Prose from Poetry Magazine

Marin County, Sort Of

Life, shard-to-shard.

by Kay Ryan

This is actually an abstract walk, one I’m making up, a generalized walk based on what I like. I have usually done this on a bicycle, but I was asked to write about a walk, so I’ll walk.

I’m walking along a road, not a busy road, a country road, but one where people do occasionally have things blow out of the back of their truck or their car window or even where people conceivably have littered. In any case, there are scraps of things here and there along the roadside. Bits of things, fragments of color and print, broken shapes, fading pink receipts.

There are whole things too, but I don’t care about them. Except for a while I was very interested in the sheer phenomenon of the number of Styrofoam cooler lids I came across. In a way they were parts, in the sense that they were the top part of a cooler that wasn’t any good anymore, going on down the road in the back of the truck. But I have never been especially interested in any story element in the things that lodge in the grasses in the inevitable ditch by the side of the road. I don’t care if those people’s beer gets hot. Well, of course I never want anybody’s beer to get hot, but what I mean to say is that I’m not interested in the previous life of shards as they reveal things about people; I’m interested in the life in shards, among shards, between shards, shard-to-shard.

There are two related pleasures in studying roadside trash. One is identifying the whole from the part. A particular half-buried bit of orange cardboard can only be part of a Wheaties box. That greasy curve of flat black stuff has got to be from some kind of automotive gasket. I admire how good the mind is, what a small actual bit it needs to call up the whole, and how it attributes value to things simply because it recognizes them. I take the keenest pleasure in knowing that a small trapezoid of gold slashed with red is part of a Dos Equis label. I know it. I’m a weird expert in these identifications. I don’t know how I trained, certainly not consciously. Maybe it’s just that I’ve always enjoyed looking down. I don’t know how many other people really like to do this. Maybe a lot. My brother is even better at it than I am, but maybe it’s just my tiny family.

The second kind of pleasure has to do with pieces fitting together. Whereas the first pleasure was instantaneous, the mind effortlessly constructing the whole beer bottle around the little trapezoid, this pleasure is slightly more patient, involving some actual time and distance. In this second type, as I walk along I notice that some second scrap is the color of something I saw earlier, a ways back, and has a matching edge. The first scrap meant nothing to me, but my brain on its own seems to have believed that one thing may later connect to another thing, and this built-in autonomic faith apparently keeps all the bits animated. Which is to say, the brain anticipates significance; it doesn’t know which edge may in fifty yards knit to which other edge, so everything is held, charged with a subliminal glitter along its raw sides.

I like the retroactiveness—or retro-attractiveness—of this process, and I like what it reveals about the mind: that it is cheerfully storing so much all the time, generating infinite cubbies each with its single broken or torn fragment waiting for a match. The whole thing seems so optimistic, as if the mind on its own believes that things are going to fit together.

The pleasure of merely identifying (the piece to the whole) or of merely matching (the piece to a second piece) as one walks along the road can be had without its ever quite reaching the conscious level. Maybe it’s like the feeling one would get if she worked out the morning crossword, although I’ve never done those. Just a little sense that it’s going to be a good day.

Originally Published: October 30, 2009


On November 1, 2009 at 11:28pm Robin Yim wrote:
I suppose, if one were on one's bike or in
one's car, one would not be able to
indulge the native curiosity of the brain to
make the connections you point out, the
cheerful habit of the mind to look for a
whole from a part or to store some
fragment away until it can be brought
forward along with its mate. Glad you
went for a walk. Perhaps I'll take a walk
now, too.

On November 8, 2009 at 11:08am Shino the pseudo wrote:
recommending two poems about taking walks, Poem in October by Thomas;
Corson's Inlet by Ammons

On November 8, 2009 at 11:03pm Thomas J. Planesi wrote:
Your poem reminds me of walking meditations I used to do: busying the eyes with minutia while listening to bird songs and smelling the grass. There seemed to be so much life compressed in those walks. I want to do one now!

Thanks for the mental travel of lively mind.

On November 13, 2009 at 4:16pm Patrick Grady wrote:
The optimistic part fits Kay's poetry. The intrigue for me is that Ryan (one of my favs) is able to skate over road trash and not quicksand into junkyard imaginary pasts. Perhaps it is the numerologist ordering of surface chaos, the implications are optimistic and spill over to words.

On November 19, 2009 at 11:17am COLETTE OLNEY wrote:

I think my earlier comment on Kay Ryan's piece was aborted by inadvertantly pressing SEND before I had finished what I was saying... mea culpa... anyway, I was musing on why I was reminded of a line from Galway Kinnell's poem "Oatmeal": the line goes "Maybe there's no sublime; only the shining of the amnion's tatters"

On November 23, 2009 at 8:44pm Marilyn Kallet wrote:
Nothing is lost on the poet. At least,
that's our hope.

I'm looking forward to your visit to the
University of Tennessee in February--
something gleaming up ahead to be
thankful for! Maybe we'll even have time
for a (short) walk!

On January 7, 2010 at 1:50pm likhon hamid wrote:
congrats !
so nice & charming ;
be ahead __

On September 22, 2011 at 2:52am Joseph Frayne wrote:
What an exquisite piece of writing! It's totally captivating. Brilliant! That's the way to go for a walk.

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This prose originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2009


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 Kay  Ryan


Born in California in 1945 and acknowledged as one of the most original voices in the contemporary landscape, Kay Ryan is the author of several books of poetry, including Flamingo Watching (2006), The Niagara River (2005), and Say Uncle (2000). Her book The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Ryan's tightly compressed, rhythmically dense poetry is often compared to that of Emily . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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