It’s 1 p.m. on a fall afternoon and sunlight has been clobbering San Francisco all day. Kay Ryan is on a roll. We’re seated outside the Presidio Social Club, oysters have just arrived, the spread excellent. I wonder aloud if the creatures might still be alive, which sets Ryan—surely the funniest serious poet since Philip Larkin—onto a new riff. “It’s ending right between my teeth, probably,” she says, biting down. “I mean, they open them up when they serve them to you.” She points at the plate. “Those could still be hoping, Maybe this is just a bad dream.”
We chuckle darkly at this, but, of course, it isn’t a bad dream. The temperature in San Francisco is pushing eighty, and it’s a reminder that the planet is getting hotter, sea levels are rising. Ryan is not the Rachael Carson of our time, but she has written a poem, “Help,” which hints at what days like this might be saying to us, if we can hear them. The poem asks what pitch of help is necessary, what do the stakes have to be, to make us listen. It finishes: “It’s hard, / coming from a planet / where if we needed something / we had it.”
This is a classic Ryan landing: a line that forks into two meanings several times, never collapsing. Perhaps the planet, and not just us, is saying help, not us. Then, moments after you’ve read the poem, the past-tenseness of “had” makes itself felt and the poem transforms into a kind of pre-elegy. Things can get used, and we might just have consumed the greatest—the only resource—of value, ever: life itself. All of that in fifteen lines.
For Ryan, though, this is just the tip of a majestic iceberg. In hundreds of poems, stretching from the 1960s to this past year, when she released Erratic Facts, her first new collection in six years, she has created a body of work of intellectual rigor and joy unmatched in her time. Her neatly carpentered verse, with its disassembled rhyming couplets and floating rhetorical questions, are the poetry world’s neutron stars. You can read around and through them endlessly and they never lose their luminosity or virtue. The more you read them the greater their pull becomes.
She begins in the natural world. From plate tectonics to genetics and species migration, fluid mechanics and gravitational vectors, her poems bring the elemental forces of the earth to bear—as metaphors and simply as themselves—on a series of ideas she has been obsessed with since she began to write. How do things work, and why aren’t we more in awe of how they do? Is life folly when evidence of temporality is all around us? Does it matter if we are tricked into believing our arrangements matter? What does greed mean in these contexts, and is this greed related to our capacity for consumption, to use things—and people—right up? And why aren’t we more struck by how destruction and creation sit so neatly together?
You read through Ryan’s work, and the whole animal world comes tumbling out like a bestiary she has unleashed down the gangplanks of her poetry. These creatures are not characters, not decoration; they bear with them all their spooky strangeness. Horses, birds, big cats, salamanders, zebra, goslings, herring, alligators (with their “three-foot-grin”), octopus, fox, osprey, crow, camel, bison, jellyfish, and more traipse through her short, skinny, perfectly made poems. Her poems can be funny, too, which is another way of saying they feint and throw you off their scent. They don’t toss melancholy over you like a blanket or a mist; their sadness sneaks up after the laughing ends. The effect is mesmerizing, even entertaining, but dark and strange. Ryan fell in love with poetry through Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, and Emily Dickinson, and her work unfurls from these influences with the odd ghoulish bounce of early American scripture, but with the spatial arrangements and unfussy atheism of someone raised in the desert. Want proof everything ends? Just look around you.
In person, she downplays this steeliness of vision with unaffected good cheer. The paradox of Ryan, as a poet and a person, is how brightly she delivers her bad news, because maybe it’s not all that bad. As oysters are consumed, we move on to one of her favorite topics—how everything ends—and then something new begins. Does she still run? Ryan never ran a marathon but she’s spent a lot of time on the roads. Now, her back is shot, so she has had to stop. “I got to run for forty years, most people don’t get to run that long.” Swimming didn’t work for her; “I’m not a water person,” she says, sounding, again, like a stand-up comic, “I’m more of a sand person.” Now she’s back on her bike three times a week after having a bad accident with a car that left her with a broken pelvis, collarbone, and ribs. You wouldn’t know it from looking at her. She looks like a sun-blasted fifty, if that. Her eyes alive through her spectacles, her ears snatching puns out of thin air.
