A year or so ago, Kay Ryan went to Italy, and it made her think about the sometimes-painful, always-disorienting work the mind has to do when it arrives in a new place. Last night at Kane Hall, she read to us a poem that described this problem of being somewhere new, but not knowing how to be new yourself, as if you had put up an “interior tent,” only to find that “the new holes aren't where the windows went.” The poem settled as she leaned into the podium. “I bet you'd like me to read that again,” she said, and the audience fairly moaned yes. Yes, Kay Ryan, read it again. The sheer delight Ryan took from examining her own work—as though it were not her own but the work of some dear, deranged friend—gave the reading a wondrously funny edge, and allowed the audience to see Ryan not as the intimidating literary giant that she is, but as a warm, comic entertainer of the highest sort, able to humble herself through a kind of soft, conscious mocking. (After the first poem of the night, she mused, “I find that a very touching poem, but I'm ready to go on.”)
She began the evening with a set of new, unpublished work on subjects including but not limited to W.G. Sebald, frogs with dual pupils, octopuses, Thelonious Monk, and 17th-century Dutch still-life painting. Much of it she flatly insisted on reading twice, claiming that “if it's a poem, it should bear a second reading,” when in truth Ryan's poems not only bear a second reading, but seem to require it – so dense and rich with these double meanings you could feel the audience leaning in and curling around them, straining to catch every word and every space between words before the moment passed. (More than once I looked around and saw the people on either side of me listening with closed eyes.) Sometimes the second reading seemed to be as much for Ryan herself as for us, and the second reading would inevitably give a second meaning. This twinned reality—what Ryan calls “doubleness”—was the predominant theme of the evening, much moreso than the Northwest theme Ryan half-heartedly attempted, but (gloriously) abandoned. One new poem in particular, a beautifully creepy thing entitled “Ship in a Bottle,” possessed this doubleness in spades. Ryan introduced it by saying that the poem is still a mystery even to her. (Not being able to see the poem on paper, I‘ve inserted line breaks where I sense them, sacrilegious as that feels):
It seems impossible
Not just a ship in a bottle
But wind and sea
The ship starts to struggle
An emergency of the two realized
We can get it out but not
Without spilling its world
A hammer tap and they're free.
Which death will it be,
“I'll read it again. It's a mystery to me,” she repeated. “I mean, it all makes sense, but I'm not sure what it's getting at.”
The dark exhilaration of this new work passed naturally into much-loved older work, more familiar, and perhaps safer, but no less moving. (I recommend, before you die, hearing Kay Ryan read her poem “Train-Track Figure” in a semi-dark room with good acoustics. Those three lines toward the end, pronounced with perfect rushing speed, so that the syllables mimic exactly the sound of a train clipping over the tracks: “If it's a person/if it's a person/if it's a person.” Only great poetry can make trains more real than actual trains.
Perhaps the highlight (but there were so many highlights!) of the night came after a reading of the eerie poem “Pentimenti,”—which Ryan says is “much more terrible than you think”—when she did an impromptu literary analysis of the rhyme scheme. Ryan loves rhyme, obviously, but more specifically she loves “homemade rhyme.” In “Pentimenti,” she performs a version of homemade rhyme that she has named wedge rhyme. You can hear it in the lines “through which/who knows what/exiled cat or/extra child/might steal.” Exiled. Extra. Child. Ryan has wedged a neat cluster of syllables into the skinny frame of that word, exiled, to create a longer sister-phrase that doubles it. “Probably not particularly gratifying to you,” she remarked of the analysis, as if by way of apology. But one man toward the back of the auditorium summed up what the rest of us were feeling with a loud, appreciative whoop.
Probably not particularly gratifying, no. Not gratification - something much, much better than that.