Sixteen Poems

(selected by Chana Bloch)

Editor’s Note: We thank Kay Ryan for kindly allowing Persimmon Tree to publish these poems. They appear in her book, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (New York: Grove Press, 2010).


From other
angles the
fibers look
fragile, but
not from the
spider’s, always
hauling coarse
ropes, hitching
lines to the
best posts
possible. It’s
heavy work
fighting sag,
winching up
give. It
isn’t ever
to live.


I have written
over the doors
of the various
houses and stores
where friends
and supplies were.

Now I can’t
locate them anymore
and must shout
general appeals
in the street.

It is a miracle
to me now—
when a piece
of the structure unseals

and there is a dear one,
coming out,
with something
for me to eat.


One can’t work by
lime light.

A bowlful
right at
one’s elbow

produces no
more than
a baleful
glow against
the kitchen table.

The fruit purveyor’s
whole unstable

doesn’t equal
what daylight did.


Action creates
a taste
for itself.
Meaning: once
you’ve swept
the shelves
of spoons
and plates
you kept
for guests,
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.


However carved up
or pared down we get,
we keep on making
the best of it as though
it doesn’t matter that
our acre’s down to
a square foot. As
though our garden
could be one bean
and we’d rejoice if
it flourishes, as
though one bean
could nourish us.


A chick has just so much time
to chip its way out, just so much
egg energy to apply to the weakest spot
or whatever spot it started at.
It can’t afford doubt. Who can?
Doubt uses albumen
at twice the rate of work.
One backward look by any of us
can cost what it cost Orpheus.
Neither may you answer
the stranger’s knock;
you know it is the Person from Porlock
who eats dreams for dinner,
his napkin stained the most delicate colors.


What’s the use
of something
as unstable
and diffuse as hope—
the almost-twin
of making do,
the isotope
of going on:
what isn’t in
the envelope
just before
it isn’t:
the always tabled
righting of the present.


Most losses add something—
a new socket or silence,
a. gap in a personal
archipelago of islands.

We have that difference
to visit—itself
a going-on of sorts.

But there are other losses
so far beyond report
that they leave holes
in holes only

like the ends of the
long and lonely lives
of castaways
thought dead but not.


Insult is injury
taken personally,
saying, This is not
a random fracture
that would have happened
to any leg out there;
this was a conscious unkindness.

We need insult to remind us
that we aren’t always just hurt,
that there are some sources—
even in the self—parts of which
tread on other parts with such boldness
that we must say, You must stop this.


As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice—as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced—
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.


A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small—
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard.


As some people age
they kinden.
The apertures
of their eyes widen.
I do not think they weaken;
I think something weak strengthens
until they are more and more it,
like letting in heaven.
But other people are
mussels or clams, frightened.
Steam or knife blades mean open.
They hear heaven, they think boiled or broken.


I was still slightly
fuzzy in shady spots
and the tenderest lime.
It was lovely, as I
look back, but not
at the time. For it is
hard to be green and
take your turn as flesh.
So much freshness
to unlearn.


Dust develops
from inside
as well as
on top when
objects stop
being used.
No unguent
can soothe
the chap of
Who knew
the polish
and balm in
a person’s
simple passage
among her things.
We knew she
loved them
but not what
love means.

—Ripley’s Believe It or Not

Who hasn’t seen
a plain ordinary
steel needle float serene
on water as if lying on a pillow?
The water cuddles up like Jell-O.
It’s a treat to see water
so rubbery, a needle
so peaceful, the point encased
in the tenderest dimple.
It seems so simple
when things or people
have modified each other’s qualities
we almost forget the oddity
of that.


The light of interiors
is the admixture
of who knows how many
doors ajar, windows
casually curtained,
unblinded or opened,
oculi set into ceilings,
wells, ports, shafts,
loose fits, leaks,
and other breaches
of surface. But, in
any case, the light,
once in, bounces
toward the interior,
glancing off glassy
enamels and polishes,
softened by the scuffed
and often-handled, muffled
in carpet and toweling,
buffeted down hallways,
baffled equally
by scatter and order
to an ideal and now
sourceless texture which,
when mixed with silence,
makes of a simple
table with flowers
an island.

Click on the video below to see a film clip of an interview with Kay Ryan on PBS in 2006.

Readers also might like to see the fascinating interview of Kay Ryan at


Kay Ryan has published several collections of poetry, including The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (Grove Press, 2010); The Niagara River (2005); Say Uncle (2000); and Elephant Rocks (1996). She has also received numerous awards, among them the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Award, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, The Yale Review, and Paris Review, among other journals and anthologies. In 2008 she was appointed the Library of Congress's sixteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.


  1. There is a singular clarity of thought in Kay Ryan’s poems. Her power as a formidable poet
    lies in her ability to beat truth out of the fewest possible words.

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  3. Thought

    Coming up,
    Coming down-
    Above the longest tide shall wash-
    A seashell from the sands of time.

    An hour in a day,
    A second in a minute-
    Eternity keeps moving
    The quiet calm ashore.

    Silent words unsaid
    Whispered in the mind-
    The day revolves around
    The spinning wheels of time.

    Meditation is the prayer
    Kept still within the soul
    So that when it is felt,
    The spirit is made whole.

    -Mary Jenkins

  4. These poems are brilliant, captivating, unique and transcendent in their content and language!!! Kay Ryan is extremely intelligent. I’m a poet and am not easily impressed by other contemporary poets. But she is a genius and an artist who more than deserves all her accomplishments. I feel my efforts very small. She was born with a gigantic talent!! Thank you.

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