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                                       Elephant Rocks by Kay Ryan

Elephant Rocks
by Kay Ryan 





Reviewed by Charlotte Muse




        Kay Ryan's book of poems, Elephant Rocks, is a delight.  It draws us in because of what it is not: not prosy, self-referential, nor glittering with showy displays of indulged sensitivity.  The poems are easily approachable and beautifully crafted; their apparently limited subjects expand in the mind like dried sponges in a bowl of water.  Ryan has achieved what every good poet wants (or ought to want); she has disappeared into her poetry, and left us with poems we come back to for their own sake.

        The experience of reading this collection is a little like going on a country walk with an exceptional guide; one who knows her landscape intimately because she's lived in it and watched it closely.  Ryan will stop and point out what seems to be an ordinary-looking stone that suddenly, before our eyes, gets up and walks away.

        The poems are short, full of sly rhymes and wonderfully encapsulated descriptions.  Here, for example, is "A Plain Ordinary Steel Needle Can Float on Pure Water": 

Who hasn't seen
a plain ordinary
steel needle float serene
on water as if lying on a pillow?
The water cuddles up like Jell-O.
It's a treat to see water
so rubbery, a needle
so peaceful, the point encased
in the tenderest dimple.
It seems so simple
when things or people
have modified each other's qualities
we almost forget the oddity
of that. 

        The pure fun Ryan's having here is infectious: rhyming "pillow" with "Jell-O"; using "cuddle" as a verb for water when we'd expect to see "puddle."  The poem's artful denseness deepens its pleasure for us: the description of water as a strangely rubbery surround for the needle; the two reminders of the needle's sharpness. The witty "peaceful" succeeds in reminding us that the needle is neither working at sewing nor piercing anyone with its sharp point.  We're skewered (sorry) by the next image, though, which almost forces us to experience the needle's point, encased as it is "in the tenderest dimple."  The poem moves swiftly to an ending typical of Ryan: suddenly, a connection is made to the larger, human-filled world, one that can seem so natural and self evident that it takes on the quality of an aphorism.  The last, deceptively resonant comment seems almost tossed-off — it's too plain spoken even to be a cliché; a casual remark that turns suddenly precise because Ryan has listened to what it means and placed it with full intention in its context.

        Something of Marianne Moore's confident singularity and fearless willingness to grapple with a subject echoes in Ryan's work.  It's interesting, for example, to look at Ryan's "Mirage Oases" and Moore's "By Disposition of Angels" together.  Ryan owes a debt to Emily Dickinson, too, with her compressed meanings and sudden wisdoms.  In the last lines of "To Explain the Solitary," Ryan pays tribute to the mystery of Dickinson's genius while briskly deflating any sentimentality  (never mind Yeats and his mad Ireland) about it:  "...Amherst/didn't curse Miss Dickinson/or Ireland hurt Yeats into song ."  This no-nonsense, come-come approach enlivens my favorite poems in this collection, the ones that deal with the work of the artist.

        Ryan takes a characteristic let's-get-to-work approach in "Doubt," a poem that tackles a problem familiar to every writer: 

A chick has just so much time
to chip its way out, just so much
egg energy to apply to the weakest spot
or whatever spot it started at.
It can't afford doubt.  Who can?
Doubt uses albumen
at twice the rate of work.... 

        There are many small, deft touches here: I especially love the sounds in the first line, with its short, stressed monosyllables mimicking the sound of the chick, and the way the third line, with its stresses on beginning syllables, slows the poem down and makes it seem like heavier work.  The fourth, apparently parenthetical line, feels well thought out, too, since it at first makes us wonder why it's there — is it misplaced? But no line in these poems is not deliberate.  This one suggests the disorientation that arises at the beginning a work; the not knowing where the vision or idea we've begun to spin out comes from.  Is it a place of strength or of weakness?  If it comes from weakness, will that prove fatal? Is our inability to know this, at least if we're trying to write something, the beginning of doubt?

        Some artists, Ryan seems to say in "Outsider Art," don't suffer from enough doubt.  "There never/seems to be a surface equal/to the needs of these people," she says.  She means the ones who can't leave well enough alone, the ones who, with an unchecked zeal, 

...gouge and hatch
and glue on charms
till likable materials—
apple crates and canning funnels—
lose their rural ease.  We are not
pleased the way we thought
we would be pleased. 

        The sonorous closing iambs stay with us; they have the force of a withering judgment without any attendant unkindness.  Ryan's attention lingers on the work; she seems to ask larger questions about the nature of making art.  What is this fury to transform?  Why isn't the impulse to beautify, God-given as it seems to be, enough to make something beautiful? By extension, how do we arrive at respect for our medium?  How do we know when enough's enough?

        In "Bestiary," Ryan reminds us that we're probably not going to be remembered for what we do anyway, that we all know where nice guys (or ordinary guys) finish: 

...The mediocres
both higher and lower
are suppressed in favor
of the singularly savage
or clever, the spectacularly
pincered, the archest
of the arch deceivers
who press their advantage
without quarter even after
they've won as of course they would... 

