Monday, June 3, 2013

Review of Elephant Rocks by Kay Ryan

Some poets give you nothing and it’s everything. Other poets give you everything and it’s nothing. Kay Ryan is one of those latter poets. Zany and nonsensical metaphors build and build in a pleasing but predictable rhythm, cloyingly rhymed and flat as a pancake, until they seem to whip up into something strange, and signify something deep about humanity, the earth, even, gasp, God, but since they risk nothing and aren’t really about anything other than perhaps the metaphors themselves and the way they attack the mind’s pleasure centers, they leave the reader with nothing but the feeling they are safe in whatever illusions they came in with.

This is not to say these miniatures aren’t enjoyable – they are, like easily solved algebra equations, which is something in this day of intentionally disconnected circuitry masquerading as poems because they cannot be called anything else but poems. But it all falls apart in the reader’s hand – oh, I think she was talking about that, but maybe it was this, but anyway, life is strange, people are funny, let me read another one like it is lightly salted popcorn. That’s fine for some people, but I get highly annoyed at such a waste of what appears to be genuine poetic talent. There’s no sense in this entire book that there is actually pain and wisdom in human relationships, or that it’s a struggle to find some temporary respite of truth in the strict school marm of the universe, and no possibility that turning ones perceptions inward will bring one closer to God. At least Mary Oliver gives you that. She is really writing about something besides the act of writing, or more precisely, the act of thinking of something to write about.

Still, the overwhelming sense of vacuous preciousness is not what bothers me, nor is it that insidious manner of how carefully for the eye of the common man she has pilfered the public library for philological and historical arcana to sprinkle carefully on top of the poems like so much vitamin-fortified confectionary sugar. No, her art for me is like that card-shuffling trick before the poker game, a show of virtuositic force that almost distracts you from the all-important fact that the game hasn’t even begun. It’s done before the bets are made that can make or break souls, where nothing is certain, clues can deceive but are your only hope, as you boil the water and roll up your sleeves and turn up the lamp to examine the entrails on the table, and instinct will carry you over the abyss every time. To see Kay Ryan in her Emily Dickinson stripped of the tragic tone of witty wonder bring us her musings on intention, measures, chemistry, connections, age, silence, loss, relief, distance, heat and poetry in translation (to randomly cite various titles/themes in this collection) – it’s so thrilling to think we know such things, how clever that these abstractions can be compared to zoo animals, how sharp that the mind can connect all the dots like a born pattern-maker.

But then the bottom drops out. There's nothing even remotely there because even the smallest break through the illusion is too painful to bear. You were suckered again by the need to not have anything to believe in, to be arch and ironic instead of real, and to not ask too much of your mind when it is barely able to hold it together in a world where nothing is as it was only yesterday.

Ryan’s is a trip through the garden of a neat and orderly Victorian gentlewoman, full of good cheer and good manners, but there are no flowers to take with you on your journey home.


erin said...

yikes. examples? (i'm afeard of writing now:)

but seriously, examples?


WAS said...

Don't EVER be afeard of writing, erin! You are always impossibly real, which is all I care about.

I very deliberately and painfully didn't use examples, but since you insist, here's a poem totally at random:

How a Thought Thinks
A thought is dumb,
without eyes, ears,
opposable thumb,
or a tongue.
A thought lives
underground, not
wholly moleish
but with some
of the same
The amazing thing
is that it isn't helpless.
Of all creatures
it is the most
random eater.
Caring only for travel
it eats whatever
roots, ants, or gravel
it meets. It occupies
no more space
than moles. We know it
only by some holes
and the way
apparently healthy notions
topple in the garden.

(I swear I didn't plan that)

Hannah Stephenson said...

Interesting, Bill! I like your opening couple of lines very much....and appreciate the engagement with Ryan's work (even if this collection wasn't your favorite). I tend to really enjoy her, but haven't read this collection. I like the idea of thinking about some poems as miniatures...

WAS said...

Thanks, Hannah, for your considerate note. Needless to say, I always find your work uniquely and surprisingly authentic. I wrote this on a plane over a month ago, and only posted it knowing how it's not the person I want to project to the "world" when I realized that there's a long history of poets getting kicked out of republics. Thanks for understanding that intuitively.