Say Uncle: The Poetry of Kay Ryan

By Michelle Chandra, Communications Associate, Women’s Foundation of California

I was first introduced to the poetry of Kay Ryan during a contemporary poetry class at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Ryan is a Californian poet born in San Jose. She grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and now resides in Marin where she taught English for 30 years at the College of Marin.

Open to any page in a collection by Ryan and you can tell this is a woman in love with language and wordplay. Her poems are compact powerhouses of language delivering mysterious wit and wisdom. They sound even better when read out loud.

Re-reading Say Uncle during April -  poetry month –  I found many poems to pause and linger over as though Ryan and I were suddenly at the same moment in time.

In Winter Fear, Ryan wonders out loud what I am sure many of us have thought during this year’s long winter, “is it just winter / or is this worse. / Is this the year when outer damp / obscures a deeper curse / that spring can’t fix, / when gears that / turn the earth / won’t shift the view, / when clouds won’t lift / though all the skies / go blue.”

Many of the poems in Say Uncle caution against complacency as in the title poem: “Every day / you say, / Just one / more try. / Then another / irrecoverable / day slips by.” Ryan seems to be saying that if we cling to the past, we won’t be able to change when we need to: “Sometimes the / green pasture / of the mind / tilts abruptly. / The grazing horses / struggle crazily / for purchase / on the frictionless / nearly vertical / surface. Their / furniture-fine / legs buckle / on the incline, / unhorsed by slant / they weren’t / designed to climb / and can’t.”

While Ryan cautions against complacency, she does not give easy solutions. She only offers small clues as to the rewards of living a life of risk and exploration, how “distance / burns us with love” and “waiting / is sustainable– / a place with / its own harvests.” And while she perhaps embraces action, she also cautions that, “Action creates / a taste / for itself”, how once you’ve begun to simplify, “it gets harder / not to also / simplify the larder, / not to dismiss / rooms, not to /divest yourself / of all the chairs / but one, not / to test what / singleness can bear, / once you’ve begun.”

Complacency is easy because it is the act of being satisfied with the ways things are, not questioning the status quo. When I’m walking to work and a homeless woman asks for change, it’s easy to look straight ahead as if she isn’t there at all, harder to acknowledge her wants, my needs and the complicated systems that have placed us both there at that time, paths crossed.

When we head to our jobs and back again, it’s easy to start the work day with a narrow focus on the tasks at hand, forgetting the bigger picture. This spring, as I air out my apartment and plan for the summer, I am also thinking of ways to embrace change and risk. In tandem with this, it’s wonderful to come to an ever-changing work place where we are engaged in a strategic planning process and asking similar questions: where can we take risks? Where have we become complacent? And where are we heading?

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