As Though Larger Arrangements


September 23, 2015  By Kay Ryan

Happy birthday to Kay Ryan who turned seventy this past Monday, September 21st. These selections, drawn from Ryan’s new book, Erratic Facts, to be published by Grove in October, grant ample access to her special domain within the contemporary lyric. Obsessively they return to memory, meditations that are often spindled around the echoes and recesses in the slightest image: hitting a single piano key, the fractal pattern of dots, the velocity and trajectory of a baseball. Perhaps all of Ryan’s poems, like all of poetry, are memory tables designed to set down the music of images in rustling language. But what I find so distinct from the object-haunted kinship she shares on the one hand with Elizabeth Bishop and Joseph Cornell, from the relishable minimalism she shares with accomplished contemporary poets like Rae Armantrout and Susan Howe on the other, is always the sudden bump her poems experience ‘as though larger arrangements.’ And so her signature zoom-out ends up revealing ‘all of Chopin,’ ‘constellations,’ even the unfinished business of the dead. Talk about a poet’s range. 

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—Adam Fitzgerald, Poetry Editor




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As though memory
were not a history
but an instrument
with keys on which
no C would stay played
without rehitting C.


As though memory
were a large orchestra
without a repertoire
till it began.

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it remembered
all of Chopin.





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He did not live in conventional order
from day to day, but grew strong
or weak like the wind.
—David Thompson, Wild Excursions:
The Life and Fiction of Lawrence Sterne


Creatures whose
habits match nothing
we understand
are untrackable by our
most implacable
trackers of air
sea and land.
As though conjured
by conditions;
as though constellations
fretted something
to existence; as though
larger arrangements—and
the trackers regret this—
produced brief real things
in real places.



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What else does the infinite consist of other than
the incalculability of little dots?
—Robert Walser


The things we know
cannot be applied.
Dots, say. With dots


Walls of shelves of
jars of dots equal
one dot.


So no one is poor
nor are they lost
if they roll on the





The mid-air ball
follows its arc
to the glove
in the left outfield
of the park.
There are rules.
Motion generates
projection. You
are not a fool
to believe it will
happen. Things
set a course and
follow it. The air
is full of places
where it works:
a girl and cat have
just assumed their
marks. Leading us
to think about
the dead and all
the shimmering
dots like tracers
hanging in the air
unclaimed. How
the dead can’t finish
the simplest thing.





There are
hills you
long to


velvet to
the eyes.


So much
is soft


the wrong





Even a pin
set on a
memory table
falls through.


A bare wood
kitchen table
with square legs
kicked yellow
and blue from
painted chairs
pushed in
for thirty years.


That’s how little
a memory table
can do.


Kay Ryan
Kay Ryan
Kay Ryan was born in California in 1945. She has published nine books of poetry, including Elephant Rocks (1996), Say Uncle (2000), The Niagara River (2005), The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010), and Erratic Facts (2015), all from Grove Press. The Best of It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. She served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2008 to 2010. Of “Some Transcendent Addiction to the Useless,” Ryan writes: “I cannot hope to attain the transcendent uselessness George Steiner attributes only to ‘a handful of human beings’ (Mozart for one), but perhaps I will have occasionally managed the undoing of a few things that needed it. This poem hopes that.”

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