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Prose from Poetry Magazine

Marin County, Sort Of

Life, shard-to-shard.
Introduction

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.

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.

More from this issue

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

  • 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)...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Marin County, Sort Of

Life, shard-to-shard.
  • 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)...

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