I want so much to go on a bike ride with Kay Ryan. We'd have pizza and then take my favorite route through the Arboretum, slalom between families of ducks and guys cruising in the bushes, and ride out to the middle of that abandoned tract of freeway people call the Bridge to Nowhere. We'd lean our bikes (I've read she favors a mountain bike) by the spot where swimmers leap 30 feet into root-beer-colored water, where someone spray-painted "jump, pussy" on the cement in pink letters. I'd open a bottle of whiskey and start our conversation with a few questions about bikes.
It was on a cross-country bike ride that Kay Ryan, then 30 years old, realized she was destined to be a writer. She had recently begun a PhD in literary criticism at UC Irvine, but as she once said in an interview, "I couldn't bear the idea of being a doctor of something I couldn't fix." On this cross-country ride, she simply asked herself whether she liked writing poetry, and the answer was yes. When she returned home, she began to write, drawing inspiration, at first, from Ripley's Believe It or Not! She was named United States poet laureate in 2008, and next week, on May 16, will deliver the 50th annual Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Reading at the University of Washington, in the Roethke Auditorium.
I like bikes that resemble Ryan's poems—compact, streamlined, with an appearance of mechanical simplicity that belies their power. She often makes seemingly obvious or straightforward statements that, in the context of the poems, become complex. Similarly, she can use the same line, or nearly the same line, twice in a poem in such a way that they mean completely different things each time. For instance, in her poem "Lime Light," the meaning of "lime light," at first synonymous with "spotlight," is complicated by the introduction of an actual bowl of limes. If this sounds too simple to work, consider the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or the gin and tonic, and then of course read the poem.
As soon I'm on a bike, my mind is blank. I wonder if she gave herself to poetry in a similar blankness, or if her mind worked as frenetically as her body the entire time. I'm betting on meditative blankness, since it sounds to me like for her poetry was never really a choice. She said in one interview that she had a dream when she was about 10 years old that she chased a fluttering piece of paper down the street because it had the perfect poem on it. Once a person catches a glimpse of that piece of paper, I don't think they ever stop chasing it. Because I'd be nervous, I'd probably ask something stupid, like whether she thought the poem would be easier to catch on a bike than on foot.
Though Ryan began writing regularly after that fateful bike trip (several hours, nearly every morning, while in bed, according to my research—she claims to have worn out several pairs of pajamas), she didn't publish until years and piles of poems later. When she finally did, it was largely due to the help of her wife, Carol Adair. They met in 1977, in the snack bar at San Quentin State Prison, where Ryan was teaching English at the time.
To someone like me, less reluctant to show girlfriends hideous middle-school yearbook photos than unfinished poems, Ryan and Adair's relationship seems impossibly romantic. Adair was Ryan's first editor and the first person to see each of her poems. Adair helped Ryan organize her early poems and send them out to literary journals. It was Adair who convinced Ryan to take the position as poet laureate in 2008, and Adair's death from cancer in 2009 motivated Ryan to remain in the position another year. All of Ryan's books are dedicated to Adair. When the sun was going down on the ruined freeway, and we'd had enough whiskey and the chance to share a few stories, I might have the courage to ask her what it feels like to write a poem without Carol around.
I read her most recent book, The Best of It, on a spring bus ride to Oregon, when the glowing woods and highway medians reminded me of Robert Frost's line "Nature's first green is gold." The book is a collection of new poems and selected poems from her older books Flamingo Watching, Elephant Rocks, Say Uncle, and The Niagara River. In a new poem, "Polish and Balm," she writes that no unguent can treat "the chap of abandonment," and ends: "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." I cried on the BoltBus, in front of a scabby, half-asleep teenager and a woman unintentionally blasting Abba from her laptop, when I read that poem.
I thought of Ovid propositioning girls by offering to immortalize them with poetry, which is hilarious because though even the greatest poem won't last forever, he still managed to preserve his overtures for more than 3,000 years. When a relationship ends, no matter how catastrophically, it feels better if a decent poem has come out of it. A poem can't make anything last forever, but an experience can exist, crystalline, free of the delicate human who preserved it, for a length of time that comfortingly surpasses the human life span. I suppose "Polish and Balm" made me cry because in the wake of the treasure that was that 30-year relationship, a success by anyone's standards, the poem was absolutely the best anyone could do.
It's especially poignant in a collection of poems having to do with accretion, natural cycles, and the passage of time. Animals eat each other, artists apply layers of paint and lacquer, landscapes change shape, but Ryan maintains a wry humor, as in her poem "Masterworks of Ming," one of my favorites from Flamingo Watching:
such a lovely
a small basin
Poems like this are the reason I would take Kay Ryan to an unused piece of freeway, which nature is slowly devouring, rather than some manicured strip of park. She would certainly provide good conversation—I mean, she is a MacArthur genius and a Guggenheim Fellow, and having taught remedial English at a Marin County community college for 30 years, she has earned these distinctions under different circumstances than most. But I think—I hope—a woman who wrote a poem about dunking a baby in a Ming bowl would want to go somewhere both scenic and out of view of the police.
We would probably end up leaping off the overpass to swim in the Arboretum. I like that I don't know which of us would be the one to suggest it. She'd certainly have a good book in her backpack, and she might even have bottle rockets.