When my dad claimed that our cat was a bit stupid, I simmered with fury at his betrayal of a loved family member. Still, he had a point. You see, Stripy Tom did most of his chilling-out in a cardboard box under the kitchen table. An opening cut from it was aligned with a warm air vent, making the box into a most desirable residence. However, a ninety degree rotation of the box would swing the entrance away from the vent, and I’d watch a confused, stubborn cat headbutting the solid wall where the door should have been. On reflection, the charge of stupidity still seems harsh: habits and routines are deeply programmed, and how many of us could say, hand on heart, that we adapt to change any more quickly than Stripy did?
Odd Blocks introduces European readers to Kay Ryan, an American poet, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, who served as the United States’ Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2010. The titanic scale of her observations of human nature invite comparisons with WH Auden. However, Ryan’s distilled poems hit the reader with the overwhelming purity and power of shot after shot of vodka. Corners, taken from the 2000 collection Say Uncle, opens: ‘All but saints / and hermits / mean to paint / themselves / toward an exit // leaving a / pleasant ocean / of azure or jonquil / neatly ending / at the doorsill’. The exclusions to the speaker’s ‘All but’ category are an exclusive club and a symbol like the palm, often seen in paintings of saints, points to a short, grisly end. Hermits’ cells also evoke a sense of confinement and denial which, in our worldly times, represents an unthinkable level of abstinence: few of us would qualify for this club, even if we wished to. Ryan’s terse lines are themselves ascetic and, for a fraction of a second, the word exit, teetering on the brink of the stanza break, is liberated by space and endowed with infinite, potentially spiritual, possibility. Then, as the second stanza commences, this void is filled by a humdrum beach paradise. Azure has to be ground from the precious stone lapis lazuli, highlighting the destructive artificiality and materialism of this package holiday fantasy. Errors are made and, too late, ‘Only toward evening / and from the / farthest corners / of the houses / of the painters // comes a chorus / of individual keening / as of kenneled dogs / someone is mistreating.’ Ryan’s evening feels metaphorical and, read against The Parable of the Talents, darkness brings judgement and the end of time. Her sentences are anatomized phrase by phrase and pinned on the page like lone butterflies; the individualism of the poem’s painters is rendered futile. Their efforts to escape have been scattered across the house: each has tackled their task alone, and the alliterative ‘comes a chorus’ knits this disparate band into the chorus from some Attic tragedy where the wailing implicit in ‘keening’ evokes Biblical weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Neither is Corners an isolated example. In Easter Island, for example, a subtle modulation of Ryan’s form produces a small, slender, totemic poem which veers away from its anecdotal opening and into a meditation on humanity’s tendency towards destruction, and, despite being one of the selection’s new poems, it showcases Ryan’s restricted but expansive palette, as Easter Island’s statues are described as ‘a long chorus / of monoliths’: a string of long O sounds pull these single stones together into an uneasy relationship with one another.
Yet, despite the artists’ refusal to work together in Corners, and the standoffish relationship between Easter Island’s monoliths, Odd Blocks offers the potential for something better, explaining how ‘glacier-scattered / thousand-ton / monuments to / randomness become / fixed points in finding home. Order is always starting over.’ There’s nothing sentimental here: ‘scattered’ does not impose order upon a universe governed by ‘randomness’ but, with the brief candles of our lives, our desire to map and fix coordinates adds a sense of something human to a cold universe. There are connections to be made.
Ultimately, what impresses, beyond Ryan’s capacity to distill the everyday into a knockout concentration of thought and language, is her honesty, her capacity to see the world. In Spiderweb we’re reminded that, ‘From other / angles the / fibers look / fragile, but / not from the / spider’s, always / hauling coarse / ropes, hitching / lines to the / best posts / possible’. There’s nothing fragile about these poems either. Sure, they’re small, but Ryan chips away at her line breaks with the assurance and strength of a stone mason – and what she has created is monolithic.
Hear Kay Ryan read at The Poetry Trust’s Poetry Prom in Aldeburgh on Wednesday, 21st August, 2013.