I’ve always been a bit bemused by Kay Ryan’s ascension into rarefied literary territory; it may be that the poems are too monic, or that, in that monism, they reside largely on the surface of things. Even having read a good part of The Best of It, I resigned myself to a shrug, thinking that, if nothing else, the poems have a decency and poise about them that is worthwhile.
Happily, two new poems by Ryan in Poetry have reinvigorated by interest: “Mister Time” and “New Rooms.” If I had to mark one difference between the composition of “New Rooms” (for example) and my general conception of Ryan’s monism, I’d say it has to do with artifice—per Charles Bernstein’s “The Artifice of Absorption,” ‘meaning [beyond] the exclusively recuperable elements of language’ (13). The purport of “New Rooms” is quite interesting in itself—that the mind is caught between ambience and a desire to ‘set up shop’—and the largeness of its supposition must contrast to Ryan’s trademark short-lined stanza. Also, there’s something strangely shabby about the mind’s ‘old rooms . . . tack[ed] up like an interior tent,’ insofar as one thinks of the mind as a place of electric activity, ideation, &c. And here (to use the parlance of the embattled Russian Formalists) is the poem’s most glaring estrangement:
the new holes
I love this turn: I wonder immediately whether the mind has casements that shift upon shifts in environment or understanding; whether the ‘windows’ can accord to the head’s physical outlets, like the eyes and ears; but most because there’s a real muddying of whether the mind makes vistas or operates within other organs’ vista-making, and how drastically those vistas might change. And, truly, there is something darling about the domesticity brought to this quandary by ‘old rooms,’ ‘tack,’ ‘tent,’ and even ‘convenience.’
Yet, most importantly (at least for my taste) there’s redolence in the combine of language and form here that speaks directly to artifice, at least inasmuch as I connect the call to the act of making with an imaginative movement that wants to follow that making; there’s no spoor in a poem that could be mistook for a grocery list or a dashed-off post-it note.
You haven’t escaped me yet, Kay Ryan.