The effect is that in person Kay Ryan appears to be more awake and alive than is normal or, perhaps, is natural. I wonder to what degree this is the best defense against nothingness, something her poems look at, against the way it can, if contemplated too closely, engender a smug gloom. Perhaps there is warmth in endings—think of starlight and the like. In fact, there’s a Ryan poem about that, too: “Not proximity / but distance / burns us with love,” she writes in “Star Block.” What if you got right up close to nothingness, but did so with a huge amount of energy. Later, I take a short cut and suggest doom as a kind of theme of hers, and she gently deflects the question. “I am not pro-doom; everything is not on the slippery slope to doom. And on the next occasion the experiment may miraculously work! The eggs may quicken!”
I have a few theories as to why Ryan can maintain this seemingly improbable position of poise, and one of them has to do with how she experiences time, which makes it difficult to write a profile of her with any kind of intellectual integrity. Unlike most people, she doesn’t believe in narrative, at all. Not as a restorative tool, and certainly not in the scale of her life. “Do you know this guy Galen Strawson?” she asks, by way of explanation. “He’s a British philosopher. His idea is that most people are of the narrative persuasion. But there is a minority, an important minority, that is completely overlooked. And these people are constructed in a different way. They have an episodic way and aren’t really convinced by chronology. They see in another way.”
Pause for a moment to consider all the baggage from which this way of seeing liberates Ryan. Her poems don’t have to tell her story, don’t have to reveal anything. They don’t even have to sequence in quite the same tidy way so much poetry does today. For Ryan, it’s not that every moment has the same weight. Rather, she views existence as moments that can be followed by a better one, or a different, or even a worse one. “If these poems have any kind of independent life,” Ryan says, “it’s certainly not as little snapshots of me.” At lunch, as the sun reaches its zenith, this narrative-free capacity makes her exceptionally good company. She’s a kind of Zorro of small talk and big ideas. There’s a speedy, tense feeling to being with her.
She is, in many senses, the one who escaped, the one whose family left the Mojave and then who worked her way out of the San Joaquin Valley. (Even though she was living in the agricultural capital of the West, her family didn’t eat fresh vegetables, she points out while relishing our lunch.) Her father—“a big, tall Dane,” “an honest man and a hard worker”—ran a trucking company during World War II, and then, unsuccessfully, tried to grow peanuts in Riverside County. “As soon he got any money he always wanted to go into business for himself,” Ryan says. “And then when he did, it always failed.” Her mother, perhaps coincidentally, pointed her toward the practical. “I asked my mother when I was starting high school, I said, ‘What do you think I should do?’ and she said, ‘Well, I think you should take a secretarial course so that if your husband dies, you’ll have a way to support the children.’”
Instead, Ryan learned at an early age to depend on herself by first being herself. This was before it was clear to her that literature would be her vocation. She can remember, while eating on this sunny deck, the moment she discovered the need to protect that fundamental mote of a self, that something she had yet to externalize in her poetry, but which lays beneath her work as surely as bedrock rests under soil. “Maybe I was a freshman in high school. I remember lying on my bed, and I decided I was going to hypnotize myself. I was going to say something to myself so that I could never ever forget. It would go all the way into my bones. And I had to never forget because I was in danger of losing myself. What I repeated to myself was, ‘Be what you are.’ I think I repeated it to myself for hours.”
Ryan has since developed a way in the world, a radical self-reliance mixed with devotional fervor to seeing clearly how the world is, appreciating all of it. Ryan’s poetry pirouettes so neatly around ideas and vernacular turns of phrase, her way of communicating this, if you will, can hide in plain site, as, for example, in her poem “Least Action.” It’s a paean to paying attention to what is here, to just simply “tinkering with the fit/of what’s available.” She is a problem solver, a riddler, an arranger, and a thinking tinkerer. She’s a holy DIYer: the kind of woman who can keep a ’68 VW bus running into the 1980s and reroof her house (with the guidance of a Sunset book), but also use the vice of her mind to compress the world’s absurdities into poetry as slender and rivet-less as bullets.