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The Art of Flamingo Watching

Up there some hawk or owl has struck
Dropping out of sky or rock,
A stricken rabbit is crying out,
And its cry distracts my thought.

Maybe Ryan’s mix of the grim and the genial is precisely her gift. But I can’t find “The Hinge of Spring” when I take it to be not a literal anecdote of the coyote and his prey but an allegorical story of some puritanical killjoy zapped out of power by an aggressive flower-lover.

What I like better is Ryan’s invigorating defense-with-criticism of her native West, savaging a passage (quoted as epigraph) in which T.S. Eliot loftily claims that Blake’s ideas exhibit “a certain meanness of culture. They illustrate the crankiness, the eccentricity, which frequently affects writers outside of the Latin tradition.” This daughter of the desert replies ironically (in “A Certain Meanness of Culture”):

What else can we do,
born on deserts
occupied haphazard
by borax traders
aspiring to a
stucco elegance
if they’re real lucky?
Someone has to get here
before the mythology,
to be happy in the
first tailings of industry,
and of course lonely….
You start to value culture
like you would water.
I’d say this one’s about
a two-cupper….
You get
pretty stringy and impatient
with the fat smoke off
old cities. You get cranky
and admire just what stands up
to the stars’ cold and the
sun’s fire. You like winches
and pulleys, picks and khakis….

Ryan thinks of her poems as winches and pulleys, as expressions by which a heavy feeling—serious or sad or angry—is lifted up to lightness. Like Dickinson (in “A Spider sewed at Night”) and Whitman (in “A Noiseless Patient Spider”), she turns to the spider as a symbolic sibling, but where Dickinson’s web is delicate (“Ruff…of Dame/Or Shroud of Gnome”), and Whitman’s is gossamer-thin (“filament, filament, filament”), Ryan’s, in “Spiderweb,” is a weighty one difficult to lift:

From other
angles the
fibers look
fragile, but
not from the
spider’s, always
hauling coarse
ropes, hitching
lines to the
best posts
possible. It’s
heavy work
fighting sag,
winching up
give. It
isn’t ever
to live.

Although “Spiderweb” appears, for most of its length, to be about the difficulty of constructing even brief webs of poetry (exemplified here in the tiny lines consisting of a word or two), the aphorism with which it ends pitches the import onto another plane entirely. Life itself is a coarse hauling and hitching, painfully struggling at each moment against the attrition of relationship. It will not do to sentimentalize such things: “It/isn’t ever/delicate/to live.” Such a poem vivifies the parallel between the remedying of life and the remedying of language, and argues for the strength of the apparently frail fibers of relation in both.

I have been quoting Ryan’s poems whole, for the most part, because they are comprehensible only as wholes, so neatly are they finished (“Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!” said Marianne Moore in “An Octopus”). Imagine trying to give an impression of Ryan’s “Spiderweb” by quoting only a few lines; the point of the whole is its stringency of means throughout its entire length. Reading “Spiderweb,” one realizes that it is unusual for Ryan to end so decisively in sadness, or, as in the case of an opportunity lost, in the self-vindictiveness one sees in “Intention.” Here is its unhappy ending:

Intention doesn’t sweeten.
It should be picked young
and eaten. Sometimes only hours
separate the cotyledon
from the wooden plant.
Then if you want to eat it,
you can’t.

Sweeten…eaten”; “plant…can’t.” These are meaningful Ryan-rhymes, and snap the poem into minatory shape. The best poems have mixed feelings rather than single ones.

Ryan’s work might be considered outside the mainstream, and she (as someone who began outside the realm of privilege) feels she ought to stand up, as a matter of principle, for “outsider art.” But like any aesthete, she is repelled by incompetent creation; and for all her well-wishing she draws back. “Outsider Art” was chosen by Harold Bloom for inclusion in The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988–1997:

Most of it’s too dreary
or too cherry red.
If it’s a chair, it’s
covered with things
the Savior said
or should have said—
dense admonishments
in nail polish
too small to be read.
If it’s a picture,
the frame is either
burnt matches glued together
or a regular frame painted over
to extend the picture.

