July 13, 2010 § 3 Comments


Kay Ryan

If it please God,
let less happen.
Even out Earth’s
rondure, flatten
Eiger, blanden
the Grand Canyon,
make valleys
slightly higher,
widen fissures
to arable land,
remand your
terrible glaciers
and silence
their calving,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.
Unlean against our hearts.
Withdraw your grandeur
from these parts.

Pretend: Every moment is an altar to some god. Every act, a sacrifice. Every thought, worship.

When we reach the limits of our thoughts, when we are incapable of processing the available information, we experience paralysis. In scientific terms, our prefrontal cortex— the rational mind— has overmastered our amygdalae, those limbic nuggets that spritz dopamine into our system, cause fear, and in extreme cases, a supreme sense of awe. Euphoria.

With that mastery of the amygdala, we lost the sort of worship that overcomes. That brings us to our knees. Makes us babble. Renders us glossolalic. That feeling you get when you peer down into the Grand Canyon, feel your face slacken, stomach-drop, and body sing with unknowing. The afterglow of which Plato describes as that terrifying, paralyzing feeling of knowing that you do not know. Aporia.

Humans have figured a lot out since Plato. There’s a lot of certainty now; if God is dead, religion is an afterthought, and with it we lose all of its metaphors.

In Blandeur, Kay Ryan becomes the priestess heralding our loss. The Vicar of Irony interceding on our behalf. Instead of a prophet coming out of the wilderness, Ryan wanders into the Badlands – the Holy of Holies – begging God to shut down the show. Through terse sentences, she refrains from involving us in the pyrotechnics of description. Eiger, the Grand Canyon, are superlatives incarnate, but since these peaks and abysses are what we want less of, the poet does us the courtesy of not expounding.

She knows her flock; she understands what our imaginations are capable of, and that’s what she is here to excise on our behalf.  However, the methods are extreme. The only solution is to unmake the world as we know it. Flatten, widen, blanden. It’s not good enough to ignore or forget, move away or hide from. The mountains must be snipped out. The rivers gutted, valleys softened, mesas decimated. If not, we might happen upon them, stumbling westward into the Rockies, and remember what we tried so hard to unlearn.

If it were only about geography, that would be one thing, but Ryan knows the natural world is a cipher. A key that unlocks the gaping awe and opens our hearts to new metaphors, deepening our range of experience. In fact, Nature stretches our minds beyond the limit, leaving us paralyzed in that ineffable space, that once God-filled hole in our lexicon.

Ryan is sympathetic. We can’t go around feeling such fear, such aching doubt, such depth of longing all the time. But even more importantly, we cannot knowingly bear the absence of those feelings in our lives. In the face of such potent metaphors, we seem petty. Our small joys turn to peccadilloes. Our small wills push us to meager pleasures. The focus of our worship is transitory, worldly, decaying, even deathward.

We remember that we are guilty. We are the ones who erupted the guts of that gulf with crude black oil. We defiled the Ocean, the master of depth who also taught the awe of distance; granted us, through inborn empathy, the ferocity of a tempest. And now we’ve begun to ruin something that we did not think we could ruin. Killed the inhabitants of Holy Places.

Kay Ryan need not address religion directly in this poem because she addresses God. If anything religion exists as a metaphor for Nature, not the other way around. Dealing in contrivances, our cathedrals replicate the vault of heaven. The stony silences of canyons. Even the transcendent purities of light through stainedglass, suffusing motes of dust replicate the fingers of dawn shooting through gaps in clouds. Manmade places of worship are nature distilled, tools to inspire awe, while still pointing obliquely toward humankind.

But oceans, beyond icons cannot be shattered. The mountain in the halo of fog is more blameless than a saint. Holy writ is scrawled in the tessellated floes of northward ice. The whole breadth of nature is sanctuary. There is no room for misinterpretations. We are struck dumb, humbled, made to worship. When we look into the pristine, time-gouged canyon, we see that no peace exists in us that was not taught by the Grandeur of Nature. No Holiness abides without it.

So, Ryan understands that we must shrink the very features of the world so that our metaphors for depth, for breadth of longing, for the Holy, bodily yearnings that undo our available world, no longer overcome us. No longer dwarf us. We have to wipe out the visions that tell us, even in finite space, we are small. Destructible. That tell us, against the forever bodies of Mountains and Valleys, we are inchmeal for Time’s threshing floor.

If we believe there is no God, the feeling of God— or that something Godlike exists— is that much more painful. So, Ryan, the Vicar of Irony, intercedes, begging the only one powerful enough to undo the world that sparks our doubt. She begs the selfsame Mystery that we want to forget. Just as the world came in on a Word, in this Psalm, Ryan unmakes the Earth using words.

In impasto, without elaborations:

Let there be less.

But the poem starts with a twist, and even in simple turns, Ryan’s conceit inspires awe. She knows that as she unmakes the Earth and the glaciers fall silent, worship hums in the air around their absence. Her scissoring rhymes arrive too soon, making the sparse poem seem sparer still. Halving the words, doubling the power. We watch the world slump into a formlessness and the valley’s stretch and iron out their depth, but there is still the horizon-forever. Still, the ground we walk on is marbled with red granites, golden white swatches of sand, quaking forests, shimmering wheat fields. An Iowan paradise.

In the world of Blandeur, the rough thought of being is enough to inspire awe.

Conversely, in the face of such monuments, struck down by awe, only our brains can unmake God.

When a God we don’t believe in leans against our hearts, we sacrifice.

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