Is it Tuesday? Every Tuesday a new poem appears in the box and on the blog.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Poem 19 Kay Ryan

“Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard” by Kay Ryan

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
worn 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. 

I adore this poem.  I adore Kay Ryan.  Her poems are always surprising although there is much in them familiar from one to the next:  very short lines, word play, an unexpected emotional intensity.  Certainly we see all these elements in this poem.

It begins with a statement, “A life should leave/deep tracks.”  The reader isn’t quite sure whether these tracks are metaphorical or literal, but quickly sees the very literal everyday journeys of a life: to get the mail, to move the hose.  The beauty of these lines is in their specificity and concision; through them we can see the absent woman clearly.  This is a person who takes care of herself and her house, who washes her dishes by hand, who probably lives alone (“the switch she/used to feel for/in the dark”).  She seems to have done these things for a very long time.

The first half of the poem is all one sentence, a series of clauses connected with the ever-wonderful semi-colon.  At the end of this long sentence, we find a very short one:  “Her things should/keep her marks.”  Here the speaker directly makes her argument.  A life ought to be visible even after the person who lived it is gone.  But she goes further, stating “it should abrade.”  The speaker revises her previous statement here; she doesn’t want the life to just show.  She wants it to have worn out its implements, maybe even painfully. 

The last lines of the poems are my favorites.  “And when life stops,/--a certain space--/however small/should be left scarred/by the grand and/ damaging parade.”  After lulling us with those four-syllable lines, full of their soft, sad “s” sounds, we end up with a parade?  Who else but Ryan would dare make such a delightful turn? The speaker’s surprise choice of “parade” reminds us that life is ridiculous and glorious. And it passes by.

Then the last two lines.  Up to this point, the speaker has used the word “should” five times, each to show how the life of the loved one (friend ?mother?) hasn’t left much of a trace.  But in the last two lines, the speaker reverses the pattern to make a play on words, changing should to shouldn’t.  The poem concludes:  “Things shouldn’t/be so hard.”  We know, as the poem has demonstrated, that the speaker means this literally: the sink knobs should have worn down to “white pastilles” and the floor before the sink should be “worn out.”  But here she returns to the question the first line posed: are those deep tracks literal?  Yes. And metaphorical.  Things don’t change despite the loss of the one who used them.  And yet the events of life, the things we all endure, are too hard, sometimes, it seems to bear. The emotional shifts within these last few lines are breathtaking. 

What a great poem.  Kay Ryan was the 16th Poet Laureate of the United States.  You can learn more about her here:

Here's a great essay about her poems:

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