Who has not seen such abominations? Ryan quips curtly, “There never/seems to be a surface equal/to the needs of these people.” Nor is their appetite satisfied by additions and extrapolations:

Their purpose wraps
around the backs of things
and under arms;
they gouge and hatch
and glue on charms
till likable materials—
apple crates and canning funnels—
lose their rural ease.

But after all this demolition, Ryan regrets that she must repudiate these abominations; is there no place in America for untutored “art” of the admirable sort she had hoped to find?

We are not
pleased the way we thought
we would be pleased.

Ryan is, despite her desert beginnings, a lover of Satie, a reader of Brodsky and Bishop; she cannot disavow her own talent and taste, her intelligence and achievement.

There was a time, however (as she says in the Key West reading), when she felt hostile to any writer who had begun with privileged status, and she assumed that to be true of Elizabeth Bishop. When she discovered the griefs and displacements of Bishop’s early life, she composed her “Apology,” beginning “I thought you were/born to privilege.” At the end, she identifies the cultural predicament in which any young woman used to find herself: “we are so fastened, we are so dutiful.”

I never thought you knew about exhaustion—
how we have to leap in the morning
as early as high as possible,
we are so fastened, we are so dutiful.

Ryan replicates “exhaustion” in the requirement to leap “as early,” “as high,” “as possible” if the young woman wants to surmount her lack of privilege, and she replicates the double bind of the external family coercion and the internal wish to be a “good girl” in the two clauses that end the poem and almost lock the girl in the house forever.

It is interesting to hear, on the Web, Ryan’s attractive voice—light, dulcet, winning, quick with enthusiasm and humor. The repression of the autobiographical in favor of the impersonal in her poetry of suffering is mitigated by her personal intonations and candid ad hoc comments. “In our home,” she commented on the PBS Newshour, “something like being a poet would be thought of as putting on airs. It would be embarrassingly pretentious, and educated, and snobbish…. I mean, it’s all right to be intelligent and to use every possible aspect of language, but never to be pompous.” Some of this attitude must come from Ryan’s view of the painfully constricted life of her mother, as though it would be a reproach to that almost anonymous parent to depart too far from her as she is remembered in the elegy “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard”:

A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place….
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.

But of course the marks of such a life vanish almost as they are imprinted. There is no indignation here but there is continued sorrow in an understatement that wrings the heart: “Things shouldn’t/be so hard.” And such poems do not suffer from the absence of ostentatious rhyme. More and more, Ryan has tempered her love for the insistent sound, to the benefit of feeling.

Ryan occupies the uneasy, and frequent, rank of the self-made American writer, growing up with no “background” that could help with the rise to mastery of language, with no money to buy select education from kindergarten on, doing an ill-paid job not offering much public recognition. (But as poet laureate, she has been, this year, the Mohr Visiting Poet at Stanford.) From a life that has not been easy, she has mined nuggets that add to American poetic wealth. Reversing Stevens’s declaration that money is a kind of poetry, she writes, in her didactic vein, “Poetry Is a Kind of Money”:

Poetry is a kind of money
whose value depends upon reserves.
It’s not the paper it’s written on
or its self-announced denomination,
but the bullion, sweated from the earth
and hidden, which preserves its worth.

Such announcements have less to do with the value of Ryan’s own poetry than her more unobtrusive lines, as in “Polish and Balm,” an elegy (one guesses) for her life-partner Carol Adair:

Dust develops
from inside
as well as
on top when
objects stop
being used.
No unguent
can soothe
the chap of
Who knew
the polish
and balm in
a person’s
simple passage
among her things.
We knew she
loved them
but not what
love means.

With the death of someone loved, one loses the almost invisible “polish and balm”—two unexpected and wholly right words—bestowed almost inconspicuously on life when she was present. Her departure leaves only “the chap of/abandonment.” And if nothing clever, in Ryan’s earlier manner, can be said about that, something better than cleverness takes its place, a “polish and balm” in the simplicity of the poet’s lines.

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