        "Chemistry," though equally unsentimental, takes a longer view. Who can know which of an artist's words will live beyond this life?  That decision is left to the chemistry of time, which performs its own alchemy on words: 

... it is
an acid bath
which dissolves
or doubles
their strength.
which pleased
drift down
as sediment;
iron trees
grow from filament. 

        The verb "to please" or its adjective "pleasant" recurs in these poems, and serves as a hallmark of their strengths as well as their weaknesses.  Ryan is true to Stevens' dictum about poetry, that it must give pleasure.   We are charmed by the hidden art of the poems, by their deceptive and resonant simplicity.  But Ryan does not, for example, say "we are not moved the way we thought we would be moved" or "delighted" or "changed."  She uses the more measured "pleased."   Its very neutrality works well in "Outsider Art."

        Sometimes, however, there are hints of a kind of surface aesthetic, a love of balance and order for its own sake that occasionally seizes control of the less successful poems in the collection.  Although in "Chemistry" Ryan combines "pleased" with the rather transient-sounding "sentiments," and in doing so casts doubt on the endurance of pleasure-giving as an end in itself; in some poems, "unpleasant" seems to be the strongest word she can muster:

        In "Sonnet to Spring," for example 

The brown, unpleasant,
aggressively ribbed and
unpliant leaves of the loquat,
shaped like bark canoes that
something squashed flat,
litter the spring cement... 

Granted, "unpleasant" sounds good here, describing a distinctly "unfeminine" loquat leaf, even though a French wind, a" fat-cheeked whim of air"  "expends its single breath" and gives it a tumble.  On "Any Morning," when things turn "caustic," 

...The large appliances
are bonding in a way
that isn't pleasant... 

we wonder what the pleasant way is like.  In "Learning," when a "necessary item" follows the law of drawers and is invariably at the bottom, 

...It isn't pleasant,
whatever they tell children,
to turn out on the floor
the folded things in them. 

A certain fussiness takes over here—has the poet never heard of rummaging? The central image of disarranging a neat drawer doesn't have resonance enough to support the poem's meaning.

        In one or two poems, the poet's desire for pleasing form overpowers or even dictates their message.  "Living With Stripes" begins as a celebration of beautiful natural design: 

In tigers, zebras,
and other striped creatures,
any casual posture
plays one beautiful set of lines
against another:
herringbones and arrows
appear and disappear;
chevrons widen and narrow... 

        The poem began to remind me of Gerard Manley Hopkins'  "Pied Beauty": 

Glory be to God for dappled things —
  For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal, chestnut-falls; finches' wings... 

        But where Hopkins' poem has the courage to remain open to praise, Ryan's ending disappoints: 

...How can they stand to drink,
when lapping further complicates
the way the water duplicates their lines?
Knowing how their heads will zigzag out,
I wonder if they dread to start sometimes. 

        This is droll, but it has the feel of a failed bon mot, and the poem comes apart. We try to picture the animals so hypnotized by the play of pattern on water that they dread to start drinking, but instead we become aware of the image's forced originality.  It's too neat, too cute an ending.

        I don't think "To Explain the Solitary" quite works, either, despite the truth of its theme— that people will adjust to almost any adverse situation and make it ordinary.  "Solitary" seems the wrong word. I believe Ryan means something more like "singular" or even "extraordinary," and when, in the final lines, she refers to Dickinson and Yeats, her ending, though appealing, almost sounds as if it belonged to another poem.

        The temptation to be clever overtakes Ryan occasionally in her titles, too:  "How a Thought Thinks" is a weak one, and so is "Killing Time," which is also misleading.

        Because I loved so many of these poems— "Her Politeness"; "Crustacean Island" (which is a funny, imaginative jewel); the triumphant "If She Had Only One Minute"; the wisely said "Age" or  "Part Midas"— I don't want to take away any acknowledgment due their power and grace.  The greatest weakness in this collection is an implied one: the threat of formula.  The poems are, for the most part, too sincere to be formulaic, but to a reader who tries to savor more than a few at a time, the repetitive structure of their underpinnings starts to become apparent. You begin to want Ryan not to know quite so well where she's going, not to quite so predictably observe surfaces and then offer meanings.  You begin to notice that she seems to be standing at the same distance from all of her subjects.  Traces of a sort of detached guardedness, the kind that threatens to rule out passion, surface here and there.

        These criticisms, however, are only the beginnings of criticisms; game paths that Ryan sometimes wanders onto instead of the trail.  Her achievement in this book is impressive.  She has wisdom and a masterly sense of craft.  She makes fine work, worthy of comparison with the best we have today.  I hope and expect that her future poems will expand even more in resonance and the capacity to move us.

        You're going to like these poems — just don't read them all at once.  It'll make the book last longer if you don't.


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