Kay Ryan, Say Uncle
(Grove Press, 2000)


Jack Foley


A skull is so dominant.
                     --Kay Ryan, �Death by Fruit,� Say Uncle


Towards the end of Kay Ryan�s first book, Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends (1983, privately printed by subscription of her friends), there is a poem that strongly resembles the work of Edward Lear. It�s called �Why Animals Dance�:

Because of their clickety hoofs
Because of their scritchety claws
Because of their crackety beaks
Because they don�t have any boots

�Clickety,� �scritchety� and �crackety� are all words from childhood--or equivalents to words from childhood. Like much of Lear�s work, the poem also has a slightly nightmarish quality. It ends,

Here we are! Here we are!
they cry from afar,
Come join us down by the river!
But the light moves away
into the new day
and the creatures keep dancing forever

Ryan doesn�t write like that anymore--I suspect that was an early poem or a reversion to an earlier mode--but her current poems retain something of the quality of �Why Animals Dance.� Ryan�s poems are by no means an example of �open form� in Charles Olson�s sense--no �projective verse� here--but the connection with childhood gives her an open, somewhat experimental attitude toward language, a sense of language as �play.� In the concluding lines, the rhyming is quite proper (rhyming �river� with �forever� is not only proper but �poetic� and British!), but the off rhymes in the opening passage are interesting and not unlike her current practice: �hoofs�/ �boots,� �beaks�--with what? �claws� (because of the s)? �boots� (because of the b)? The nightmarish quality remains as well--though it now takes on a more somber, fearful tone.

Kay Ryan was born in 1945 and grew up in the small California towns of the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert. Say Uncle is the second of her books to appear from a major publisher. The first essay on her work, �Discovering Kay Ryan,� was written by Dana Gioia and published in The Dark Horse (No. 7, Winter 1998-99). Gioia describes Ryan as �a West Coast writer who worked outside the reputation-making institutions of literary life�:

In order to see how good her poetry was, a critic would have had to read her unheralded small press books carefully--an unlikely thing in a country that annually publishes nearly two thousand new collections of poetry.

Ryan�s poems, writes Gioia, �characteristically take the shape of an observation or idea in the process of clarifying itself...[T]here is often a strongly didactic sense at work.� True enough, Ryan�s work is most often a poetry of statement and declaration; it is neither particularly �confessional�--the pronoun I almost never appears in her work--nor descriptive. It is rarely  narrative, and it is never disjunctive in the way that �language poetry� is, though language poetry also takes the form of statement and declaration. Ryan�s poetry is not attempting to be �inclusive� in the manner of Walt Whitman but �selective� in the manner of Emily Dickinson. (Other poets close to Ryan are Marianne Moore--for whom Ryan created a dramatic monologue--and the British poet, Stevie Smith.) Enigmatic and elliptical, Ryan�s poems are as much about what they are not as about what they are. Understatement and silence are active elements in them.

Say Uncle is constantly asserting things: �The fourth wise man / disliked travel�; �Romantics are / always fingering / some discolored / fabric or other.� Yet as one reads through these poems--these �nearly imperceptible / aural amusements,� Ryan writes--one has a sense that statement is not really at their center. Statement--thought--is how the poem finally declares itself, what it becomes, yet it is not where it begins. Teaching a class in poetry to children, X.J. Kennedy remarked, �People say, �I dislike rhyme. It won�t let me say what I want to say.� I answer, �Yes! You�ve got it! That�s what�s great about it!�� People who complain that rhyme �won�t let me say what I want to say� are complaining that rhyme gets in the way of �thought�--as indeed it does. But Kennedy knows that rhyme gets in the way of thought because rhyme creates thought. Rhyme can be, as Ryan puts it in �Snake Charm,� �generative.� It is rhyme in this sense which is at the center of Kay Ryan�s work. The following brief passage from �Yeses� has no fewer than eight -or rhymes--three  more than the -i rhymes Cole Porter brilliantly managed in �I Get a Kick Out of You�:

Then more
and more,
forming a
corridor or

Rhyme is the secret, nearly hidden, irrational presence which generates Ryan�s statement-oriented poetry.

Yet, having said that much, one should immediately add that you could write a lengthy paper on what constitutes �rhyme� in Kay Ryan�s work. Sometimes Ryan rhymes exactly-- �harder� and �larder,� for example--but she is also capable of �waste� and �inviolate,� �lately� and �babies,� �attics� and �fabric,� �deep� and �sepia,� and (most subtly) �accident� and �net.� In at least one instance, she creates a word in order to make a rhyme. �The post-pupid / butterfly looks stupid� is a wonderfully nasty couplet, but the adjectival form of �pupa� is �pupal,� not �pupid.� While it is true that rhyme is a generating principle in Ryan�s poetry, rhyme is nevertheless bent and shaped by the necessities of the poem--by statement. If rhyme creates statement and thought, there are times when statement and thought have their revenge.        

What kind of world is created by this collision of rhyme and statement? It is a world as far removed from �lightness� as it is possible to be. The title poem of Say Uncle opens the book; it suggests that both poet and reader should just give up:

Every day
you say,
Just one
more try
Then another
day slips by.
You will
say ankle,
you will
say knuckle;
why won�t
you why
won�t you
say uncle?

The fierceness of the poem is not so far removed from Baudelaire�s opening sally to the reader, �Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon fr�re� (�Hypocrite reader, my likeness, my brother�). Of course �Say Uncle��s rhymes and brevity suggest that it is essentially a form of �light� verse, and so its assertion is not to be taken all that �seriously.� Moreover, the poem ends in a question, and the answer might well involve us in some sort of affirmation of life. Yet as one reads through the book it becomes more and more apparent that dark themes--themes of fear and failure, of depression and disaster--are everywhere present. There are two poems on the subject of �Failure�; another begins, �Weakness and doubt / are symbionts....� There is a prayer to God to �let less happen�:

Is it just winter
or is this worse.
Is this the year
when outer damp
obscures a deeper curse
that spring can�t fix....

                (�Winter Fear�)

Sometimes the
green pasture
of the mind
tilts abruptly.
The grazing horses
struggle crazily....

                (�Grazing Horses�)

Slip is one
law of crash
among dozens.
There is also

No act
or refusal
to act, no
special grip
or triple lock
or break stops
crash; crash


Small wonder that one of the poems is called �Survival Skills.�

There is a sense in which Kay Ryan�s work can be understood as something slightly to the left of Ogden Nash. We can find its rhyming �delightful�--as indeed it often is--and simply skip the �message� of the poems. That would of course be a considerable misreading--but it is a misreading which Ryan encourages in some respects. Her poems are in a constant state of subversiveness. The dark vision at their heart is an endless commentary on their apparently �light� form, yet their light form disguises the genuine horror which haunts them. �Didactic� is an early poem dealing with the wreck of the Titanic; in it Ryan pictures herself afloat in a dangerous sea supported only by �my lifejacket Wit.� (One thinks of Stevie Smith�s �Not Waving but Drowning.�) You can refuse to take these poems �seriously,� can find them �whimsical�--all that clever rhyming--but, if you do, you run the risk of being unconsciously affected by the unrelentingly dark vision they bespeak:

gruesome accidents
[happening] to decent people

There is, in short, far more �darkness� than �light� in this brilliant, limited volume. Kay Ryan is a serious poet writing serious poems, and she resides on a serious planet (a word she rhymes with �had it�). Ryan can certainly be funny, but it is rarely without a sting:

It�s hard,
coming from a planet
where if we needed something
we had it.

Jack Foley