Kay Ryan’s new book, Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose, is a pleasing size: 200 or so pages, small enough to balance in your hand. The titles of the essays—“A Consideration of Poetry,” “I Go to AWP,” “Inedible Melons,” “To Be Miniature Is to Be Swallowed by a Miniature Whale” (taken from one of Ryan’s poems, “This Life”)—convey that same strange, funny, compelling intermixture of the large and the tiny, the sublime and the ridiculous, that marks Ryan’s marvelous verse.
The book begins with a typically brilliant introduction by the poet Christian Wiman. Reading it made me wish Wiman would turn his attention to other major figures in contemporary poetry. “The economy of the book belies its range,” he writes, which is definitely true, though in the spirit of Ryan’s precision, I might call Synthesizing Gravity prismatic instead. A prism is a clear surface from which light can bounce, or through which it can move. Light here is my attention. My mind moves into each of these pieces and bounces around along with Ryan’s, is broken up and reassembled, and emerges still itself, and changed.
Wiman asserts, correctly, that metaphor is central to Ryan’s poetry. Her analogical thinking also runs through this collection of short, intense reflections. In the initial essay, she makes an unlikely comparison: “In the middle of a residential street, a cast-iron manhole cover was dancing in its iron collar, driven up three or four inches by such an excess of underground water that it balanced above the street, tipping and bobbing like a flower, occasionally producing a bell-like chime as it touched against the metal ring. This has much to say about poetry.” She finds something surprising, exciting, mysterious, and funny here. And also dangerous.
There is something so pleasing about the unfolding of a particular writer’s canon. Synthesizing Gravity would be worth treasuring for Ryan’s reading of Emily Dickinson alone, and I came out of the book a much bigger fan of Philip Larkin. Poets deeply considered also include Gertrude Stein, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Fernando Pessoa, Wallace Stevens, the very weird Stevie Smith, William Bronk, and, of course, Marianne Moore. Ryan is often compared to Dickinson, which feels superficial. If she sounds like anyone, it is Moore, a dominant figure in this book, who writes in the sort of extended figures that are, generally speaking, unfashionable in contemporary American poetry. To write that sort of poetry requires focus and a startling, committed, idiosyncratic, liberated, at times cynical intelligence.
The essays make an implicit argument against the cliché of naturalism, the horrible idea that a poem should be easy, smooth, well-behaved. Ryan loves the clunky and silly and disobedient. Likewise, there is an unstated reproach of a poetry that depends merely on pathos: the evocation of empathetic pity or sadness. It reminds me of the way people on social media express praise of a literary work: It made me cry. To be sure, a good cry never hurt anyone, and probably, given our current situation, we should all be constantly dissolving into tears. On the other hand, maybe we need to be stronger as readers, and to ask more from poets and ourselves.
For me, there is great relief in Ryan’s rebalancing of the relationship between content and language. Without ever scolding or condemning, she provides an alternative vision of the function of a poem that frames poetry as a distinct and essential form of language performance. Here she is discussing the final lines of a poem by Hopkins: “His voice is holding us tenderly to him, instructing us: he bewitches us with the sorcery of ‘nor,’ ‘no,’ ‘nor,’ then he clubs us with ‘blight.’ If the word had been, say, ‘fate’—‘It is the fate man was born for’—I think the whole poem would collapse. It is the word ‘blight’—absolute, harsh, and natural; a natural evil, something that wipes out what was living—that charges the poem backwards.”
Would that more American poets devoted that sort of attention to the word.
Matthew Zapruder is the author, most recently, of Father’s Day and Why Poetry. He teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Saint Mary’s College of California.
• By Kay Ryan
• Grove Press, 208 pages, $25