan leads you playfully to the end the diving board with rhyming words and paired sounds, delicious nouns and rich words, sing-songy cadence and consonance; you don't realize she's tied a block of cement to your foot til you're already over the edge.
Reveling in the tricky origins of words, Ryan reveals the ways we manipulate language, and how we can fool ourselves and hide behind ambiguity or double-meanings:
From the Greek for
woven or plaited,
which quickly translated
to basket. Whence the verb
crib, which meant "to filch"
under cover of wicker
For we want to make off
with things that are not
our own. There is a pleasure
theft brings, a vitality
to the home.
Cribbed objects or answers
keep their guilty shimmer
forever, have you noticed?
Yet religions downplay this.
Note, for instance, in our
annual rehearsals of innocence,
the substitution of manger for crib--
as if we ever deserved that baby,
or thought we did.
Many of Ryan's poems end on a note of warning or admonition, the sudden turns at the end serving as reprimands that probe assumptions and intentions, lies we tell ourselves, or mental trickery we use to ease our fears. "We" is the subject here - Ryan is squarely speaking from a level moral ground. Far from wise or superior, she's in the same game as the rest of us, trading everyday wickedness for the occasional moments of grace. Her poems are likeable and accessible (an equally lauded and derided descriptor of poetry), but that doesn't mean they're easy or entirely pleasant. Readers looking for soothing meditations on beauty or nature to set them at ease might be beguiled at first quick glance by a Kay Ryan poem, but they'll be unceremoniously knocked onto their backsides if they read through to the end. Those of us who choose to weather the kick to the curb will be richly rewarded, if slightly bruised.
This review was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the April 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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